The position has a deserved reputation for having the flakiest, most selfish and egocentric players in all of American sports. And Marshall, whose antics earned him a suspension for the duration of the preseason, isn’t even the latest in the parade that began more than a decade ago with Keyshawn “Gimme the Damn Ball” Johnson. Already, there are knuckleheads lined up to take his place, beginning with Michael Crabtree, who’s still pissed off he wasn’t picked in the top five.
“When I came in the league it was about earning your money, justifying your job,” said Rice. “I always believed once you sign a contract, you’re obligated to it. Or you work it out in-house. Michael Crabtree wants the money up front — before he ever puts on the uniform.”
Don’t mistake Rice’s reservations for resentful ravings of a retired man. He’s fully aware of, say, Larry Fitzgerald’s old-school virtue. But he also knows that for every Larry Fitzgerald, there’s a T.O. or an Ochocinco or a Plaxico, or, before his improbable second act with the Patriots, a Randy Moss. Wide receiver is the new reality show, a production infected with pathological narcissism.
“We’re divas now,” Rice said wistfully.
The NFL’s all-time touchdown leader, Rice had 1,549 catches and 22,895 yards (almost 13 perilous miles by my calculation) spread over 20 seasons. While some players brag about their thousand-yard seasons, Rice got a thousand (in just 10 games) on Deion Sanders alone. Rice is more than the best receiver in history. Given the fact that Jim Brown played just nine seasons, he’s arguably the best player.
That’s not to say he couldn’t be selfish. Or ego-driven. In fact, he had to be. They all do.
To do the job properly, one must reconcile himself with the certainty of the blindside hit, with the defender’s intent to decapitate. You must need the ball, as the need has to outweigh any fear or doubt. (In that respect, I understand, even admire, Keyshawn’s self-proclaimed ethos. I’ll always give him that: he never cared about the hitter, only the ball).
“It takes a special man to tell himself, ‘I’m going to catch this ball no matter what, no matter the guy trying to take my head off,’ ” said Rice. “You have to be willing to jeopardize your body. You have to want the football, and you have to want it when everything is on the line. Like Michael Jordan in basketball. A receiver has got to be like that.
The issue, then, is the expression of that selfishness. “I demanded the ball in game situations,” recalled Rice. “But I didn’t tell Joe Montana or Steve Young to throw me the ball. They could tell just from my body language. You don’t distract the team.”
You don’t drop passes in practice. You don’t embarrass yourself. And that’s what so many of these guys have become: embarrassments.