Jerry Rice – Discipline
“Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t.”
“I hated days off,” Jerry Rice exclaimed. “I felt like it cut into what I was trying to accomplish. A day off felt like I was losing ground.” His attention to detail, his worth ethic, and his discipline to his craft were second to none. “If I saw a person working harder than me, I would push myself harder,” Rice explained. “I had to be the best conditioned athlete (period).”
Three weeks after winning his third Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers, quarterback Steve Young entered the locker room to clean out his locker. He heard some noise coming from the practice field and ventured out to check on the commotion. The season was over and — still — there was Jerry Rice running sprints and catching passes from the grounds keeper. When asked about this incident years later, Rice responded, “It was time to get ready. I couldn’t get complacent. I wanted more. I was still hungry.”
Football enthusiasts like to debate the greatest players of all time. The debates are subjective and often difficult to settle. Who was the greatest quarterback? Linebacker? Running back? However, no one really debates the greatest receiver to ever play the game. The reason is simple. Jerry Rice is the clear answer. He played 20 seasons in the NFL, 15 with the San Francisco 49ers. He won three Super Bowls and played in 13 Pro Bowls. As of 2017, he holds 100 NFL records. The major records are most receptions (1,549), career receiving yards (22,895), career touchdowns (208), and all-purpose yards (23,546). It should be noted that no one is close to breaking any of these records. The only debate remaining with Jerry Rice is whether he is the best football player to every put on pads. No credible sports agency (ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News, etc.) list him below the number three slot on the greatest football players of all time.
Jerry took an unconventional route to NFL greatness. His story begins in Crawford, Mississippi, a town with a population of 500 people. He had five brothers and two sisters. A couple of factors in his youth eventually helped him with his professional career. First, to get anywhere in town, Jerry ran. He ran five miles to school and another five miles home. Second, his father was a brick mason and all the brothers helped their dad build homes during the summer. He strengthened his hands by catching bricks hour after hour. “One of my brothers would stack about four bricks on top of each other and toss them up,” Jerry recalled. “I would catch all four. I did it so many times, it was just a reaction.”
The football world almost never met Jerry Rice. His mother did not want him to play football, so he did not play sports at Moor High School during his freshmen year. He had no future plans of playing football either. However, during his sophomore year, Rice cut one of his classes. The assistant principal spotted him in the hall and Rice took off running. “All he saw was the back of my red jacket,” Rice recalled. Impressed by his speed, the assistant principal gave him two options – detention or football. Thankfully, Rice chose football.
Rice received moderate interest from college coaches during his high school career, and he received only one scholarship offer. That offer came from Mississippi Valley State University, a small school with an enrollment of 2,000 students. When coach Archie Cooley landed Rice as a recruit, he completely changed his offensive system to accommodate this young talent. The offense was called “the spread” and closely resembled a fast-break in basketball. The team went no-huddle and passed 90% of the time. The Delta Devils averaged 61 points a game his senior year and Rice set all kinds of NCAA records. Rice may have been the talk of the small town, but few NFL coaches were convinced that Rice could play at the next level.
One of the exceptions was Bill Walsh, head coach of the 49ers. The night before an away game against the Houston Oilers, Walsh turned on the television. The local sports announcer kept showing highlights of this 180 lb. 6’-2” receiver scoring at will against the University of Houston. Walsh quickly realized that Rice was the key ingredient to making his “West-Coast” offense hum. He traded two high draft picks to the New England Patriots for the 16th pick in the first round of the 1985 draft. With this pick, the 49ers selected Jerry Rice.
It would be easy to say that the rest was history. But it’s not that simple. Most 49er fans were saying, “Jerry Who? From where?” It was up to Rice to prove them wrong. In typical Jerry Rice fashion, he had come to work, and work hard he did. Joe Montana, the 49ers starting quarterback said, “When people talk about Jerry’s work ethic and say, ‘Oh, it’s extreme,’ they really do him a disservice. There is an iron will to it. Jerry to the core, was driven.”
There are many talented receivers that have played in the NFL. The difference was the work ethic and the discipline that Rice exhibited for 20 years. “That was the thing that separated me from other players,” Rice said. “I never wanted anything handed to me. I wanted to prove myself every year. I was always there and ready to go to work.”
One of his workouts was legendary. It was simply referred to as “The Hill.” It is 2.5 miles straight up. Jerry Rice ran this hill virtually every day in the offseason. He says that he would sprint all the way up the hill working on his form and speed. “The first time I tried to run this hill, it kicked my butt,” Rice recalled. “I had to go back and conquer it because you never want to get into a mode of quitting.”
His attention to detail was inspiring. Some players did not care about their appearance, but Rice did. His shoes had to be white, his socks had to be the right length, and his helmet needed to be spotless. He was always the first player to arrive on game-day. “Some of the guys come in just to watch me get ready for the game,” Rice said. “I would tell them, if I’m going to play sharp, then I’m going to look sharp.” He carried that precision over to everything he did on and off the field.
As a veteran, Rice would report to training camp with the rookies. To him, it was all about setting a standard of excellence. He would even attend special teams meetings, even though he didn’t play on those teams. Why? Rice wanted to emphasize the importance of those teams to the players. His example and his leadership inspired others to work harder.
In 2010, Jerry Rice was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and San Francisco retired his jersey number 80. Due to his accomplishments and statistics, he will be recognized as the best receiver to ever play the game for the foreseeable future. Rice, however, wants to be remembered for more than his accomplishments. “To me, it was never about what I accomplished on the football field,” Rice said. “It was about the way I played the game.” He wants to be remembered for his work ethic, his discipline, and his attention to detail. Above all else, he wants to be remembered as a positive role model.
Check out the Student Athlete Program
Jerry Rice is one of the 144 “Wednesday Role Models” featured in the Student Athlete Program. This program is designed to improve the character, leadership and sportsmanship of high school athletes. To learn more about this program and how you can implement it in your school: