Thursday 27 April 2017

Wembley showpiece will come to boil - Rice

Paul Newman

JERRY RICE, one of the greatest players in American football history, is sitting in a room beneath Wembley Stadium. Outside, final preparations are being made for tomorrow's annual NFL fixture in London, in which Rice's former team, the San Francisco 49ers, take on the Denver Broncos.

It is more than five years since Rice played a sport in which he still holds almost every record for wide receivers, but a glint appears in his eye as he considers what it would be like to enjoy one last hurrah.

"If I could put that uniform on one more time and run out on that field I would," he says. "This would have been the ultimate. I played in London in pre-season matches, but these guys have the chance to play here, in the regular season, with 85,000 people going crazy."

At 48 Rice is still very fit, even if nearly a stone heavier than in his playing days. "I'm a little bit more muscular now," he says, before adding with a smile: "My girlfriend wanted me to put on a bit more."

As a player, Rice would weigh himself every morning. If the scales topped 189lb (just over 85kg) his colleagues would arrive at training to find him on the treadmill.

"I was determined to be the best football player I could possibly be, so I was willing to go to extremes, even in the off season," he recalls. "When we went to training camps I was already in shape."

Rice, who is at Wembley as a TV pundit, reckons his conditioning was the key to his longevity. In a demanding sport where careers average just four years, Rice played for 20 seasons, the first 16 with San Francisco, with whom he won three Super Bowls, followed by spells at Oakland, Seattle and Denver.

Torn knee ligaments in 1997 ended a run of 189 consecutive appearances. Remarkably, he was back playing 14 weeks later.

"I was in a cast, which they wanted me in for four to six weeks, but it was driving me crazy," he recalls. "I remember picking up a saw and cutting it off. After that they put me in a more flexible support. It was a difficult time. I didn't feel like I was part of the team. I couldn't go to battle with them."

Physical

While Rice does not think the NFL is more physical today, he reckons players are bigger and faster. He has been concerned by this season's spate of head and neck injuries. "If you lead with the crown of the helmet I believe your intention is to hurt," he says.

Nevertheless, he does not think all contact with the head should be outlawed. "Those were the hits that they show for commercials," he says of some of the more shuddering collisions. "Football has to be a physical sport."

Rice still maintains a strict training regime. "Monday, Wednesday, Friday I might go for a distance run of five to 10 miles," he says. "I go to the gym on Tuesday and Thursday. I'm always looking to challenge myself."

He never does anything by half. Rice appeared on 'Dancing with the Stars' and impressed with his work ethic, finishing runner-up.

"I was like a fish out of water," he admits. "It was so difficult. Ten weeks and you're working every day. It was an experience of a lifetime and I enjoyed it, but I didn't know the magnitude of it until I got into it. You do a routine, add another and then someone criticises you after you've worked so hard."

Rice threw himself just as wholeheartedly into golf, which was an obsession in his playing days. "It's one of those games where you can't blame anyone else -- you get out of it what you put into it," he says. "I would get up at 4am and go and hit golf balls. Then I would go to work from, say, eight till four, then I would go back and hit more golf balls."

He made his professional golf debut in some minor events this year.

"My golf is OK, but I don't totally commit to it," he says.

"I probably play twice a week, but then I have some weeks when I don't have time to play at all. As a professional golfer you have to be hands-on, have a coach and work at it every day. Playing golf every day, making the cut and having success would be the ultimate dream."

Precise

Rice's caddie told him to slow down. "Before I select a club or if I'm reading a putt, I need to make sure exactly what I want to do," he says. "What I noticed from playing in those tournaments was that these guys are so precise about everything. They don't pull a club until they're ready to commit to that shot.

"Sometimes as a football player you have to be a bit more creative. You go on a run and you have to adjust."

As well, Rice spends time with his three children, gives motivational speeches and does promotional work. He also enjoys watching the 49ers, although they have lost six of seven this season -- not a scenario that, you sense, would happen if Rice were still around.

"Every day I miss playing -- entertaining so many people on that big stage," he says. "When you play in the Super Bowl, the high you're on playing in a game of that magnitude is hard to replace." (© Independent News Service)

San Francisco 49ers v Denver Broncos, Live Sky Sports 2, tomorrow, 5.0

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