November 16, 2013 9:57:46 PM
Birney Imes - [email protected]
Sometime in the spring of 1986 the town of Crawford threw a party for one of its native sons, Jerry Rice. After a dazzling college career as a wide receiver at tiny Mississippi Valley State University, Rice had been drafted first round by the San Francisco 49ers.
Jerry Rice Appreciation Day was a decidedly homespun affair. There was a parade featuring two Cadillacs. One of them, a salmon-colored convertible, had a front tag proclaiming, "My Other Car is a Cadillac." The event culminated at an unkempt park. A troupe of break-dancers in red sateen outfits performed some impressive acrobatics on flattened refrigerator boxes and then a few people made speeches.
The honoree, elegant in a suit and tie, maintained a dignified presence throughout. Rice's demeanor was that of someone attending the Oscars or an artist at the opening of an exhibit of his work: pleasant, smiling, gracious. The only media there was a lone TV reporter from a local station. In those days I was a wandering photographer and I had happened upon the event, curious.
I'd heard of Rice but didn't know much about him. A year or two earlier a brother and several friends had gone to the match-up between Valley and Alcorn billed as "The Game of the Century." Almost 30 years later they still shake their heads in amazement. That afternoon Rice and quarterback Willie Totten put on an aerial display that made believers of everyone in Jackson's Memorial Stadium.
I watched Rice as he fielded the reporter's questions. He is 6'2", but seemed slight, almost fragile. After the interview we shook hands and chatted for a moment.
I commented on his size and asked if he had doubts about surviving the brutality of the NFL. While I don't remember his exact words, Rice responded without hesitation: I am going to do fine, he said. No empty braggadocio, just a matter-of-fact, don't you worry about Jerry.
That snippet of conversation returned to me many times over the next 20 years when Rice would break another record or have a spectacular game.
Thursday afternoon Rice, who is considered by many to be the best to ever play the game at any position, returned to his roots, his high school, then B.L. Moor, now East Oktibbeha County High. An insurance company and the NFL Hall of Fame are sponsoring a campaign to place memorials in the high schools of NFL hall of famers.
There were no break-dancers or Cadillacs for this occasion, just family, the media and students of this rural high school.
After the guys from Allstate and the Hall of Fame made their pitches, the man of the hour entered his high school gym to a standing ovation. Smiling and resplendent in a tailored gray suit, purple plaid shirt and purple tie; Rice reached for the hands of the school's football players.
Hobart Witherspoon, decked out in MVSU green, watched the proceedings from the bleachers. Witherspoon, as football coach of the now-defunct Alexander High in north Oktibbeha, once had to field a team against a Rice-led B.L. Moor.
"I lost sleep thinking about how to stop him," Witherspoon said.
Later Witherspoon, a Valley graduate, along with former MSU footballer Sam Nichols, recruited Rice for his alma mater. Jackson State also scouted Rice, but Witherspoon said JSU wanted to make Rice a defensive back. Amazingly no SEC schools recruited Rice.
When asked about the "Game of the Century," Witherspoon nodded and smiled. That afternoon he was sitting near a group of NFL scouts, one of whom attracted the coach's attention
"The guy was eating peanuts, shell and all," Witherspoon said, laughing at the memory.
When Rice caught a long pass at shoe-top level without breaking stride, the peanut-shell-eating scout enthused, "He's absolutely the best I've ever seen!"
A career later, the scout's sentiments are pretty much universally held.
After the event I drove back through Crawford. The day was near perfect, and I was in no hurry to get back to the office. A modest metal building, the town's city hall sits in front of the park where that celebration took place 20-some-odd years ago. A marker celebrating bluesman Big Joe Williams, another famous native son, stands nearby.
As for the town itself, there's not much left to see. What remains appears to be crumbling. This is the kind of place where dogs sleep in the street, yet it has produced the best receiver to play professional football, a renown bluesman and an NBA basketball player (Clarence Witherspoon).
And that would be a source of enduring pride, for a town of any size.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.