In August, Jerry Rice will be enshrined in Canton, Ohio, joining his fellow immortals cast in bronze for perpetuity in the hallowed corridors of the illustrious Pro Football Hall of Fame. Then, during a ceremony at halftime of the Week Two Monday Night contest against the defending Super Bowl Champion Saints, the 49ers will convey additional honors on Jerry, as they enshrine him into their own Edward J. DeBartolo Sr. Hall of Fame and formally retire his number 80.
These official commendations will serve as merely the last formal validation of a career that has ensconced Jerry as the consensus greatest wide receiver in NFL history and arguably the league/game's greatest player. Jerry holds virtually every meaningful career receiving record, including 274 consecutive games with a reception and 22,895 career yards—two marks which may never be eclipsed.
Beyond the stats, Jerry was a unique athletic talent: perhaps the best pure route-runner the game has ever seen, combined with elite hands and incredible game-smarts to make him a premiere weapon for talented quarterbacks and fellow Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young. There is no question Jerry, Joe, and Steve all made one another better, but there is also no denying the unique individual skills each player possessed.
Jerry even possessed passing skills, and served as the team's emergency quarterback at times during his career. He also had a legendary work ethic and training regimen, something that contributed greatly to his longevity, allowing him to enjoy two decades of NFL dominance.
Jerry has chosen his friend and former team owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. to present him for enshrinement in Canton. While there will certainly be much well-deserved jubilation in sharing this moment with the great Eddie D and his fellow immortals and former teammates Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Ronnie Lott, there will doubtless be some tears shed as well. Some tears of joy, but some of somber remembrance.
Eddie was not Jerry's first choice to present him for the Hall Of Fame induction, an event everyone has known for decades would inevitably come. Jerry had long planned to give the honor to his former head coach and beloved mentor, Bill Walsh.
Bill had joked with Jerry since the day that he left San Francisco that he needed to retire. His reasoning being that Jerry would have to wait the mandatory five years following retirement before being eligible for Hall of Fame induction, and Bill wanted to guarantee he would still be "around" to give his presentation speech.
Early on, most people assumed it was merely playful kidding, but Bill may have been more deliberate in his motivations all along. Bill had known he was suffering from leukemia long before he made the fact known to anyone else, and by the time Jerry finally hung up his cleats prior to the 2005 season, Bill's time was already too short.
Bill Walsh lost his fight with leukemia on 30 July 2007, falling more than three years short of being able to present Jerry for Hall enshrinement.
While he will certainly be there in heart and spirit, Bill Walsh's physical absence from these ceremonies will no doubt cast them in a partially somber light. Still, Jerry can take solace and pride in the fact that in formally achieving such an honor, he is making a great and very public contribution to keeping the memory of his former coach alive and fresh in the minds of the NFL and greater sporting world.
Jerry's induction may be the last time for a while that players and fans from the Walsh-era 49ers enjoy the opportunity to so publicly share fond memories of their careers, accomplishments, and beloved coach. It is unclear if and when the Hall Of Fame committee will ever come to their senses and give Roger Craig, Charles Haley, and perhaps even Guy McIntyre, Randy Cross, and Dwight Clark their due, bringing the significance of Jerry's honors more clearly into focus.
Both events will prove terrific days to be able to count one's self among the extended San Francisco 49ers family, but both will also carry sobering reminders of the tragic absence—and loving memory—of that family's patriarch as well. As fans, alumni, coaches, and players, we should all be excited, but also prepared, for these truly momentous occasions.
Congratulations, Jerry. You were simply the best and will always be a true 49er and NFL treasure.
Bill, the 49er family will love and remember you always.
Keep the Faith!