Will play for peanuts

Updated: May 23, 2005, 3:08 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

When last we checked, Jerry Rice was not yet a Denver Bronco.

On the other hand, it's good news that he also isn't a Saskatchewan Roughrider, a Hamburg Sea Devil, or a Real Salt Lake for that matter.

Jerry Rice
APRice may look strange wearing anything but a 49ers jersey, but he's just happy to be playing football.
Rice is trying to keep his NFL career alive by any means necessary, and the only niblet he's received that anyone knows about is the one from Mike Shanahan to be … well, maybe a Bronco, maybe on the depth chart, and maybe a maybe.

Now I don't know about you, and I'm relatively sure Rice will still be the best receiver of all time by the time your great-great-grandchildren read this, and he will be a first-nanosecond Hall of Famer, but all that being said, he is coming dangerously close to Rickey Henderson territory here.

You've been tracking Rickey, no doubt, as he begins his newest career as the first leadoff hitter in the history of the San Diego Surf Dawgs of the Golden Baseball League. The GBL begins play this Thursday, and Henderson, who doesn't need the money or the notoriety, will be the preeminent Dawg.

His agent, Jeff Borris, says Henderson still harbors dreams of re-reaching the majors, but most people who know Rickey's inner child suspect he would be bored without baseball. I mean, he doesn't need the $3,000 a month, or the marketing deal that includes a Rickey Surf Dawg bobblehead. He doesn't need the fame. He just needs the game, at least enough to keep digging deeper into the mine to find a place.

And with the Surf Dawgs, he is closer to the earth's core than ever before.

That brings us back to Rice.

Now, the Broncos are still an NFL team, which puts them a leg up on, well, the Surf Dawgs. Shanahan's relationship with Rice when both were with the 49ers is the prime reason this might happen at all, but he would have to show he could contribute, either on his own or by showing Ashley Lelie what it means to try to be great.

But this is likely to be a lower profile gig than even his job with the Seattle Seahawks last year. This is, in short, something Rice … does … not … need.

Not for his wallet, at least as far as we know.

Not for his legacy, Lord knows.

Not for any reason other than he doesn't want to stop playing football.

Which, if you think about it hard enough, is not the worst reason to hang around too long.

Indeed, in a certain sense, there is no such thing as too long. He is doing no harm to anyone. He is not lowering the standard of play in the National Football League. He is not the worst receiver in the game; he'd have to turn 55 before that becomes conceivable.

But based on the limited definition of "too long" as too long for him to add to his career in any meaningful way, then yes, this actually is too long for Jerry Rice. He long ago passed the point where he had anything left to prove. That came when he reached the Super Bowl with the Raiders, because he needed to prove to the 49ers that they had been hasty, rude and stupid to treat him so cavalierly.

But the Raider adventure ended ignominiously, and he went to Seattle thinking there was still some glory to be had only to learn that he was not an option for Matt Hasselbeck on the biggest play of the season.

So now he's got his agent, Jim Steiner, hustling jobs for him, based on the acronym "GOAT" – Greatest of All Time.

Yeah. That and a minimum salary can get you a job as a wedge buster.

Fortunately for Rice, there are still coaches who remember his work ethic, his consuming fire for the ball, and his refusal to skip a play or a workout. There are fewer of those as the Bill Walsh Coaching Era slowly fades into yesteryear – Shanahan, Mike Holmgren, Dennis Green among the last of his disciples.

But it only takes one to keep Rice hanging on, and if Shanahan can make use of him, all the better for everyone involved.

If not, though, one wonders what lies ahead for Rice. Does he finally accept the law of gravity and become a man of leisure, or does he turn into Rickey Henderson, a man for whom the term "too long" is measured by glacial shifts?

It may be painful to consider, but if you hear that Steiner is working the phones trying to work a deal with the New Orleans VooDoo, you'll have your answer.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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