ABOVE PHOTO: The Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2010 poses with their busts after being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday, Aug. 7, 2010 in Canton, Ohio. From left are: Emmitt Smith, Dick LeBeau, Russ Grimm, John Randle, Rickey Jackson, Jerry Rice and Floyd Little.
(AP Photo/The Canton Repository, Scott Heckel)
CANTON, Ohio — Jerry Rice only took forward strides — very fast ones — during the best career any NFL receiver had.
As Rice stood onstage last Saturday night while being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he at last recognized the need to step back.
“This is finally it,” he said. “There are no more routes to run, no more touchdowns to score, no more records to set. That young boy from Mississippi has finally stopped running.
“Let me stand here and catch my breath.”
The man who took away everyone’s breath during an incredible 20-year career was one of seven NFL greats to enter the shrine as the Class of 2010. It is one of the strongest groups ever inducted, including career rushing leader Emmitt Smith, John Randle, Dick LeBeau, Rickey Jackson, Russ Grimm and Floyd Little.
Rice holds every important pass-catching record as the game breaker in the West Coast offense for the San Francisco 49ers. Like Smith, he was elected in his first year of eligibility after he became the top target in the pro game’s most dangerous scheme, combining with Joe Montana and then Steve Young to establish marks that might never be broken.
Rice caught 1,549 passes, 400 more than anyone. He gained 22,895 yards, more than 7,600 ahead of second place. He scored 208 touchdowns, easily shattering the previous record. He made 10 All-Pro teams, was chosen for 13 Pro Bowls, and made receptions in an almost-unimaginable 274 consecutive games.
Yet, he says, at 47, “I still believe in my heart I could play today.”
Looking as fit as any All-Pro, Rice admits he made one major mistake during that unparalleled career.
“My single regret about my career is I never took the time to enjoy it,” he said. “I was always working.
“I was afraid to fail. The fear of failure is the engine that has driven me my entire life. “The reason they never caught me from behind is because I ran scared. People always are surprised how insecure I was. The doubts, the struggles, is who I am. I wonder if I would have been as successful without them.”
Rice was successful from Day 1 in the NFL, rising from the obscurity of Mississippi Valley State to win three Super Bowls and change the game forever.
As former 49ers owner Ed DeBartolo Jr., said in presenting Rice, how could anyone not recognize his greatness?
“I can honestly say this is the greatest team I have ever belonged to,” Rice said. “I am truly humbled and honored.”
While Rice was an immediate selection for the hall, Dick LeBeau finally was inducted after a 32-year wait.
“Man, this really is a great day to be alive,” said LeBeau, elected by the senior committee.
He was immediately followed on the stage by John Randle, who as a defensive tackle with the Vikings and Seahawks accumulated 137½ sacks in 14 seasons, most for anyone at that position.
Russ Grimm, called the “Head Hog” by former Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel, followed Randle into the hall. Then came Rickey Jackson, the first New Orleans Saint to be enshrined.
LeBeau was chosen for his 14-year career as a cornerback with the Detroit Lions, even though he’s best known as an assistant coach, the mastermind of the zone blitz. Currently the defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, LeBeau singled out his players who sat in a corner of Fawcett Stadium.
“I am being inducted as a player and believe me that makes me most proud,” LeBeau said. “I did that for 14 years. but for the last 38 years I have been a football coach.
“They are here,” he added, pointing to the Steelers, who he helped win two Super Bowls in the last five seasons. “That’s just about the highest compliment ever paid to me in my life.
“Ambassador (Dan) Rooney is here. I am truly humbled by that. They let this football team come out of training camp … think about that, it’s like having another road game.
“I wouldn’t want to be here without you: offense, defense and special teams.”
The players stood in applause and fans in the crowd whirled Terrible Towels in tribute.
LeBeau finished his 14-year career in 1972 with 62 interceptions, still eighth in NFL history. He led the league in picks in 1970 with nine. LeBeau joins Dick “Night Train” Lane and Yale Lary, who played in the same secondary, in the hall.
The 73-year-old LeBeau, the oldest coordinator in the league, noted how making the Hall of Fame surpassed his previous best moment in football.
He recalled the Steelers’ visit to the White House after winning the 2009 Super Bowl, and President Barack Obama asking where he was standing.
“The president signaling me out, this might be highest moment of my life, there certainly can’t be anything greater than this,” LeBeau said he thought.
Yes, there can.
“In all due respect, Mr. President,” LeBeau added, “this business is a whole lot bigger.”
Randle couldn’t agree more. In a short but thorough thank-you speech, Randle admitted, “I am so humbled by this incredible honor which I never thought was possible. I’m a smalltown kid whose dream came true.”
Randle made six straight All-Pro teams (1993-98) and was chosen for seven Pro Bowls. He had a league-high 15½ sacks in 1997.
Undrafted out of Texas A&I in 1990, Randle became known for a combination of speed and power. He made the other NFL teams pay for that draft oversight by averaging 11½ sacks over a nine-year span with Minnesota.
Randle thanked the Vikings, “a team that believed in me and gave me a chance to play defensive line when most teams thought I was undersized” at 6-foot-1, 278 pounds.
Grimm would be considered undersized today at 273 pounds. It hardly mattered how big he was from 1981-91, when Grimm led the Hogs and helped the Redskins win three Super Bowls. He is the first member of that memorable line to make the hall.
“It’s a privilege to play in the NFL,” said Grimm, now the assistant head coach of the Arizona Cardinals. “It’s been a privilege to coach in the NFL. It’s an honor to be selected here in Canton.
“Growing up, I dreamed of playing college football. In college, I dreamed of playing pro football. When I was in the NFL I dreamed of winning Super Bowls.
“But I never dreamed I would be standing here today.”
At left guard, Grimm was a powerful run blocker and an often-impenetrable pass protector who was chosen for the league’s all-decade team of the 1980s.
He called the Hogs “a group of guys that grew together, worked together, rose families together” and said he would have their names embroidered on the inside of his gold Hall of Fame jacket.
“I think I deserve to be up here,” Jackson said. “Football always has been my life. I see that in these guys up here (onstage), how they carried themselves. They set the standard.”
Jackson then implored the league and players to avoid any labor stoppages.
“We really got to keep football going,” he said. “To the NFL, you’ve got to take the game and make sure to keep it going.”