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The Body Issue

Jerry Rice explains why he ran a naked bootleg in ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue

I was surprised to hear from the Hall of Famer, but not what he said about the game he still loves

When the greatest of all time calls, you answer the phone, on the first ring – despite the short notice and not having your questions prepared and arranged. This unpreparedness happened to me 12 years ago, too — when another GOAT called out of the blue. “You wanted to talk to Jim Brown?” the man on the phone said. “Well, you got him.”

This time, Jerry Rice, was on the line — arguably the best route runner the game of football has ever seen. The man who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010, the one with the most touchdowns (208) in NFL history and who holds virtually every significant career receiving record, including receptions (1,549), yards receiving (22,895), and all-purpose yards (23,546).

Rice was calling from Hawaii, and took some time to chat with The Undefeated on a whole range of topics, including whether, at the age of 55, he still has 80 catches in him; how little-known Mississippi Valley State University made him; his all-time favorite quarterback; and the real reason he decided to take off his clothes for ESPN The Magazine’s latest installment of the Body Issue. He admits to being a longtime fan of the special issue, for which athletes across all sports have bared nearly all — while flashing a smile. Rice said he’d been a longtime fan, from afar, but has always told himself: “You know — I would probably never do that.”

So much for that.

Have you had a chance to see the issue yet, and how was the experience?
Rice: No, but from what I’ve been seeing on social media, it looks like it turned out well. I was excited to do it; I would see the issues, and I would be like, ‘You know, I would probably never do that.’ But once I got the opportunity, I said, ‘Let’s go for it,’ and it was the experience of my life, to be honest with you. If I had the opportunity, I would do it all over again.

This is Year 10 of the Body Issue. Had you ever been approached before?
I had never been approached. When [previous issues] would come out, I would always go look at the athletes and I would give them credit, because it takes a lot of confidence to expose yourself to make a statement without any clothes on. I was hoping somewhere down the road I’d get the opportunity, and – at the age of 55 – I did.

Yes – 55, Jerry. What made you well suited to do this – and do this now?
Rice: Well, I put a lot of work in with my health and my body; it’s always been a focus point for my career. I was always about being the best-conditioned athlete. And with the Body Issue, I took the same approach — and I wanted to let people know that even at the age of 55, you can still keep yourself in good shape and continue to work out.

You and Hall of Fame golfer Greg Norman, who is 63, are really one-upping your former teammates and the guys you played with. Has the ribbing started yet?
Rice: I’m sure I’m gonna get some. They’re gonna give me a hard time about it, but they already know how crazy I am about being in great shape and that I’ll do anything to stay in pretty good shape. With Greg Norman, it’s just a credit to him – a guy who’s been around for a long time. He’s making a statement, too, and I can really appreciate that. But the thing is, we’re not trying to put other people to shame; we’re just trying to inspire people to let them know that, if you continue to be on a certain regimen — even when you’re tired, you still get on that bike or that treadmill [and] it’s gonna benefit you in the long run.

Did you know that the whole idea for a Body Issue came about in 2008 – from wide receiver Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, who was on an ESPN photo shoot when he threw out the idea that he’d like to pose nude to give readers a glimpse of his physique? That’s just like a receiver, isn’t it – always looking to shine?
Rice: That’s it, man – and for [ESPN] to also give me a cover, that meant the world to me. Chad got it started, and some of the best athletes to ever play the game have been a part of it, and I’m just honored to be one of those athletes.

Whenever the GOAT conversation is had, Jerry Rice’s name is always mentioned. Where do you sit in the GOAT conversation – when you’re in the room? Do you consider yourself the GOAT?
Rice: [Laughs.] I was offended some years ago when I was with the Oakland Raiders and my teammates brought a goat to training camp, so I’m like, ‘Why are you guys bringing a goat to the facility on my birthday?’ They said, well – for the greatest of all time. I had never looked at myself that way. I played the game that I loved playing. I poured my heart into it; I had so many great players around me and I never wanted to let the fans or the organizations down, so I just worked hard and I always wanted to excel on Sunday, Monday, in the playoffs and in Super Bowls. For people to say I’m the greatest of all time, I think it’s great – and I sometimes joke around with it – but I never have looked at myself that way.

