A 49er for posterity

Jerry Rice came back home Thursday, but only because he finally is ready to move on. As the greatest receiver in NFL history dances toward his next step beyond gridiron glory - no pun intended - he first had to step back and leave something behind at the place where his Hall of Fame career began.

And that was his autograph, inscribed on a ceremonial one-day contract with the 49ers, so that Rice finally could retire with the franchise that made him famous - and, in some instances, vice versa - almost six years after he played his final snap for the team.

Wearing a cream blue suit and open collar that revealed his Super Bowl XXIII ring dangling from a chain around his neck, a gracious Rice took the podium in front of a gathering of about 100 during one of his few visits to team headquarters since he left the 49ers after the 2000 season to continue his 20-year NFL career across the San Francisco Bay.

With the 2006 version of the 49ers in the background conducting a walk-through practice on the field Rice once honed his craft, the guy known around these parts as Flash 80 put his name on a contract that featured the numbers 1,985,806.49.

There wasn't a dollar sign in front of them, however. They all are numbers associated with Rice's legendary career with the 49ers - the season he joined the team (1985), the uniform number he wore on his back (80), the year he retired as a 49er ('06) and … well, 49ers fans can figure out what the two numbers to the right of the decimal point stand for.

"This is where I got my start," Rice said just a few seconds into his opening statement. "This is where my legacy is at. This is where my heart got started, and this is where I'm going to end it."

When both Rice and the 49ers agreed a few months ago that he would be retiring with the 49ers this summer, Rice toyed with the idea of putting back on the uniform in which he set dozens of team and NFL records, even though coach Mike Nolan made it clear long ago that wasn't going to happen, not even for one practice.

But Thursday represented closure for Rice, who turns 44 in October and finally has accepted the reality that his playing days are over, saying, "I'm not going to pull a Junior Seau. That's not going to happen. It's official today, and it's going to stay this way."

The rest of the ceremony became a trip down memory lane and a glance at unlimited future opportunities for the suave, proud, assured, Rice-centric 49ers great.

And what a trip it was. From his first touchdown reception against the Atlanta Falcons as a rookie in 1985, Rice touched upon some of his career highlights while bantering with former teammates Roger Craig and Guy McIntyre, who stood adoringly in the crowd.

The emotion and gratitude began to spill over as Rice got warmed up, and you could feel him slip into his element again, if only for a precious while.

"After playing the game for 20 years, it's very difficult to give up," Rice said. "I felt it was a game that I chose to do, and it should be my decision when it was time for me to walk away. I think I did it professionally. I think I really represented the NFL the way it should be represented. I always gave 100 percent. I never felt like I cheated the fans. When they came to the stadium, I wanted them to leave that stadium feeling like they had witnessed something that was really special. I think that was my approach to the game."

It didn't take long for Rice's teammates back in 1985 to understand his approach to the game, or to quickly realize he was something special.

When asked the first thing that comes to mind when he thinks of Rice, Craig - a 49ers great in his own right - replied, "Passion. Passion for the game. There's no other player on the planet that has the passion that he brought to the field every day."

The first time Craig ever saw Rice, in the broiling heat of Rocklin during 1985 training camp, Craig said, "I remember he was burning a lot of All-Pro defensive backs. He grew up pretty fast."

By his second season in 1986, Rice was already putting up monstrous receiving numbers, and by his third season he already was setting NFL records. Rice never stopped during his 16 magnificent seasons with the 49ers, setting virtually every meaningful team receiving record, including those for most receptions (1,281), receiving yards (19,247), total touchdowns (187) and receiving touchdowns (176).

With Terrell Owens emerging as a superstar, the 49ers allowed an aging Rice to walk after the 2000 season, and he cranked out three more productive seasons with the Oakland Raiders before hanging on at the end for one more season split between Oakland and Seattle in 2004.

That career extension allowed Rice to pump up his final numbers that now set the standard, including NFL records for touchdowns (208), receptions (1,549) and receiving yards (22,895) – which rank among the most prominent of the several league records he owns.

As a NFL assistant for 18 years during Rice's heyday - 11 of them as a defensive coordinator - Niners coach Mike Nolan often was on the sideline opposite Rice on Sundays and had the unenviable task of trying to stop him and his purpose in a potent San Francisco offense.

Nolan said, "55-10 in the Super Bowl (in 1990, when Nolan was with the Denver Broncos), that wasn't very fun. Most of the time it wasn't very fun. I would say the only time I really ever saw Jerry that it was kind of nice to see him was today. What can you say? He was a great player at his position and great 49er. He's been great for the NFL. It's nice when you have players who are also good people that represent your organization as Jerry does."

Rice remains a legend in his own time, and what he accomplished still reverberates around a San Francisco locker room that now includes just five players that played with Rice in his final game as a 49er.

Antonio Bryant, the 49ers' emerging receiving star of today, isn't one of those players. But like an entire football generation, Bryant has played the game since his childhood days knowing where Rice stands in the history of the game.

"Number one," Bryant said without hesitation. "Everybody knows that. It's like, what record does he not have? That's crazy. I tell you, I'm not chasing him. You can't even think about chasing him. He's a hard act to follow here. He got the fans spoiled."

Rice mentioned those fans several times while he was at the podium Thursday, and appeared grateful that, "I'm finally going to get the opportunity to say thanks to the fans," he said. "Whenever I took the football field on a given Sunday, it was always about the fans."

That opportunity will come Nov. 19, the day the 49ers play host to the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks, when Rice will be trotted out again for a gala halftime ceremony to "officially" commemorate his retirement.

But, as Rice leaves football behind like he did so many beaten defenders on his way to the end zone, he knows this finish line is really just a new beginning. "Retirement? I'm not retired," he said. "I'm working harder now than when I played football."

And that's probably no exaggeration, though it's a tough act to match. But Rice isn't one to sit around and soak in previous glory. He already has made a name for himself outside of football as a finalist on TV's "Dancing With The Stars," and he continues to shape his image as more than just a football icon. He's currently hosting a sports talk show on SIRIUS Radio, and he didn't waste much time sliding into that role Thursday, broadcasting from 49ers practice later in the afternoon.

"I'm also doing some stuff in Hollywood," said Rice, who currently is working in production of the television show, "The Underdog." And in his spare time, he might even come around the 49ers more often, representing the franchise in the community and perhaps lending his expertise to a new era of 49ers.

Though there have been no discussions yet about him joining the organization in a defined capacity, Rice said he "would love to be around these players, and to interact with these players, and to pass some knowledge onto them."

But Thursday was about Jerry Rice stepping into the Great Beyond outside of football, and doing it as a 49er, permanently and for posterity. Nothing could have felt more perfect.


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