Rice seals his legacy by retiring from race against time

The game always whispers to you when it's time to quit, but for whatever reason -- vanity, ego, an unwillingness to accept the obvious -- Jerry Rice has always been hard of hearing. On Monday he finally listened to what the game was telling him: that his 20-year reign in the NFL is finished, that his football legacy deserves better than the prospect of standing on the sideline in street clothes, that there is no dishonor in quitting.

Rice cried during his retirement announcement, not that you could blame him. Think about it: 42 and washed up. Such is the cruelty of professional sports.

"I never thought I would see this day," he said.

Nor did Willie Mays, Emmitt Smith, Evander Holyfield, perhaps even Michael Jordan. You defy age to catch you, and when it does you pretend not to notice. Maybe you shave your head to hide the grey. Perhaps you find comfort in stats that only a few seasons earlier would have been borderline embarrassing.

Rice leaves the NFL as owner of almost every meaningful pass-receiving record: career receptions ... career receiving yards ... touchdown receptions ... total touchdowns -- it's mind-numbing, the scope of his dominance. He played on three Super Bowl champions, played in 13 Pro Bowls, and did so without the benefit of Mach 2 speed.

He didn't have to quit. Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said Rice could stay on the roster, but he'd have to do so as the fourth receiver, and even then he might sit out games on the inactive list. Of course, this is like telling B.B. King he can only play chords on Lucille.

"Your fourth, fifth receivers are usually special teams guys,'' says an NFL general manager who requested anonymity. "Really, what Shanahan was saying was, 'Jerry, I really don't want you.' But he was being nice, he was being respectful. He put the ball in Jerry's court."

So Rice retired, which is what he should have done a year ago. After all, who really wanted to see Rice reduced to a maybe-he'll-play, maybe-he-won't receiver running 12-yard outs in a No. 19 (No. 19?) Broncos jersey. Not even Rice could swallow that Beefaroni dinner.

"Frankly, I'm happy he's retiring," says another longtime NFL personnel director. "He's had a great career, but I think it's time."

Rice's NFL career is older than 16 of the league's 31 stadiums. He has belly-button lint older than the Broncos' rookies. His oldest daughter is beginning her freshman year in college. And had Rice not lost the step he could never afford to lose, then his age wouldn't be an issue. But he did, and it is.

Jerry Angelo was a regional scout for the New York Giants in 1985, Rice's first year in the NFL. He remembers looking at his stopwatch after Rice ran 40s in a pre-draft workout.

"Everybody had him on their radar," says Angelo, now the Chicago Bears' GM, "but he never ran a fast 40. He was like, 4.55, 4.56."

Those slowish times, along with the difficulty of determining how his talent would translate from Division II Mississippi Valley State to the NFL is why Rice was considered a likely late first-round talent. But San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh had other ideas.

It was Walsh who noticed Rice when the 49ers were in Houston for a 1984 game against the Oilers. Mississippi Valley State played a night earlier and Walsh had seen TV footage of Rice.

"We've got to get tape on that Mississippi Valley kid," Walsh told Mike Lombardi, then a member of the 49ers' personnel staff and now the Oakland Raiders' senior player personnel executive. "He's spectacular."

Lombardi somehow found three tapes of Rice and delivered them to Walsh. When done, he attached a note to the tapes. In his left-handed scrawl, Walsh wrote: "John Jefferson ... with speed."

For the NFL history impaired, Jefferson was a star receiver with the San Diego Chargers. Given Jefferson's standing at the time, and Walsh's football savvy, this was no small compliment.

The New York Jets selected the first wide receiver of the 1985, Al Toon of Wisconsin, with the 10th pick. The Cincinnati Bengals took Miami's Eddie Brown with the 13th choice. The Buffalo Bills next took Memphis cornerback Derrick Burroughs, followed by the Kansas City Chiefs, who selected North Carolina tight end Ethan Horton. Then Walsh took Rice with the 16th pick.

"To me, it took real courage to draft him where he did," says Angelo of Walsh. "Walsh was a visionary."

That was the beginning of arguably the greatest NFL playing career of all time. In fact, Shanahan says there is no argument. He calls Rice "the greatest player to ever play the game."

This isn't the time to quibble over Rice's place in the game. Suffice to say that he can begin writing his Hall of Fame induction speech after dinner tonight. And sculptors can begin work on his bronze bust for Canton. If he were any more of a lock, his first name would be Schlage.

I'm not going to miss Rice, for the same reason I didn't miss seeing Jordan reduced to layups rather than dunks. When even the football fantasy magazines bash you (Rice was ranked 156th out of 162 wide receivers in ESPN's publication, which described him as, "The Greatest. Also, The Oldest."), it's time to put the shoulder pads in storage.

Rice did the right thing, the only thing he could do Monday. He retired out of respect to the game and, better yet, to himself. I'd rather remember that than remember his days as good ol' No. 19.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.