Jerry Rice Award humbles its namesake

Who's the greatest NFL player of all time?

For future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, that's an easy question to answer. "I don't know what argument you can make that [Jerry Rice] is not," said the hard-hitting Baltimore Ravens LB.

Rice certainly has the numbers to back Lewis' claim. During his 15-year career with the San Francisco 49ers, Rice won three Super Bowls -- Super Bowl XXIII ('88), Super Bowl XXIV ('89) and SB XXIX ('94) -- and one Super Bowl MVP. He enjoyed three seasons with the Oakland Raiders, including a Super Bowl appearance, and one season with the Seattle Seahawks before retiring in 2005. Rice was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in January 2010, his first year of eligibility.

Rice's meticulous preparation and work ethic during his 20-year NFL career is legendary. He holds 36 NFL records -- a record in itself. He scored the most touchdowns in NFL history (208) and holds virtually every significant career receiving record, including receptions (1,549), yards receiving (22,895), all-purpose yards (23,546), touchdown receptions (197) and consecutive games with at least one catch (274).

Rice is missed, on the field, but football fans can still see him as an NFL analyst for ESPN. The well-decorated Rice doesn't take any of the accolades for granted. He's even humble about the award named in his honor, which goes to an outstanding freshman in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). The inaugural Jerry Rice Award was presented by The Sports Network in January to freshman running back Terrance West from Towson University.

"I'm really happy about the award," said Rice, who played collegiately at Mississippi Valley State, an FCS school, where he was a Division I-AA All-American. "I get a chance to follow in the footsteps of Walter Payton, Buck Buchanan and Eddie Robinson. They all have awards, and to be able to have an award like this one is really special. For me, it's a way of giving back. It's a way to help young kids. That's really important."

At 5-foot-11, 220 pounds, West rushed for an FCS-best 29 touchdowns and finished with 1,294 yards in 11 games this past season.

Rice can relate to numbers like that. He played some tremendous college football with the Delta Devils in Itta Bena, Miss., producing 4,693 yards and setting NCAA Division I-AA records during his college career. He had 100 receptions in both his junior and senior seasons.

In 1984, Rice's senior year, he had 1,845 yards and 28 touchdowns. The quick-footed wide receiver exceeded 1,000 yards receiving for three straight seasons, using his outstanding moves to elude double coverage. Rice's play helped put Mississippi Valley State -- and its high-scoring offense -- on the national map.

"[Running back] Carl Byrum was like the Incredible Hulk," Rice said. "He was built so solid. He was fast. We had a wide-open offense. Now, they call it the West Coast Offense. We had no huddle. You just go to the line of scrimmage. You played football. We were able to throw up so many points.

"Archie 'The Gunslinger' Cooley was our coach. We had [quarterback] Willie 'Satellite' Totten and this guy called Jerry 'The World' Rice. People ask me today, 'Did you get recruited by the major schools?' and all that. I tell them I would not go back and change any of that. It was a great experience. It's something I'll never forget. We were able to do some incredible things."

After his senior season, Rice played in the Blue-Grey Game, where he was named Most Valuable Player. His play caught the eye of Bill Walsh, the legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers. In 1985, Walsh traded up and drafted Rice in the first round of the NFL draft with the 16th pick.

With the 49ers, Rice played alongside fellow wide out John Taylor, who played college at Delaware State. San Francisco, historically, has always recruited from HBCUs. Rice was a star in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) while Taylor shined in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), long before the MEAC/SWAC Challenge presented by Disney launched in 2005.

"John Taylor could have played anywhere," said Rice. "He was so talented. He could go out and start running and dunk a basketball. He was so creative. We had a great time together. This just shows that Bill Walsh was a genius. I mean, he could see talent and it didn't matter what school you came from, or whatever. He wanted a ball player."

Since 2005, the MEAC/SWAC Challenge -- which is owned and operated by ESPN, and played over Labor Day weekend -- has produced such NFL players as Tarvaris Jackson (Alabama State, Seattle Seahawks), Justin Durant (Hampton, Detroit Lions), Kendall Langford (Hampton, Miami Dolphins) and Jason Hatcher (Grambling State, Dallas Cowboys).

"You have some good football players from both leagues," said Rice. "[The MEAC/SWAC Challenge] gives them a chance to be seen by NFL scouts. I'm glad they have a game like this.

"I have great memories playing against Alcorn State. That was a big game for us. They had people standing everywhere watching us play. The crowds were really big. We played Grambling when Eddie Robinson was the coach. I remember all the colleges and the rivalries and how the fans came out to support us. Then, you had the battle of the bands. It was just at a whole different level."

Just like Jerry Rice.

Donald Hunt is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. You can reach him at dhunt37261@aol.com.