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Birney Imes: Life lessons from a bricklayer's son


Birney Imes



Jerry Rice had some poignant things to say the other day. As he was being inducted into pro football''s hall of fame, Rice admitted he has been consumed with fear throughout his football career. 


"My single regret ... is I never took time to enjoy it. I was afraid to fail. The fear of failure is the engine that has driven me my entire life." 


Imagine that. The man who is indisputably the greatest pass receiver of all time, the holder of every important NFL pass catching record, doing constant battle with the demons of failure.  


"The reason they never caught me from behind is because I ran scared," Rice said. 


The reason they never caught Rice from behind was because he was a dazzling open field runner. 


To watch highlights of Joe Montana throwing touchdown passes to Rice is to watch, a fine, delicately balanced ballet, football''s version of a pas de deux. Montana''s tight spirals seem to float, then stick to the hands of this gazelle-like being who glides across a striped green leaving in his wake a trail of contorted bodies. 


The brilliance that was Jerry Rice didn''t happen overnight or without effort. It was the result of carefully considered decisions, nature and a bit of luck. All that and a famously rigorous training regimen. 


It''s well known that Rice spent summers in Crawford and Oktibbeha County catching bricks for his bricklaying father. He talked about those summers in his induction speech. 


"There was a certain standard. Even though my job was to make sure that my dad had bricks and everything worked out smoothly, I took pride in it. There were no shortcuts. The concrete had to be laid a certain way. The bricks had to be stacked because any slowdown was money lost. It was a lot of pressure. I didn''t want to let my father down. I was afraid to fail." 


Rice was raised in a family headed by a man with expectations, a man who was involved in the lives of his children. 


"My dad was a hard man. I never saw him cry, and he didn''t say, I love you," Rice said. "But like men of his generation, he expressed it in other ways. He taught us about responsibility at an early age. I miss him and I know he would be very proud of me today. I wish you were here, dad. I love you." 


Rice attended B.L. Moor High, an obscure and, in those days, dusty country school between Crawford and Oktoc in southeast Oktibbeha County.  


In his induction speech Rice told of playing hooky in the eighth grade and getting caught by principal Ezell Wicks, who noticed how fast his errant student moved. After strapping Rice, Wicks ordered him to meet with Moor''s head football coach, Charles Davis, who convinced him to come out for the team. 


Perhaps Rice was under-recruited by larger schools because of the obscurity of Moor High or maybe the young athlete was intimidated by the size and glitz of the SEC. For whatever reason, Rice chose to play college football at Mississippi Valley State in Ita Bena, a Delta outpost just west of Greenwood. 


There Rice was paired with quarterback Willie "Satellite" Totten. At Valley Rice acquired the nickname "World" because it was said there wasn''t a football in the world he couldn''t catch. Under the guidance of Archie "Gunslinger" Cooley, Valley ran an offense that resembled a sandlot game -- pass, pass, pass. In a 1984 contest against La. Tech -- Rice''s senior year -- Totten threw the ball 75 times. That same year, Satellite tossed 9 touchdown passes in one game. 


One wonders how Rice would have fared in the SEC. Probably fine, but at Valley with its wide-open offense and relative obscurity, the future Hall of Famer was able to mature at his own pace away from the corrupting influences of Division I football. And at Valley, "World" was able to run patterns and catch passes far more often than he would have any where else. 


I only met Jerry Rice once. It was the summer of 1985, just before he was to head for San Francisco. The 49ers bet big on this athlete from a small school in Mississippi, drafting him in the first round. The town of Crawford was celebrating Jerry Rice Day. I happened to see the signs and decided to stick around. The event took place in a park near a small building that serves as the town''s city hall. It was a motley affair that seemed more a like a high-energy family reunion than anything else. 


There was a parade of sorts with several little girls decked out as beauty queens. One of them rode in a new pink Cadillac with a car tag that read, "My other car is a Cadillac." Four or five young boys, dressed in red satin outfits performed break dancing routines on flattened refrigerator boxes. 


And there was Jerry, smiling, taking it all in, elegant in his Sunday best. He said a few words of thanks to the crowd and then talked to a lone TV reporter. Though he''s 6''2", Rice seemed slight. I remember saying something to him about his apparent lack of bulk and the speed and size of the guys who would be trying to tear him apart. He smiled and without a trace of hubris or doubt, said, "I''m gonna do fine." 


Jerry Rice did better than fine, and now 25 years later, the 47 year-old faces the challenge of figuring out what to do with the rest of his life. It''s not been easy for him to turn loose of the game; in Canton the other day, in his speech, Rice said he could still play today. And I expect he could. 


But as is the case for every athlete, there is a time to leave the arena that last time. Rice knows for him that time has finally arrived: 


"There are no more routes to run, no more touchdowns to score, no more records to set," Rice concluded. "That young boy from Mississippi has finally stopped running. 


"Let me stand here and catch my breath. Let me inhale it all in one more time." 


Sure, Jerry, and all the best to you. Thanks for the memories, the brilliance. You made us proud.


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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Reader Comments

Article Comment kat commented at 8/15/2010 9:17:00 AM:

Yes, it was a joy to watch Jerry Rice on the field ! Thanks for a wonderful tribute to this "master of the game", although some of us Division I fans could probably take issue with your "away from the corrupting influences of Division I football" comment.


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