Jerry Rice was the 16th name called in the 1985 NFL draft. Emmitt Smith saw 16 players selected before he was taken in 1990.
Their wait to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame was nowhere near as excruciating.
On Saturday night, Rice and Smith will be inducted together in the Canton, Ohio shrine as the top receiver and top rusher in league history. They were slam-dunk choices back in February, having proven through so many years how unwise so many teams were for bypassing them.
“There was no way I was going to be denied,” Rice said. “I kept working hard and my dream came true. I tell kids do not let any obstacles stand in your way. If you want to achieve something, go for it. I’m living proof with my background and where I came from. I didn’t give up and I wanted to be the best football player I could possibly be in the NFL and I was able to accomplish that.”
As was Smith.
“I was always taught to try not to focus on what people are saying about you,” Smith said. “Obviously you hear it, and you can’t help but think about it to some degree. But it won’t affect how you approach the game. You will continue to work had, study hard and approach the game from a professional standpoint that will afford you the opportunity to go on the football field and do the best you can. That is all I ever asked of myself, and by the end of the day, wherever the chips fell is where they fell.”
They fell like tacklers fruitlessly trying to stop Smith or defensive backs futilely trying to cover Rice. Each of them won three Super Bowls and one MVP trophy from the title game.
Joining them in the hall will be Detroit Lions defensive back Dick LeBeau, who has been even more successful as a defensive coordinator, particularly in Pittsburgh; Washington guard Russ Grimm — also a top NFL assistant coach; New Orleans linebacker Rickey Jackson; Minnesota defensive tackle John Randle; and Denver running back Floyd Little.
Rice had the good fortune to be drafted by the 49ers when coach Bill Walsh, the mastermind of the West Coast offense, traded three draft picks to New England to move up to the 16th spot in 1985. The Niners were coming off their second Super Bowl victory, and all Rice added was, well, the perfect receiver to that scheme.
“When I first stepped into that locker room I looked across and there was Joe Montana and Ronnie Lott, all of these Hall of Famers and I’m in the room with these guys,” Rice said. “At first it was like a deer in the headlights.”
Rice became an uncatchable deer. He had a record streak of 274 consecutive games with a catch; 11 straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons; 22 touchdown catches in 12 games of the strike-shortened 1987 season; and final totals of 1,549 receptions for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns.
Like Rice, Smith put his record-setting numbers far beyond established standards. While Rice did it with explosive grace, Smith’s game was powerful and persistent.
He rushed for 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns, and also had the most carries (4,409) for a career. Playing a position with an average life span that can be measured on one hand, Smith was a force for all of his 13 seasons in Dallas and nearly reached 1,000 yards in his last of two seasons in Arizona.
“I knew if I could become the all-time leading rusher, that would position me to become a Hall of Famer,” Smith said. “I think when you rush for 1,000 yards 11 consecutive years and lead the league in rushing four years, and win not only one or two but three Super Bowls — I think the Super Bowls help solidify a person’s chance to become a Hall of Famer.
“I was motivated by one thing and one thing only: winning games,” Smith added. “I wanted to win. And I wanted to win very bad.”
If Smith and Rice do a little, uh, Texas two-step on the stage at Fawcett Stadium, they could be excused, as well. Smith won “Dancing with the Stars” and Rice was a runner-up on the popular television show.
“I know for me, people did not get a chance to see my face or personality,” Smith said, noting the common belief that football players are “barbaric, gladiators and soldiers and all these other analogies they associate us with. When it comes to ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ it’s about the personalities, who we are when we are not in uniform, and I think ‘Dancing with the Stars’ gave us an opportunity to reach out in another way.”
Now they’ve reached the pinnacle of their profession.