Born in the Gold Rush: The History of the 49ers Part 11: Jerry Rice Passes Jim Brown
On Monday, September 5, 1994, Jerry Rice broke Jim Brown’s career record for touchdowns. But, along the way to becoming the greatest receiver of all time, Rice had to battle a pair of stigmas: one, being a small-school player making the jump to the big time; two, an infuriating inability to catch the ball.
Everyone on the 49ers’ sideline craned their necks in different directions as a crescendo of jeers and catcalls sliced through the cold afternoon air and draped around the playing field. There were twenty-two men on the field at Candlestick Park in that moment, but the only one garnering this kind of attention was a rookie wide receiver out of a small Southern school who couldn’t seem to catch the damned ball.
Poor Jerry Rice. It was bad enough that he wasn’t the fastest guy; he ran a lackluster 4.6 40-yard dash time at the NFL scouting combine that the Monterey Herald’s Daniel Brown noted in 2010 “made him a tortoise in a field of 4.4-second hares.” And now, as it turns out,the kid has hands like the Venus de Milo.
Every other ball that quarterback Joe Montana threw to No. 80 seemed to bounce somewhere offhis body, then flutter defiantly to the ground.
This … this was the guy we moved up in the draft to get?
Jerry Lee Rice was supposed to be Freddie Solomon’s heir apparent. If there ever was a symbol of the stalwart 49er who slogged through the bad times long enough to be rewarded with the good ones, it was Freddie, who came to San Francisco from the Miami Dolphins in a 1978 trade and endured back-to-back 2-and-14 teams, followed by a 6-and-10 squad in 1980. He, too, had issues with the drops; he was actually benched for a time during the ’78 season after hot-potatoing some key passes. But Solomon eventually worked himself into a reliable option for the young Montana, and although he never received All-Pro or Pro Bowl nods, Solomon was an important piece on two Super Bowl-winning teams. However, it is perhaps a happy accident that Freddie is known best for being Montana’s number-one read on Sprint-Right Option as the quarterback scanned the end zone with time winding down in the NFC title game against the Cowboys.When Solomon slipped and fell to the turf, Montana had no choice to roll out and track down his second option. Moments later, Dwight Clark came down with “The Catch,” the Niners advanced to Super Bowl XVI, where they defeated the Cincinnati Bengals for the franchise’s first championship. That season, Solomon reeled in 59 passes for 969 yards and eight touchdowns.
But as the 1980s rolled on and Solomon neared – and then passed – his thirtieth birthday, he began to lose a step, and the yards didn’t come quite so easily. The 49ers’ brass knew that they would need to find a replacement.
Mississippi Valley State University is a small, historically Black college perched in itty-bitty Itta Bena, a town of about 2,000 people located in the northwest part of the state and surrounded by similar-sized hamlets. The Delta Devils compete in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), in what was then known as Division I-AA (now called the Football Championship Subdivision). MVSU’s fellow conference-mates were also HBCUs, including Alabama A&M University, Alcorn State, Jackson State, Grambling State, and Texas Southern, among others. Because of their small sizes, SWAC football teams typically didn’t draw as many NFL scouts or coaches as the big schools, especially in the days before the Internet and viral recruiting and scouting videos. Anyone from the SWAC who showed a modicum of NFL ability needed no small amount of fortune just to get a look.
Despite putting up video-game numbers over three years, beginning with his sophomore season, Jerry Rice did not draw much buzz from NFL teams, though some scouts took notice of his numbers: 301 catches for 4,693 yards and an incredible 50 touchdowns. In 1984 alone, Rice racked up 103 receptions, 1,682 yards, and 27 touchdowns, all NCAA records. He also scored five touchdowns in a single game twice and was named the Most Valuable Player of the postseason Blue-Gray Classic. Still, Rice finished a distant ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting, behind a few guys you’ve heard of (Doug Flutie, Keith Byars, Bernie Kosar) and a bunch of guys you haven’t (Robbie Bosco, Kenneth Davis, Bill Fralic, Chuck Long, Greg Allen).