But you are the unquestioned GOAT among historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Do you have a top-5 HBCU GOAT list, and please – include yourself.
Rice: Oh, my God … you’re killing me. OK, OK, you got to go with [former Jackson State University running back] Walter Payton, [former Grambling State University quarterback] Doug Williams, [former Grambling State University defensive back] Everson Walls and [Rice’s college quarterback] Willie Totten. But here’s the thing that people don’t know about HBCUs – there are great athletes from those small schools, and you just gotta go in there and find that diamond in the rough. When I went to Mississippi Valley State University [from 1981 to 1984], I went with the intent to further my education but I wanted to play professional football and they were doing something special at that time: They threw the football like 90 percent of the time. You had [former Mississippi Valley State head coach] Archie “The Gunslinger” Cooley, Willie “The Satellite” Totten, and you had Jerry “The World” Rice – and we put up some outstanding numbers, and we brought so much attention to Mississippi Valley State University. Then I got the opportunity to live out my dream and get drafted by the San Francisco 49ers and play the game that I love for 20 years in the NFL. It all started because of that hunger and being at that smaller black school and looking for the opportunity to be successful in the NFL.

What if Jerry Rice never attended Mississippi Valley State – and never had Willie Totten throwing to him. Do you think your story would still end the way it did?
Rice: I always joke around with guys like [former San Francisco 49ers teammates] Ronnie Lott and Joe Montana; Ronnie Lott went to USC, and Joe went to Notre Dame, and would tell them, ‘You guys took a pay cut to come to the NFL’ [laughs] because those [schools] are so big and have so much money. I remember at Mississippi Valley State University, I had to wash my own uniforms at times. Learning to appreciate the little things really pushed me to excel and want things a little bit more. Even if I had gone to a [predominantly white school], it would have been the same [outcome]; I just think it was the drive from my parents – them preaching hard work and dedication and always giving 100 percent. I wanted to be considered as one of the best, and I was gonna leave everything out on that football field.

You have 197 career receiving TDs. Do you think, at 55, you could put the helmet back on and get three TDs and get to 200?
[Laughs.] You know what, I was doing an interview and they asked me that, and I said, ‘You know what — I still feel like I have 80 catches in me.’ Then all of a sudden, it hit the wires and everybody thought I was coming out of retirement. But you know, if I had to score three more touchdowns, it wouldn’t take me that long because I’ve kept myself in fantastic shape, and I have always been able to adapt to whoever’s under center. I remember how I adjusted to Joe Montana and Steve Young and Jeff Garcia and Steve Bono – so many quarterbacks. So whoever’s under center, if I came back, I would adjust, make him a better quarterback and in turn, he’ll make me a better receiver and have great chemistry on the field.

When you played at Mississippi Valley State, the Celebration Bowl hadn’t existed, but you had the Blue-Gray Football Classic, and the Freedom Bowl All-Star game to showcase your skills on a large platform. Tell us about those days …
Rice: I’m gonna tell you, the Blue-Gray game … leading up to that game, that was a statement week for me because I knew I would be going up against some of the best players to play the game. My focus was to show that I deserved to be there, and I ended winning the MVP [in 1984], which was a great opportunity. For me, I’ve never shied away from competition, and I think it because of my hunger and my love for the game.

The Celebration Bowl, as you know, is a nationally televised game – the kind of exposure players from your era never had. It just goes to show you how far HBCUs have come.
Rice: I think that’s fantastic. A game like that gives those kids an opportunity to be successful, and you shine a light on a diamond in the rough. I’m sure those players take advantage of that. We, at HBCUs, have great players, and it’s all about them getting the opportunity.

You know the Celebration Bowl is typically on ESPN, so maybe next December we can have Jerry Rice come out as an honorary captain or something like that.
Rice: The only thing is, though, when I come out to events like that, you’re gonna see me running routes downfield, catching the football [laughs]. And, they’ll look at me like, ‘Wait — he’s 56 and still catching footballs?’ [Laughs].

You’ve been blessed to play with some phenomenal QBs – starting with Willie “Satellite” Totten, of course, Joe Montana and Steve Young. If you had one catch to make – one route to run, to win the ultimate game – which of those QBs throws you the ball?
Rice: Well … it would have to be the guy that I started with: Willie “The Satellite” Totten.

Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.