This year Jerry Rice will be inducted into the Pro-Football Hall of Fame in Canton Ohio. This is Rice’s first year of eligibility and he will be what is known as a “first ballot hall of famer.” That’s all obvious and well known to people who follow football and even to some people who don’t. The only real question surrounding Rice’s career is whether or not he is the best football player ever,, or the Greatest Of All Time. During the latter part of his career Rice’s nickname was G.O.A.T. which is a pretty strong argument for his status as the best football player ever. A recent ESPN.com article examined Rice’s candidacy for G.O.A.T. status and in my opinion sealed it up for old “Flash 80.”
The Jerry Rice question got me thinking. If he is the best ever that means that recent sports fans have been treated to quite an era. Anyone who was alive and conscious between 1978 and 2005 (inclusive) had a chance to see the best athletes ever to compete in three of the four major North American sports*. Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan are held almost without debate as the best ever in their sports. Sure, some diehards still hold out for Bill Russell and Gordie Howe but the fact is that Gretzky and Jordan established their greatness during a time when their leagues were really coming to prominence. Gretzky helped establish hockey in the non-Canada adjacent parts of the United States. Jordan not only won at an astonishing rate he also changed the way sports-business is done. Howe and Russell played at a time when their sports were niche compared to baseball and football. Out of the three greats to play between 1978 and 2005 only Rice is still really debated in terms of his place on the all time leader board.
In 1999 Wayne Gretzky was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame without having to wait the usual three years. That same year Jerry Rice was named the second greatest football player of all time by the Sporting News. Jerry went on to play five more years, which in the minds of many solidifies him as the NFL’s G.O.A.T. Both of these honors were bestowed on the heels of Jordan’s sixth NBA championship run in 1998. In 2002 Rice went back to the Super Bowl one last time but lost to the Buccaneers. Still, Rice can’t shake the ghost of Jim Brown. Brown supporters point to his dominance during his playing career and the fact that he retired early. “Look,” says the average Brown fan “he could have done so much more f he hadn’t retired early.” But he did retire early. He left the game and in my mind left behind his claim as the Greatest Of All Time.
But I don’t want to get bogged down too much in what is really an impossible debate. My point is that we sports fans have been treated to a special era. We saw three of the greatest athletes in three of the most popular sports in North America all overlapping. So, what do we hope for now? Maybe we hope for Albert Pujols to stay free of the steroid era. Dare we go for the superfecta of greatness? Sure, why not? But in the meantime let’s just take a moment to sit back and reflect on what we had.
Gretzky (1978-1999): “The Great One”, four Stanley Cups, several all time records
Rice (1985-2005): “World”, “Flash 80”, “G.O.A.T.”, three Super Bowls, 13 Pro Bowls, 11 time All Pro, 1985 ROY, 1980s All Decade Team, 1990s All Decade Team, 75th Anniversary All Time Team, 1988 NFL MVP, Super Bowl MVP, 7 All Time career records
Jordan (1984-1993, 1995-1998, 2001-2003): “Air Jordan”, “His Airness”, six NBA titles, 5 NBA MVPs, 14 All Star selections, 6 NBA Finals MVPs, 1988 Defensive Player of the Year, 10 All-NBA selections, 1985 ROY, 2 Olympic Golds, 50th Anniversary NBA All Time Team.
Jim Brown: (1957-1965): 9 Pro Bowls, 8 time All Pro, 1960s All Decade Team, 75th Anniversary All Time Team, 6 NFL MVPs
*Sorry Bonds fans, Barry wasn’t even the greatest ever at his position (Ted Williams, Rickey Henderson) or the greatest ever Giant (Willie Mays), Barry was just a ‘roided up freak show.