On the night of October 20, 1984, Niners head coach Bill Walsh was in his hotel room in Houston, where his team was about to take on the Oilers. Flipping through the TV channels, he stumbled upon something that made his heart skip a beat: Jerry Rice slicing through Texas Southern’s defense like a chainsaw through cobwebs. Rice logged only four catches, but he turned them into 104 yards and two touchdowns. As we well know, Walsh was an offensive mastermind, a canny perfectionist who lived to destroy opponents with the same ferocity that Mikhail Tal used to obliterate other chess masters. The fact that Rice played for a Division I-AA school and was tearing up Division I-AA defenses did not matter to The Genius. What mattered was that Bill sincerely believed that he could draw up effective plays for the guy he was watching on television right this moment.He dreamed of deploying Rice, Solomon, and Clark in a three-receiver Zebra formation and relying less on a two-back set. From the hotel room, Walsh dispatched a young scout, Michael Lombardi, to contact Mississippi Valley State to send him film on Rice.Upon devouring the video, Walsh scrawled a note to himself: “John Jefferson … with speed.” Jefferson was a four-time Pro-Bowler and two-time All-Pro receiver with the Chargers and the Packers. “I regret not keeping the note,” Lombardi told The Athletic in 2021.
The Dallas Cowboys also showed some interest in Rice, and they owned the seventeenth overall pick in the 1985 draft. The 49ers, by virtue of being the defending Super Bowl champions, were slotted to pick last. Leaving nothing to chance, the Niners swung a draft-day deal with New England, sending their first- and second-rounders to the Patriots for their first-rounder, at No. 16, one spot ahead of the Cowboys. The plan worked to perfection: Rice became theirs, and the rest became history.
Let’s pump the brakes and back up.
As mentioned at the beginning, Jerry Rice got off to a miserable start as a rookie, dropping numerous passes, which rousted the boo-birds and prompted the San Jose Mercury News to run a story on Rice with the headline “Snap, Crackle, Drop.”After one such rough outing, a distraught Rice was spotted crying in the locker room.“When I saw that, I knew we had something special,” Ronnie Lott reasoned. “It’s the guys who don’t care that you worry about.”
The nadir of the rookie’s season came on November 17, 1985, when the 49ers hosted the Kansas City Chiefs. Going into this game, the defending champs were a mediocre 5-5, and were in danger of missing the postseason. In that game, Rice had just one catch for 19 yards, but he also dropped two others and fumbled once. After the first drop, Rice ditched his gloves. “He seemed to replace them with concrete casts; the next pass bounced off his hands as if it had hit a brick wall,” cracked the Chronicle’s Glenn Dickey. Rice’s season stat line read like this: 11 games, 26 catches, and 10 drops.This was the guy who was supposed to be Freddie Solomon’s heir-apparent? Just last year, Solomon was good enough to catch touchdown passes in 10 straight games. Now his role was diminishing, and this stone-handed kid was getting the reps.
For his part, Walsh was unperturbed by the noise. “At some point, the boos will turn to cheers,”he said during a press conference the next day. The next day, Walsh doubled down, making a bold prediction for his team’s upcoming Monday Night Football game against the Seahawks.“To be honest, I think Rice will make some big plays for us against Seattle. We’ll need those plays from him to win.”
The 49ers did win, but Rice was a non-factor, catching two balls for 42 yards and dropping three more. In a sloppy, mistake-prone affair, San Francisco defeated the Seahawks 19-6 and were still very much in the playoff hunt. They won three of their final four games to finish at 10-6 and sneak into a Wild Card spot, eventually falling to the New York Giants. Rice had his best game, statistically, in a Week 14 loss to the L.A. Rams, catching 10 balls for 241 yards and a touchdown. He finished the season with 49 receptions and just 3 TDs.
