The last time Jerry Rice attended a retirement ceremony at the Marie P. DeBartolo Sports Centre, he may as well have been watching a "Steel Magnolias"/Terms of Endearment" double feature.
It was June 12, 2000, when Steve Young stood in the 49ers' locker room and called it a career, choosing to leave football with his senses intact.
Young's eyes were dry, the picture of a man at peace with his decision.
Rice was a mess.
He managed a few smiles as Young controlled the room with equal parts humor and humility, but mostly he cried like Dick Vermeil the day of the final roster cutdown.
It wasn't hard to imagine Rice, then 37, envisioning his own football mortality.
“I know the clock is ticking for me also,” Rice said that day.
It ticked for five more seasons, 343 receptions, 4,553 yards and 28 touchdowns. It ticked through one year with the 49ers, three with the Oakland Raiders and one with the Seattle Seahawks.
It ticked through training camp of the Denver Broncos before reality began to set in.
It ticked through “Dancing with the Stars.” Finally, under a tent outside the 49ers' facility Thursday, Rice signed a ceremonial contract to end his career where he started it.
There wasn't a teardrop in sight. Rice had apparently gotten them out of the way after it didn't work out in Denver.
“I think I have shed my tears already,” Rice said. “To come back here and officially retire a 49er is a happy day.”
He seemed to mean it, immediately cutting off a question about Junior Seau, the linebacker who announced his retirement last week only to sign with the New England Patriots four days later.
“I want to let you guys know I'm not going to pull a Junior Seau,” Rice said. “That's not going to happen. It's official today, and it's going to stay that way.”
His official retirement will come at halftime of the Nov. 19 game against Seattle.
Retirement in professional sports, when it comes to the all-time greats, is everybody's business. There are some fans and media who want to control when it's time for icons to step down.
In the real world, no one begrudges a person the chance to earn a living as long as someone is willing to pay the salary. The special athlete gets no such luxury.
The right of personal choice when it comes to retirement instead becomes fodder for a public referendum.
If Rice had cashed it in when it ended with the 49ers, no one would have seen two remarkable seasons as an Oakland Raider, including a playoff performance against the New York Jets that ranks with his best.
If Rice stuck around too long for some, they'll have to get over it.
“After playing 20 years, it's very difficult to give up,” Rice said. “I know the critics are going to say, He's going to tarnish his career, he should just retire and walk away.' I felt it was a game I chose to (play), and it should be my decision when to walk away.
“I think I did it very professionally. I think I represented the NFL the way it should be represented. I never felt like I cheated the fans.”
He joked about the prodding he got to call it quits from the man who drafted him in 1985.
“Bill Walsh told me I needed to retire as soon as possible because he wanted to introduce me to the Hall of Fame,” Rice said. “He told me that if I didn't retire now, he was going to pass away. I really had to accommodate him.”
Unlike the Rice who wept when Young retired, this Rice was clearly comfortable in his own skin.
It took him awhile to get there. Owner John York said he approached Rice's agent about a ceremonial retirement last year, only to be told it wasn't time.
So Rice danced with the stars and got used to the idea of not playing. He talks of his television experience on the dance floor with real enthusiasm, and if that seems silly to some, well, it's his life.
He has some endorsement deals most recently with the Madden 2007 video game has a talk show on Sirius Satellite Radio and has a reality TV show venture in the works called “The Underdog.”
“I have a lot of great opportunities out there,” Rice said. “I think I'm working more now than when I played football. The important thing is I really have a chance to get out there and touch so many lives.”
OK, Rice may be getting carried away with himself, but he's a long way from the occasionally sullen, petulant receiver who was notorious for his mood swings.
Maturity softened Rice's rough edges, but he also figured out it pays to be a nice guy.
Rice no doubt came to a realization that helps cushion the competitive pangs of even the most reluctant retiree go about things in the right way, and there's still money to be made in being Jerry Rice. No reason to cry about that.
NFL Editor Jerry McDonald can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org