On the day Jerry Rice snagged the first of 194 touchdown catches, Oct. 6, 1985, against the Atlanta Falcons, J.J. Stokes celebrated his 13th birthday. Ten years later, then a first-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers, Stokes was in the starting lineup with Rice. And now nearly a decade after that, Stokes is in a fairly unique position to offer up some perspective on the premier wide receiver, maybe greatest player period, in NFL history.
"Just think about what he has meant to the game," said Stokes, cut by the New England Patriots last week. "I mean, on and off the field, Jerry has influenced two generations of (wide) receivers, really. It's quite a legacy."
One in which, we often need to remind ourselves as Rice's chronological age goes up and his production wanes, the final chapter hasn't yet been authored.
Even as Rice nears the end of the road, he remains a role model for young wide receivers who have recently cruised onto the NFL on-ramp, and most of whom have spent all their football formative years watching him on television and perhaps trying to master a few of his signature moves. Two weeks removed from the start of his 20th season, and less than two months from his 41st birthday, Rice still commands attention.
He is old enough now that rookie wide receivers could be his sons and, indeed, some of the first-year pass-catchers regard Rice as a surrogate of sorts. Many of them learned the nuances of the game from in front of a TV, watching Rice torch an overmatched corner, and then racing out to the nearest neighborhood vacant lot to practice his I-cut pattern.
Past generations of wide receivers might justifiably debate several names when asked to identify the player at the position who, either directly or otherwise, most shaped their careers. But given that the current crop of rookies is the product of an age in which every game is televised, and every highlight replayed dozens of times on SportsCenter, there is no litany necessary.
Query rookie wide receivers about the players they most tried to emulate when they were kids and a pretty wide-ranging list ensues. Ask them, however, what receiver they most admire, the guy whose career they want to step into, and Rice is the man, virtually by acclamation.
And sometimes, it has nothing to do with a particular pattern, and isn't tied to production.
"The thing I always admired," said Buffalo Bills first-round wide receiver Lee Evans, "is the way he always carries himself. It's not cocky, but he just kinds of (exudes) this sort of confidence, like he's football royalty or something. Just watching him on television, you can feel it, you know? It's like, he knows he's the best, and he knows that he is going to make plays. So I think what I learned watching him is to play with confidence."
One other element mentioned by Evans, who in Wisconsin's '02 spring intrasquad game suffered a catastrophic knee injury that required two surgeries to repair, was the ability of Rice to deal with adversity. From the 1997 knee injury that limited Rice to two games, to the near-loss of his wife during childbirth, the nonpareil wide receiver always seemed to find focus and to maintain his aplomb.
In speaking with young wide receivers about Rice during training camps this summer, the rookies rarely failed, in fact, to cite his influences away from the field. Poise was almost as significant to the rookies, it seemed, as were post patterns. To them, Rice transcended the game, merited their respect both as a player and as the consummate professional.
Noted first-round wide receiver Roy Williams of the Detroit Lions: "He always seems to have everything in perspective. You don't hear about him being in trouble. He's known as a good family man. And, as a player, well, he's been the best. He's definitely got his priorities in order."
Of course, you can't own every major NFL receiving record and not make an impression as the greatest-ever practitioner of catching a football, and Rice's sway over most of the younger receivers in that regard is fodder for lengthy discussion.
Those familiar with Rice's daunting training regimen bring up his unmatched work ethic. Others speak of his competitive speed, how he is rarely caught from behind despite never having been a true sprinter. Not surprisingly, there is discussion of the various patterns he has used to catch 1,519 passes for 22,466 yards. In the eyes of the youngsters, watching Rice is like reading a wide receiver primer.
See Jerry run? See Jerry catch the ball? See Jerry score? Heck, they've literally seen it for most of their lives.
"No wasted motion," said Michael Jenkins, the latter of the Atlanta Falcons' two first-round picks. "There's an (economy) to everything he does. Every step is important and he plays every (snap) hard. You watch him and it's like watching a football encyclopedia."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer at ESPN.com.