If he hadn't skipped class, Jerry Rice may never have played football. An unplanned encounter with the principal at B.L. Moor High School sent a sophomore student running along a path to becoming arguably the greatest player in NFL history.
Rice, the Hall of Fame wide receiver who won the Super Bowl three times with the San Francisco 49ers, grew up a bricklayer's son in Crawford, Miss. The man who owns or has owned just about every meaningful record for wide receivers says he was first introduced to football by principal Ezell Wicks. At age 51, Rice recently returned to the town where he grew up -- and inadvertently found his calling -- to be honored as part of a program called “Hometown Hall of Famers" presented by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Allstate.
"Going back to my hometown where everything started for me brings back a lot of memories," Rice told The Huffington Post before speaking at East Oktibbeha County High School in Crawford. "I think with this program that the Hall of Fame is doing shows that they're reaching outside of Canton, Ohio. I remember the dirt roads, I remember the football field, I remember running down the hall and I'm just looking forward to the opportunity of going back and being a positive for those kids and letting them know that if you work hard and you have confidence in yourself, you listen to your parents that anything can happen. And hopefully I can inspire them to do that and go on in life and have a great career."
Before attempting to inspire the next generation of Crawford superstars, Rice took time to speak with HuffPost Sports about his start in football, the secret to honing his Hall of Fame hands and the message he hoped to deliver.
HuffPost Sports: What was your first experience with football growing up?
Jerry Rice: Well, my first experience with football was not very good because I didn't plan on playing football. I was just playing hookie one day and I was a sophomore and decided not to go to class. And the principal -- normally he does his rounds and I thought I had him down pretty good where he was going to be -- he sort of walked up behind me and scared me. He noticed I could run real fast. So that's how I got introduced to football. After I got disciplined I got introduced to football and then after that everything just took off for me. I had a lot of role models: the teachers, the coaches. Watching them give so much to so many students so they can be successful in life basically just ingrained in me that I think it's more gratifying for me to give back and than just to receive.
HP Sports: Were there role models for you that were coaches or other players -- locally or nationally -- that you looked up to and that inspired you at that time?
Rice: It was the coaches and also the players. I remember this one quarterback, his name was Kent Thomas, and he was like the most popular person in school because he was the man. He was the quarterback. And I remember saying to myself that "It would be great if I could catch a ball from him, if i could be coached by Charles Davis." The principal his name was Ezell Wicks and I remember him, he was a big guy that was about maybe 6' 8", weighed about maybe 280 and they all inspired me to want to be the best that I could be. I knew that I had to work hard education wise first and all the way through Mississippi Valley State. I had a lot of success there, then I got drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. But everything started at B.L. Moor High School and a lot of people inspired me to go out there and be the best individual that I could possibly be and I'm very thankful.
HP Sports: Having been inspired to succeed by those people, how did you hone your physical skills to become the player you became?
Rice: I think my secret is that there's no shortcuts for hard work, determination and having that don't give up attitude. And you know, coming from the South, I just felt you had to work just a little bit harder. It was not going to be handed to you. I'd get the letters from all the major schools but no one came out to talk to me face to face until this small, dominant black school, Mississippi State Valley University sent a coach out to me. I had a chance to talk to him and he said, 'Hey Jerry, we're going to be doing some great things at Mississippi Valley State University and we would love to have you there.' And just to be able to have that conversation with that coach and be able to look him in his eyes and shake his hand, I made my mind to go to Valley State. But I still knew that I had to work hard and hit the books because the opportunity to play in the NFL is not really that big, so I knew I needed something to fall back on. That's the message I want to send to those kids when I talk to them in person and let them know the most important thing is getting your education. Once you get your education it's going to open up so many doors for you. And the sky's the limit. So that's what I want to deliver to those students.
HP Sports: You said you were always fast and that was what first drew the attention of the principal. As far as honing your hands and your football knowledge, what was the secret for that?
Rice: I think with my hands, it was catching a lot of footballs and working with my father during the summer because he would always make me. My father was a bricklayer so I was a helper. My job was to make sure that he had bricks to lay. We used to be on the scaffold where it was 20 feet in the air and my brothers would toss bricks up and I would snatch them out of the air. So that helped with my hand and eye coordination. But I think just what my parents instilled in me was hard work and being able to always go out there and focus and be 100%. I took that work ethic into the NFL and everyday I always gave 100% and never wanted anything to be handed to me. I wanted to earn it. And every time I stepped on that football field during practice I wanted to leave that football field with learning something about what the practice was about for me that day: the situation I was in and the opportunity that I was probably going to have during the game on that Sunday or that Monday. When you look at it, nothing can top hard work.
HP Sports: Do you feel like the young people you talk to these days have different attitudes about work ethic and role models?
Rice: Oh,yeah, because its a whole different generation of kids now and everyone is looking for shortcuts. You have seen some of the greatest athletes fall because they have tried to take shortcuts. You know I'm not going to call any names but we talk about guys that was like at the top of their game that people just idolized. They looked in awe and all of a sudden you see them just come tumbling down because they want to take shortcuts. I think it's more rewarding when you do it the old fashioned way. Do it the right way. You're more appreciative that way because you know the sweat and the tears that you put into it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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