Jerry played until he just couldn't

Jerry Rice made it last as long as he could -- the uniform, the perks, the camaraderie, the youth he never wanted to surrender.

But, ultimately, he figured it out. When two coaches who watched you in your prime sign you, pay you, but can't play you ... well, the 15th loud hint is always the one that gets you.

Rice retired Monday, having deduced face-first that he just can't make a difference on a football team any more. The Denver Broncos were willing to carry him, but he'd done that already, in Seattle. They wanted him to be an impact player one last time, but he hadn't been that since his last Super Bowl year, in Oakland.

And the people who see him through the gauze of time wanted him to be Jerry Rice one last time, but he hadn't been that since the end of the San Francisco years.

This was, you see, one of the longest long goodbyes in NFL history, one not typically afforded to players. You crowbar your way into the Hall of Fame with one team, hit your sell-by date, and then you try one more team to see if you can ring the carnival bell again. When you can't, you retire. It happened with Unitas, and it happened with Montana, and it happened a thousand other times.

But Rice didn't want to take "no," "hell no," or even "please, stop, don't" for an answer. He was intent on finding out just how far he could go until he hit "E," and "E" came today.

Oh, there will be the over-the-top paeans to the man universally considered the greatest wide receiver of all time. There will be a few people who complain that he stayed too long. There will even be some who will think the Broncos didn't see the greatness still in him.

The first group will be correct. So will the second. The third will be, well, wrong.

There is no morality play here. Rice stayed and stayed and stayed because he didn't want to leave until he was told not just, "You can't play for us," but "You can't play any more, period. Go, rest. You've carried enough bricks. You have nothing left to do."

Oh, he could have tried to squeeze out three more short touchdowns to get to an even 200, but Rice's career isn't explained by the numbers but by the mere recitation of his name. He caught more, gained more, scored more, and did it all in some of the biggest games of his era. He did it all, and did it where everybody could see, in September and in January.

But to lament that he stayed too long is silly. He wanted to stay too long. He chose to stay too long. He knew he was staying too long, and he did it anyway. This was a willful act of a man who had the leverage and reputation to pull it off.

That, too, is part of the plaque at Canton. "He played and played and played because nobody had the nerve to tell him he couldn't play any more. That's how good he was."

The Broncos were willing to let him play behind Rod Smith, Ashley Lelie and Darius Watts. They were willing to let him dress in some games. They didn't have the nerve to kick him out.

But they knew, and despite the fact that the NFL is the harshest and cruelest work environment unions can allow, they were willing to carry him until he knew, too.

Now he knows. He's not as useful as Darius Watts. He's 42, 13 years older than Jim Brown when he retired, five years older than Montana, a year older than Gary Anderson, for God's sake. In baseball terms, he got to be Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan at the same time.

This is what he chose. Don't forget that when you want to start slagging him for not knowing when to go. He didn't want anything left in his tank. He wanted to run out of gas on the road. He wanted to be used up completely, because he didn't know how else to go out, and perhaps because that is not a choice football offers to mere mortals.

He hadn't been deferring his retirement, as he kept hinting. He knew, in his soul, that this was the path he would choose, and one suspects that he's known it all along -- that he even knew it in San Francisco, when he was all but named second chair to Terrell Owens five years ago.

Thus, when you ask, "Didn't he know this day would come?" expect the answer, "Yes, and it's what he wanted."

Going out on top was enough for Jim Brown. Going out on fumes was enough for Jerry Rice. Regret it if you must, lament if you wish, but the NFL doesn't give choices very often, so take it for what it's worth. Jerry Rice chose this, with full knowledge and awareness of how it would end. He might have hoped otherwise, but he knew.

Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle is a regular contributor to ESPN.com