Sunday, February 2, 2003

Rice's heart fonder for Hawaii

By Greg Beacham
The Associated Press

HONOLULU - Jerry Rice thought he could relax in Hawaii this week. He planned to play some golf, soak up some sun and run through the light practices until his 13th Pro Bowl appearance on Sunday.

Instead, he spent the week dealing with constant attention from his fans, who took breaks from their regular jobs as the AFC's best players to savor the chance to play with the 40-year-old receiver for the first time in his career.

"It's kind of funny," Rice said while glancing around the AFC locker room on Saturday. "There's a lot of guys in here who are looking at me like, 'I can't believe what he's still doing.' I thought I was over that part already.

"It's good to be in the spotlight again, and to be with a new bunch of guys. It seems like old times, but it's something new. It's even better this time around."

Nobody should be surprised by Rice anymore, particularly not the NFL stars who grew up idolizing him and now find themselves playing alongside him in the season's final game.

After a three-year absence from the Pro Bowl during his unsatisfying final seasons in San Francisco and his transition to the Oakland Raiders, Rice emphatically returned to his all-star caliber this season. He caught 92 passes for 1,211 yards and seven touchdowns, adding to his NFL records in all three categories.

Though the Raiders' 48-21 loss to Tampa Bay in the Super Bowl last Sunday remains fresh in his mind, Rice has perspective now. Earlier in his career, he acknowledged, such a defeat would have sent him into a spiral of frustration.

"I'm a little more relaxed this year," he said. "I'm not burning myself up over it. Yeah, we thought we should have won, but we had a great season. This is a nice consolation prize over here."

Rice tried to avoid becoming the center of attention all week in practice, but his quarterbacks wouldn't let him. All three AFC signal-callers - including Oakland teammate Rich Gannon, the MVP of the last two Pro Bowls - clearly would like to add to Rice's legacy, which includes the 1994 Pro Bowl MVP award.

"Peyton (Manning) got in a little trouble yesterday with (Colts teammate) Marvin Harrison because he was throwing balls to Jerry all day," Buffalo quarterback Drew Bledsoe said. "Having Jerry here makes this week even more special. For all those years, he was on the other side of this game, so it's cool to have him with us now."

"Jerry Rice is the gold standard," Pittsburgh receiver Hines Ward said. "He's the guy who's done everything that you want to do. I can't wait to go in the huddle, and there's Jerry Rice coming out the other side from me. It's going to be a highlight of my life."

The players and the fans agree: Rice is the star attraction at the 53rd Pro Bowl. The game will be held for the 24th straight time at Aloha Stadium, where the rowdy sellout crowd loves Rice from his years with the 49ers - perhaps Hawaii's unofficial favorite team.

Both teams held a light practice at the stadium on Saturday - a change in tradition from previous seasons, when both teams continued their weeklong rotation from the stadium to the Ihilani resort on Oahu's west side.

Even San Francisco's Terrell Owens and Tampa Bay's Simeon Rice made it to the final practice. The NFC stars were fined $4,000 each Friday for skipping practice and a team meeting.

Rice spent the week practicing and golfing - not necessarily in that order.

"There's so many courses over here it's ridiculous," he said. "I've got to come over when I'm not on business and just enjoy them."

Football is always business for Rice, which is why he's still in the game at his age. Most of his contemporaries are long gone, but Rice's adherence to strict diet and training regimens - and his incredible talents, of course - keep him healthy.

And he's not done. Rice plans to play next season, and the Raiders appear interested in bringing him back despite their salary-cap concerns.

He doesn't see any reason Oakland can't return to another Super Bowl with its powerful offense largely intact. He also plans to be in the same place again on the first weekend of next February, delighting another collection of fans - both in the stands and on his own team.

"You've got some great fans over here," Rice said. "It's a privilege to come over and entertain them, no matter how many times you do it. I hope this isn't my last year."

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