Rice still enjoying the game at 41

Most 41-year olds who played professional sports at one time did just that -- play previously. Well, unless you are Oakland Raiders wide receiver Jerry Rice.

The Oakland Raiders take the field Sunday for a road contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday as Rice begins his 20th NFL season. Rice joined the Raiders in 2001 after the San Francisco 49ers released him 16 years after making him their first-round draft pick out of Mississippi Valley State. With Rice and Tim Brown paired together, the Raiders had perhaps the most historic receiving tandem in NFL history.

The fact that Rice is still playing one month shy of his 42nd birthday speaks volumes for his durability and work ethic. Oakland released Brown during training camp in large part because the team felt his skills were declining and that there were young receivers ready to take on a greater role. Brown was also not willing to accept a reduced role. Rice can identify with Brown because the 49ers released him for much the same reason.

"You know, I look at his locker every day and say ‘Wow,'" Rice said Wednesday. "Tim, to me, was everything for the Raiders, and he's no longer here. It says a lot about the way I work on the football field. I don't want it to be about what I've accomplished over the years. I want it to be where, ‘This guy is still going to come out and work hard. He's going to give you everything. He's going to be a good leader. He's going to play every down.' I want to get the respect that way. And I think that's why I'm still here."

Rice will start opposite Jerry Porter and understands that he too may have a reduced role as receivers such as Ronald Curry, Doug Gabriel, Carlos Francis and Johnnie Morant are players the Raiders felt were ready to contribute. Those individuals were not even in kindergarten when Rice made his NFL debut in 1985 and were also drafted within the last three years.

Rice has turned the NFL receiving record book into his own almanac. Granted, he has had great quarterbacks like Joe Montana, Steve Young and to a much lesser extent Rich Gannon. Rice's numbers, however, are too extraordinary to look past.

Rice holds 13 league records and 10 Super Bowl records, and has been picked for 13 Pro Bowls. He started all but one game during the Raiders' horrendous 4-12 season a year ago, leading the team in catches and yards receiving and scoring two touchdowns.

Heading into this season, he has an NFL-record 23,111 total yards from scrimmage after passing Hall of Famer Walter Payton during the 2002 season. Rice's work ethic and attention to physical fitness are other reasons for his success.

Rice is always tinkering in various forms in terms of ways to get better despite that lengthy resume. Rice arrived at camp 20 pounds heavier than he's ever been but has since shed 10 of those pounds and currently stands at 6-2, 210.

Rice's decision stemmed from the notion that defensive backs are also getting bigger and stronger. Rice reduced his offseason cardio routine from an hour a day -- 30 minutes on the treadmill and 30 on the stairmaster -- and became a self-described "couch potato."

Well, that's probably a facetious exaggeration.

Rice prepares with the same vigor as he did when entering the league in 1985. The 49ers released him after the 2000 season for much the same reason the Raiders released Tim Brown, now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. The 49ers also wanted to see what their younger receivers perform with added responsibility. Rice has insisted that he bears no animosity and has welcomed the fresh start.

"It's hard because you see so many guys come and go, and I've just been fortunate over the years to be able to be productive and still go out there and play to a level where the coaches still feel like I can be a factor," Rice said. "I never looked at the situation as, ‘Well, I don't have to worry about it.' I think I used that to really work hard during training camp and try to prove to the coaches that I can do the job."

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