An open letter to Jerry Rice:
Thank you. Thanks for giving us 20 years of incredible play, for setting the standard at wide receiver that everyone for the next 50 years will be measured by.
Thanks for all the one-handed catches, the beautiful runs, the precise routes, the constant energy, the 13 Pro Bowls, and the passion you displayed in everything you did.
Thanks for showing younger players what it means to work hard, what it means to be a professional player, and what it takes to overcome injuries, fight through pain and always play your best.
Thanks for gracing us all with your passionate play.
But I want to personally thank you for being in my football life.
In October 1984, the night before the 49ers were to play the Houston Oilers, I received a call from coach Bill Walsh to come up to his hotel suite. Being a first-year employee I was always very nervous around Coach Walsh, and even as I grew older in the profession my stomach was always in knots each time I sat down with the man who greatly impacted my life.
When I arrived at Coach Walsh's room, he informed me that he wanted to get every piece of film possible on this young wide receiver named Jerry Rice. He wanted me to make sure it was on his desk as soon as the season ended. And what a season 1984 was. We went on to beat the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX, behind the spectacular play of quarterback Joe Montana, wide receivers Dwight Clark and Freddie Solomon, and the running of Wendell Tyler.
When the season was finished, I had three Mississippi Valley State films for coach to watch.
The scouting landscape in 1984 was much different than today. The only way to view games was on 16mm film, and most of the smaller schools only had one set of film, which made the three tapes I had on coach Walsh's desk extremely valuable.
Unless a scout or coach physically went to a school to watch a player, it was difficult to make an evaluation. Therefore, Mississippi Valley State kept calling me to send the films around to other teams once we were done viewing them. And every NFL team wanted to see one player on those tapes. That was you, Jerry.
The 1985 draft class had three potential Pro Bowl receivers: Al Toon of Wisconsin, a big physical wide receiver who had downfield speed; Miami's Eddie Brown, who had great hands and amazing after-the-catch skills; and a young, small-school receiver ... well, that was you, Jerry.
You had great hands, great after-the-catch ability, but you were not viewed by the scouts as a burner -- even after you ran a sub-4.5 40 at the combine, which was held in Arizona that year.
In mid-April, a few weeks before the draft, I found the nerve to call Coach Walsh and ask him if I could return your game films back to Mississippi Valley. He told me to get them off his desk. When I went up to his office, I found the three tapes with a note attached in his very stylish, left-handed writing.
The simple note read: John Jefferson ... with speed.
In the early 80s, Jefferson was an explosive wide receiver for the San Diego Chargers who scored 36 touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons. Walsh was paying the highest compliment he could to you, Jerry.
What always has amazed me about Walsh was his uncanny ability to peek into the future, to know precisely what additions he needed to make to improve his team. He wanted to improve an offense that threw for almost 4,000 yards, had 32 touchdown passes and averaged 27 points per game.
Most teams would have been satisfied with those numbers, especially when they resulted in a Super Bowl title. But Walsh was different than most -- smarter. Walsh knew that replacing the 31-year-old Solomon, who turned 25 percent of his 40 receptions into touchdowns in 1984, with a younger, more talented receiver could make a great offense even greater. And he was determined to acquire one of the top three wideouts in the 1985 draft.
When he traded our 28th pick in the first round along with our second- and third-round choices to New England for their 16th pick and their third-rounder, Walsh knew he was in good position, although not assured, to get one of the top three.
Now, for anyone to claim that at the moment of the New England trade we knew we could get you, Jerry, would be lying. All Walsh wanted to do was be in position to get a top receiver. He had me do an extensive background report on the top three and loved each one, but for different reasons.
What made Walsh great was his ability to adapt to the players. He always would remind his coaches that the first year would be used to teach the players the system, the second year to develop the skills within the system. Had he drafted Brown or Toon, they might not have been as successful or long-lasting as Rice, but they would have been great 49ers.
In that draft, knowing there were receiver-needy teams ahead of us at 16, we were concerned about whether one of those wide receivers would still be there when we selected. Toon was the first receiver off the board at No. 10, selected by the New York Jets. Then, with only two top receivers available and seven spots before our pick, Walsh became nervous.
He tried to make a trade to spring ahead of the Cincinnati Bengals, who owned the 13th pick, and who Walsh knew would draft a wide receiver. When those offers fell on deaf ears, Walsh even tried to trade with the Bengals themselves, calling his former boss Paul Brown. Brown rejected the trade offer, telling Walsh he was picking Eddie Brown. (I can still remember where I was standing when Walsh handed the phone back to me.)
History, Jerry, would have been completely different for both of us had we made the trade, because chances are we would have selected Brown at that spot, too, but the goal was to get one of you three. Walsh genuinely loved all three receivers.
Once Brown was off the board, all we had to do was wait out Buffalo's pick at 14. The Bills selected corner Derrick Burroughs, the Chiefs followed by taking running back Ethan Horton, leaving everyone in our makeshift draft room elated that you were our man.
At the post-draft minicamp, you were spectacular, impressing teammates with your power, explosion and graceful route running. I can still remember Clark walking off the field shouting loudly that you were "smooth and rich." Instantly Walsh knew he had a special player, and he knew keeping a veteran around like Solomon would impede your development.
Walsh always believed he'd rather lose a game in September playing a young player then keep a veteran who might run out of gas at the end of the season. Solomon was sent packing, and your Hall of Fame path was cleared.
From 1985 until you retired, no one worked harder, no one trained harder, and no one was better. I loved watching you in a Raiders uniform, too -- being on the same team again -- and helping us reach another Super Bowl.
You were a Pro Bowler in 2002, some 17 years after the 49ers drafted you, and I proudly display your picture on my office wall, hoisting the AFC trophy -- a reminder for me each day that I was around greatness.
This weekend you will join the other great players in the Hall. But the one man who saw your greatness on those three 16mm tapes won't be in Canton to enjoy the show. He will be watching from above with a twinkle in his eye and a very proud smile.
The two of you made football history together. And I am very thankful to have been able to watch the show up close.
For that I say thank you again.