CANTON, Ohio (AP) Jerry Rice only took forward strides – very fast ones – during the best career any NFL receiver had.
As Rice stood onstage 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.
Smith fought back tears during a one-minute standing ovation as he stepped to the microphone. He immediately praised Walter Payton, the man he surpassed as rushing king, and recognized the two other Hall of Fame members of the Cowboys’ Triplets, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin.
And he broke down when saluting his former fullback, Daryl Johnston.
“You took care of me as if you were taking care of your little brother,” Smith said through wet eyes.
Smith rushed for 18,355 yards, with 164 touchdowns, 11 seasons with 1,000 or more yards on the ground, and 78 games with 100 yards rushing.
Smith made the hall in his first year of eligibility and won three Super Bowls, taking MVP honors in the 1994 game.
“Most people only dream,” Smith said. “I not only had my childhood dream, I did everything I could to fulfill it.
“You know what, I am now the all-time leading rusher. ‘Wow. What an honor.”
Rice holds every important pass-catching record as the game breaker in the West Coast offense for the San Francisco 49ers. In becoming the top target in the pro game’s most dangerous scheme, he established marks that might never be broken.
Rice caught 1,549 passes, more than 400 beyond anyone else. 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 today, 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. He was humbled by the conclusion Saturday night.
“I can honestly say this is the greatest team I have ever belonged to,” Rice said.
While Rice and Smith were immediate selections for the hall, 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.
LeBeau was chosen for his 14-year career as a cornerback with the Detroit Lions, in which he had 62 interceptions, still eighth overall. 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,” said LeBeau, at 73 the oldest coordinator in the NFL. “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.
“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.
He was immediately followed on the stage by Randle, who as an undrafted defensive tackle with the Vikings and Seahawks accumulated 137 1/2 sacks in 14 seasons, most for anyone at that position.
Randle made six straight All-Pro teams (1993-98) and was chosen for seven Pro Bowls. He had a league-high 15 1/2 sacks in 1997.
“I am so humbled by this incredible honor which I never thought was possible. I’m a smalltown kid whose dream came true.”
Grimm was called the “Head Hog” by former Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel. From 1981-91, 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.
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.
Jackson, one of the most versatile linebackers in league history, is the first New Orleans Saints player to be enshrined. Jackson made six Pro Bowls with a combination of strong run defense and a tenacity that led to 128 sacks. He helped turn New Orleans from ‘Aints to a division winner for the first time (1991), and finished his career with the 49ers, winning a Super Bowl in January 1995.
“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.”
Little was a star running back for the Denver Broncos from 1967-75 despite being the only offensive threat on the team. He had to wait nearly three decades since becoming eligible before getting elected.
One of football’s most dynamic runners during his career, Little also was a dangerous punt and kickoff returner. In a relatively short career, he had 12,157 all-purpose yards and scored 54 touchdowns. Yet the Broncos never were better than 7-5-2 in his career.
“There are no words to describe the joy of experiencing this chapter, the highest honor … everything else pales.”
In a powerful induction speech, he also encouraged people to say “Yes I can” throughout their lives and noted he had “given the best I’ve got.”
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