Mr. Rice still turning heads

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> Ike Taylor of the Steelers can't wait to meet Oakland Raiders wide receiver Jerry Rice. <br><br>"If we line up before the snap, I'm going to shake his hand," said the rookie cornerback.

Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward feels the same way about Rice, but Ward isn't an awestruck rookie. He's just awestruck.

Ward has always been a Rice fan. Check that. He's always been a Mr. Rice fan. That's how Ward addresses the NFL's all-time leading receiver.

"I'll probably catch him during the pre-game warm-up and get a picture with him after the game," said Ward, who is third in the NFL with 78 receptions.

For his career, Ward is second on the Steelers' all-time receiving list with 405 catches. That puts him 1,097 behind Rice, a 41-year-old who's in his 19th NFL season.

Ward's respect for Rice is obviously understandable, but a picture?

"That's something I did last time he was here," Ward said. "Any chance I can get to show my kid and grand-kid that I played with the greatest receiver in the game, that's something I can look back on and cherish the rest of my life."

Before the game he'll talk to him; after the game he'll smile with him. During the game, Ward will watch every move Rice makes.

"You'd be stupid not to watch the greatest receiver of all time," Ward said. "When the defense is out there, I'm not going to be sitting down as much. I'm going to be watching him. Any little thing that he does, I'm going to try to do the same thing."

This season, Rice leads the Raiders with 46 catches, but has only one touchdown, the 193rd of his career. Ward has seen many of them, and there are similarities between the two. Both receivers take great pride in how they practice. Both of them play hurt, as Ward will do Sunday after picking himself up off the field, bruised and battered, last Sunday.

"He's persistent about getting better each and every day," Ward said. "He's always working on little things. The older he gets, the better he gets. I mean, yes, he's not as fast as he used to be but he has a knowledge of the game to still go out there and find ways to get open. That's the sign of a great receiver."

So is the respect with which Ward affords Rice, er, Mr. Rice.

"When I call him that he says 'Shut up Hines. You make me feel old when you say that.' But it's just the respect that I have for him," Ward said. "All the other guys are on a first-name basis, but with him you emphasize the Mister just to show him that respect. I mean, he made it possible for everybody. As a child, after watching him in Super Bowls, you were telling everyone you wanted to be Jerry Rice catching touchdown passes. That was my case. It was probably a lot of people's cases if they wanted to be receivers."

"I'm pretty sure he gets that wherever he goes, from all the players, defensive backs, too. I know they have to go up against them but they still have that respect factor."

Taylor, for one, hopes to shake Rice's hand, and then pop him good.

"I don't know if he's going to like that," said Taylor. "I'll find out when I get on the field."

Rice has caught a pass in 268 consecutive NFL games, or every game for 16.75 seasons. He holds 16 regular-season NFL records, and will achieve a 17th with 118 more all-purpose yards. But not all of the Steelers' starting wide receivers are as awestruck as Ward. Take Plaxico Burress for instance.

"It's how you play," Burress said as he put extra emphasis on the third word of his declaration. "You can't go out and say I'm going to play well today just because Jerry Rice is on the other side of the football. I never even think about things like that. I just go out and try to play."

"There's no question he's the best of all time, one of the guys we all tried to emulate coming up, a special guy. Just to meet him is kind of a privilege, but to go out and say you're going to try to perform in front of a guy like that, hey, he's just a football player."

Better make that Mr. Football Player.

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