Thanks, Jerry Rice. Thanks for declining to drag us all through the torment of watching your gifts vanish. Time sneaks around as a vandal, slowly robbing a body of its might. This is true even if you’re named Jerry Rice. Rice surrendered to the inevitable Monday when he retired, a month short of his 43rd birthday. The player who had spent 20 seasons tinkering with reality, bending it to his considerable will, wisely decided to embrace a painful truth. The Jerry Rice of 2005 is a mere shadow of the man who dazzled us for so long. It was time. He saved himself the agony of sitting on the bench. That’s not where Jerry Rice belongs, and his retreat leaves us with better viewing options. We can always hit the rewind button in our mind and watch scenes from glory days. Watching Rice this summer just made me feel old. Here was the NFL’s all-time greatest receiver, the man who so dominated the ’80s and the ’90s with the San Francisco 49ers, and he looked average. And those were his good days. He lacked the burst that carried him to 1,549 catches and 208 touchdowns, both NFL records, but it was more than a physical decline. He fumbled the most crucial ingredient of his genius. For decades, he ranked as the most obsessed of athletes, spending hours catching bricks to toughen his hands, giving anything for the pleasure of wrapping his fingers around a football. “I was a little hesitant,” Rice said of his decision to join the Broncos. “But once I got here, I was totally committed.” No, he wasn’t. He was distracted, thinking about those days when he soared as the best receiver in the world instead of the fourth or fifth best receiver at the Broncos camp. He looked lost and struggled with Mike Shanahan’s complex system. After routes, he was often approached by receivers coach Steve Watson and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. “Hey, J.R.” the coaches said, their voices full of gentle respect. Then they would take Rice aside and quietly talk about his mistakes. I’m glad Rice couldn’t see himself at the end of the Broncos bench. I’m glad he’s jetting home to the Bay Area. The alternative would have been hideous. In the spring of 2002, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to witness a creaky man perform a lousy imitation of Michael Jordan. Problem was, the imitator was Michael Jordan. He dragged around his gimpy knee, missed easy shots, watched kids whiz by him for layups. In the final minutes of the tight game, Jordan demanded the ball, and his star-struck teammates obliged. How can you refuse the game’s greatest hero? He missed the shot, and trudged away as a loser, leaving several thousand fans to consider a surreal scene. His Airness, King of Basketball, simply wasn’t very good. Time had robbed him, drained him, and everyone — except Jordan — could see it Rice struggled with the same blurry vision. The great ones become great largely because of their will. They see themselves as superior, untouchable. That’s a hard vision to release. As late as a month ago, Rice still believed he could defeat time. “I was hoping,” Rice said, “I was here for the long haul.” He wasn’t. Rice’s brief visit to Denver only served to bring his vision into focus. In the shadow of the Rockies, he finally could see the matchless Jerry Rice, emperor of receivers, had transformed into just another player. So he walked away at just the right time. He saved himself — and us — from a season of pain. Columnist David Ramsey can be reached at 476-4895 or email@example.com
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