American Football: Receiver Rice builds on brick foundations: Super Bowl XXVIII could mean a fairy-tale finale to season between the Chiefs and 49ers. Matt Tench reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN Jerry Rice was growing up in a small town in Mississippi he and his brothers worked for their father's bricklaying business. Standing at the top of the scaffolding young Jerry, the sixth of eight children, would catch the bricks thrown up to him. Four at a time. No records were kept as to how many he dropped but it is unlikely to have been many.

The hand-to-eye co-ordination first developed during those hot southern summers have now become a sporting phenomenon. Rice, wide receiver of the San Francisco 49ers, hardly ever drops a pass. When he does everyone notices and he is distraught - he once walked out of a college game in disgust at his sloppiness. He has been the best receiver in American football for nearly a decade and a leading sports paper concluded recently that he was the greatest ever.

Tomorrow Rice takes his skills to Dallas where the Cowboys battle the 49ers for the right to represent the NFC at the Super Bowl. Jimmy Johnson's Cowboys, champions and at home, will be favourites. Rice poses the greatest threat.

The Cowboys will be meticulously prepared, have one of the best young defenses in the league, and will, of course, double team him. Everyone does. But Rice has spent his career beating the markers, confounding defenses designed to stifle him, making big plays in big games. If there is one player who can take the 49ers back to the Super Bowl it is Rice.

Going into the NFL Championship games this weekend the focus has been on Joe Montana, the extraordinary quarterback with whom Rice once combined so potently. Montana is the legend that left San Francisco. Rice is the legend that stayed.

It was while he was at college that it became clear Rice was more than just another wide receiver. Playing for Mississippi Valley State, a small predominately black college near his home, he quickly made an impact, piling up extraordinary numbers for receiving and touchdowns. By the end of his time there he had claimed just about every record in the book, and had stopped running conventional passing patterns. He just made his way into the backfield, got open, and the quarterback found him.

Rice's college exploits attracted a coachload of NFL scouts and such was his desire to turn professional that he would sit with them as they watched the film and pointed out his best moves. Many, however, were put off when he ran the 40-yard sprint at the combined work-outs on which teams place such emphasis. Rice did it in 4.6sec, a respectable time for many athletes, but positively pedestrian in the high-octane world of professional football. In retrospect, it is probably the most misleading statistic in the sport. Coaches, opponents and fans have long since learned that Rice runs one time against the clock, and a whole lot faster when being pursued by a cornerback.

His apparent slowness put a few off but the 49ers, the Super Bowl champions in 1985, took him with the last pick of the first round. After a difficult first season learning Bill Walsh's complicated offensive system, Rice began to flourish. Walsh's strategy was based on completing a high proportion of short passes. Rice made a habit out of converting them into touchdowns.

'The thing about me,' Rice remarked, 'is that I like to catch the short passes and make something happen. I have the ability to feel the pressure on the field, to know where exactly everybody is at. I know where the pressure is coming from and I try to run the opposite way. Somehow I can see the entire field. It's like having eyes in the back of your head.'

Rice began scoring TDs at an unprecedented rate and with Montana and running back Roger Craig in their respective primes the 49ers had an offense that was impossible to muzzle. Back-to-back Super Bowls were won, with Rice named the game's Most Valuable Player in the first.

It was after that triumph that he had his first brush with controversy. He complained that he did not receive the endorsements and attention that his exploits merited, suggesting that if Montana's passes were being caught by Dwight Clarke, a white receiver who had recently retired, the media would give them greater coverage. Asked if the problem was racism, he said: 'Yeah, I would say so.'

The storm blew over and Rice withdrew the allegation, but there is little doubt that he has a remarkably low profile for someone a handful of scores away from being the highest touchdown scorer in the game's history.

The next stumbling block came after Montana was badly injured in 1991. Steve Young was a more than capable deputy. Rice, though, had nothing like the rapport with Young that he did with Montana.

In the last year, though, their relationship appears to have matured. Rice has talked recently of finally feeling comfortable with Young's slightly more drilled passes and this season he has been as deadly as ever. The pick of a vintage year may have been four scores against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 'Tell me something he can't do,' Floyd Peters, the Buccs' highly-respected defensive co-ordinator, said. 'I've tried to defense him for his whole career and he's driven me crazy.'

Tomorrow, he is up against a much better side than the Buccs and is unlikely to score four times. But, when it is over, it would be no surprise if Rice had driven Jimmy Johnson crazy and the 49ers were on their way to the Super Bowl.

(Photograph omitted)