That didn’t exactly portend great things, but…
“The work habits in the pros have hurt him,” Archie Cooley told the Chronicle.“He’s a workaholic but they’re not working him enough in practice ... Now, they just toss a few balls to him in practice and go in and look at films.”
If anyone would know, it would be Cooley, who was Rice’s head coach at Mississippi Valley State and had a front-row seat to all of Jerry’s college gridiron exploits. “Professional football people don’t work like we did [at the college level],” Cooley continued.“He gets better the more they make him work.”
Bill Walsh didn’t exactly disagree with Cooley’s assessment, but he offered a theory of his own: still unacclimated to the speed of the NFL game, perhaps Rice was trying to get upfield before securing the catch. “His problem, if anything, is that at Mississippi Valley, when he caught the ball, the next thing he’d be thinking of doing is spiking the ball,” Walsh offered. He pointed out that the fact that professional defenders are bigger and faster and hit harder could be at the forefront of Rice’s mind.
For his part, Rice blamed his troubles on a lack of focus: “Mainly it’s concentration. You seldom see Dwight Clark miss the football. When the ball’s thrown in his direction, his eyes are focused right on it.
“Believe it or not, every pass that’s thrown in my direction, I like to think of it as a catch that would win a football game,”he added. Perhaps he was putting a little too much pressure on himself.
The troublesome rookie season motivated Rice. He began training harder and putting in more reps on the practice field. Solomon, who could have been upset at the 49ers for bringing in his replacement, instead became a valuable mentor. A quarterback at the University of Tampa before becoming a receiver as a pro, Solomon possessed a strong arm and would spend time not only teaching Rice the more granular aspects of being a wide receiver, but throwing him passes, too. “The two of them were kind of inseparable,” former public relations director Jerry Walker recalled to The Athletic in 2021.
The results were immediate. In 1986, Rice led the NFL with 1,570 yards and 15 receiving touchdowns. His 22 scored in 1987 paced the league again. After a nine-TD comedown in ’88, he went on to lead the NFL in each of the next three seasons. Going into 1992, Rice had amassed 526 receptions for 9,072 yards, with 97 total touchdowns. Even the switch in quarterbacks from the right-handed Montana to the left-handed Steve Young barely fazed him. Rice enlisted the help of assistant equipment manager Ted Walsh, like Young a southpaw, to throw him pass after pass during and after practices so that Rice could get used to the clockwise spin. “Ted saved my arm,” Young said in 2010. “Jerry wanted to catch four million passes a day, and I needed Ted to throw three-and-a-half million of them or I wouldn’t have made it. That’s how Jerry got used to the spin; it was Ted Walsh.”
“He threw a pretty decent ball for a lefty,” Rice reflected in 2010 as he was preparing for his Hall of Fame enshrinement. “He got me adjusted to Steve. Every break that we had [in practice] he’d throw me footballs. After practice, we’d do the same thing.”
Rice scored his hundredth total touchdown on October 18, 1992, a Week 7 bludgeoning of the Atlanta Falcons, the team he would score the most TDs against for his career. Suddenly, the chance to break a sacred record came into view. Jim Brown, the legendary Cleveland Browns fullback who was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971, owned the record for career touchdowns with 126. Rice would take ownership over the record for receiving touchdowns, passing Steve Largent with No. 101 on December 6, 1992, in a victory over the Miami Dolphins. Brown’s all-purpose TD record was up next.
In 1993, Rice hauled in 153 passes for a league-leading 1,503 yards and 15 touchdowns, plus one on the ground. The Niners went 10-6 and for the second consecutive year were ousted from the playoffs by the eventual champion Dallas Cowboys. In ’94, San Francisco beefed up its defense, adding the likes of Ken Norton Jr., Gary Plummer, Richard Dent, Rickey Jackson, and Deion Sanders, while also drafting interior lineman Bryant Young to work alongside talented second-year pro Dana Stubblefield, and looked to finally have a complete team capable of getting by the Cowboys. But first, all eyes on Jerry Rice, for he had 124 total touchdowns going into that season. He needed just two to tie Jim Brown, and three to set a new all-time record.
