One day in the late 1970s, at B. L. Moor High School, principal Ezell Wicks was making his rounds in the hallways.
He spotted Jerry Rice playing hookie. Rice thought his hiding place was optimal. It wasn’t. Wicks approached and scared Rice, who bolted. Wicks noticed how fast the sophomore could run and, after lashing Rice eight times, told him to try out for the football team.
This is how Rice recalled the beginning of what became an NFL hall-of-fame career when he returned to Crawford Thursday. He was honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Allstate Insurance as a “Hometown Hall of Famer” at what is now East Oktibbeha County High School.
A gym full of students, family and Rice’s former teachers and peers filled the school’s gymnasium to see the unveiling of a plaque that will be on display at the school.
The former wide receiver’s illustrious career includes three Super Bowl wins with the San Francisco 49ers from 1985-2000. The 13-time Pro Bowler also was rated the number one football player of all time by NFL.com and is the National Football League’s all-time leader in catches, yards and touchdown receptions. He holds almost every possible receiving record for regular season and post-season play. He retired in 2004 after stints with the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks. He was a legend at Mississippi Valley State University as one half of the “Satellite Express,” the moniker given to the prolific offense he and then-MVSU quarterback Willie Totten led.
William “Bo” Brown, who coined that term for the two players, introduced Rice to attendees.
When he came back home, Rice said he had to slow down a little bit and ride around the neighborhood. The campus stirred memories, particularly of where he earned his reputation for hard work and determination during practices.
“I remember right outside, we didn’t have a track, so we would run around this block here for conditioning,” Rice said. “I remember the football field, and the things we had to do, the locker room. We didn’t have all the weights or anything like that, but we still made do. I remember running that hill so many times. One day after practice I was extremely tired, and I was running that hill and I started walking towards the locker room. Something just pulled me back and said, ‘Look, once a quitter, always a quitter.’ I turned around and I went back and I finished that hill. So, that really being my track record my entire career, I feel like I had to work for everything and I was not the most gifted or the most talented, but I was going to outwork you.”
Rice: No shortcuts to success
His messages for the students were a reinforcement of those that kids hear from parents and mentors: Work hard. Don’t take shortcuts. Listen to your parents. Education is the most important thing.
In Rice’s case, the success that often comes with following those principles was unique in that he used it to represent Mississippi in the best light, he said.
“A lot of you guys here, you guys can be lawyers. You can be teachers. You can be whatever you want to be, but you have to work at it, and you’ve always got to give 100 percent,” Rice said. “When I look back on my career after 20 years, I can hold my head high and say I did it the right way. I didn’t want to just be another player on the National Football League boat. I wanted to be the greatest player to ever play the game. If you told me I couldn’t accomplish that, you offended me, because you don’t tell me what I can’t do.”
Rice took time to reflect on his upbringing, struggling to hold back tears when mentioning his mother, who was in attendance, and his late father, whose grave he visited prior to Thursday’s ceremony.
“The teachers here and the teachers that have gone on to a better place: Thank you for instilling in me about hard work and dedication,” he said. “I want you guys to know that when I am on television, I believe I’m representing Mississippi Valley State University, East Oktibbeha County High School… the right way. All my teammates, I love you guys for what you did for me putting me in a position where I can go out there and win and be successful.”
Teacher: Rice was well-behaved
Winnie Boykin, Rice’s third grade teacher, said she remembers a studious, well-mannered Rice.
“He was just a great student,” she said. “I had no problems with him. He came from a good family. He was well behaved. He had a good study ethic. Just an ideal student, but we had a whole bunch of ideal students at that time. This was a good place for family and students and they worked together.”
As Rice walked in the room, he shook hands with players of the high school’s football team. Junior student and teammate Destin Covington said the chance to speak with Rice had a positive impact on him.
“It’s a priceless opportunity,” Covington said. “You don’t get to see somebody famous all the time and coming from here. He took time out to come out here and I’m grateful for that.”
Crawford Mayor Fred Tolon described Rice’s appearance as “dynamic” and could tell he was speaking “from his heart” about his feelings for his home community.
“To those who are the critics who might have said at one time that Jerry forgot where he’d come from, actions speak much louder than words,” Tolon said.
Rice was the 86th player to receive the Hometown Heroes award since Allstate began the program in 2011.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
You can help your community
Quality, in-depth journalism is essential to a healthy community. The Dispatch brings you the most complete reporting and insightful commentary in the Golden Triangle, but we need your help to continue our efforts. Please consider subscribing to our website for only $2.30 per week to help support local journalism and our community.