To many people, Jerry Rice is the greatest football player of all time, regardless of position. He still holds NFL records for career receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns and all-purpose yards.
Rice is 55 years old and hasn’t played in the NFL in 14 years. Nonetheless, he believes he still could.
I still feel like today, if I wanted to come back to football and play football, I could do it, at the age of 55. I’m one of those guys that I still believe that if I wanted to, I could come back, catch over 80 balls and really be productive on the field. … I think I’m still explosive, and I think I still can beat up on some defenses.
Rice remains in impeccable shape, but that is absurd. At age 42, he caught 30 passes for 429 yards in his last NFL season. If somebody wants to say Rice could theoretically get into an NFL game, get open a few times and catch the ball when it’s thrown to him, sure. I’ll buy that. And it’s true that, even in his prime, Rice’s game didn’t depend on speed or strength as much as other players.
Still, what Rice is engaged in, here, is a pretty common delusion for ex-ballplayers. They all think this stuff, some of them even say it out loud to reporters, and still more try to go prove it.
For example, in 1985, a 48-year-old Jim Brown challenged 34-year-old Franco Harris to a race in the 40-yard dash after saying on national television he could still beat Harris, who was 34.
Guess how that turned out for Brown.
Harris, 34, was clocked in 5.16 seconds. Hampered by a hamstring injury, Brown, 48, finished in 5.72 seconds.
Rice’s 40 time is often reported as 4.71 seconds, but that seems to be apocryphal. He was most likely more like a 4.5 guy. In any case, Rice was never among the fastest sprinters in the league, and that apocryphal 40-yard dash was run … 34 years ago.
Rice doesn’t seem to think that would matter much.
I went out and I practiced with the [49ers] football team last year. The young guys could not believe that after playing a game for 20 years, and being out of the game for 15 years or something, my body knew what to do — that I could run routes, that I could catch the ball, that I can beat them off the line of scrimmage and do all those things. I think that really impressed them. But because I never got out of shape, my body just knew what to do the second I put on those football shoes.
I don’t doubt that Rice impressed the 49ers, but I do doubt that he could get open and stay healthy during a real NFL game.
Athletes have so much of their identity wrapped up in their athletic ability that it’s easy to understand why so many of them think these things. And it’s probably true that having that kind of mentality went a long way toward making Rice the player he once was.