Few people expected him to break the record in the season’s first game.
A 69-yard bomb from Young to Rice in the first quarter gave the Niners an early 7-0 lead over the Los Angeles Raiders. Then, in the fourth, with San Francisco leading 30-14 and possessing the ball on the Raiders 23-yard line, Rice lined up on the left side of the formation. Steve Young took the snap, dropped back, and handed the ball off to Ricky Watters. Running with his body square to the left sideline, the third-year back quickly passed the ball off, like a relay runner giving up the baton, to Rice, just before being grabbed from behind by a Raiders defender. Already in a full sprint running left to right, Rice took the ball, and with most of the Los Angeles defense committed in Watters’ direction, he navigated a tight loop near the right sideline, past a few defenders (some were engaged in blocks and struggling to get free), and into the end zone. Rice now held a share of the all-time touchdown lead with Brown.
With the contest well in hand, Rice was summoned to the sideline presumably for the rest of the night. Over the ensuing years, an apocryphal tale grew wings suggesting that with the chance for Rice to break Brown’s record on the line before a national audience, head coach George Seifert was prevailed upon by both Young and Rice for one more shot at a touchdown.
Not so. According to Seifert, it was offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan, the former Raiders head coach, who wanted to give Rice the opportunity. Shanahan had lasted just over one year in L.A. – all of 1988 and part of 1989 – and he frequently clashed with owner Al Davis and was unpopular with the players. Shanahan fired four assistants, all of whom were Davis loyalists: two during the 1988 season and two more after it. Davis returned the favor by relieving the head coach of his duties four games into 1989, though the dispute was over back pay, not Shanahan’s cashiering of coaches. Nonetheless, the Shanahan and Davis had developed a deep hatred for one another.
Mike Shanahan really wanted to rub Al’s nose in it.
When Rice walked the sideline to take a call from Shanahan in the upstairs booth, he was expecting a congratulatory message. Instead, he was told that despite the 31-14 fourth-quarter lead, he would re-enter the game and get his chance to break Jim Brown’s record. “All my teammates kept coming to me and saying, ‘You’re going to break the record tonight,’” Rice told the media later. “I thought, ‘No way. The game is in control and we’re going to eat up the clock [by running the ball].”
With less than 5 minutes remaining and L.A. possessing the ball on its own 38-yard line, quarterback Jeff Hostetler fumbled. The 49ers recovered and, just like that, found themselves in great field position. On the first play of the series, Young absorbed a hit as he lofted the ball downfield. Rice leapt into the air, in front of Raider cornerback Albert Lewis (years later, Rice declared the former Chief and Raider the “toughest” cornerback he ever faced), at the goal line, then stumbled across, dragging Lewis and safety Eddie Anderson, who had been trailing the play, with him.
Shanahan finally had his revenge.
And Rice now owned the touchdown record.
Of course, the Jerry Rice story doesn’t end there. He played through the 2004 season, adding late-career stops with the Raiders and Seahawks. Each touchdown he scored from No. 127 on out – he would finish with 208 total touchdowns (including 197 receiving) – meant he was breaking his own record. As this is written, Rice still owns the all-time TD record, and it won’t be broken any time soon. Will the next great receiver capable of reaching that record come along soon? He may just be tearing it up at a small school in the South right now.
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Brown, Daniel. “49ers’ Rice Was Master of His Craft.” Monterey Herald, 6 February 2010. https://www.montereyherald.com/2010/02/06/49ers-rice-was-master-of-his-craft/
Dickey, Glenn. “49ers Can Win Division, but It’s Bears’ Year.” San Francisco Chronicle, 18 November 1985, p. 69.
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Tanier, Mike. “Too Deep Zone: Jerry Rice, Rookie Bust.” FootballOutsiders.com. 17 November 2006. https://www.footballoutsiders.com/walkthrough/2006/too-deep-zone-jerry-rice-rookie-bust