Jerry Rice is widely considered one of the greatest to have ever played the game of football.
His legacy as as the NFL’s all-time best wide receiver will forever be cemented by a 20-year career with over 1,500 receptions, close 23,000 reception yards and 200 touchdowns — all NFL all-time records. He has also, at some point, held every single season record for a receiver.
His stats prove the point, but what makes Rice a great study goes beyond the numbers:
He was undersized and considered slow by conventional standards.
He came from a small college in Itta Bena, Mississippi (Population: 1,946)
He came from an even smaller high school in Crawford, Mississippi (Population: 636)
→ The question is always the same, how does a lack of noticeable physical talent translate to success at the highest level of competition?
→ How does a lack of competitive environment, high-level exposure at the college level translate to success at the next level of competition?
The answer is always the same:
unrelenting work ethic and an unmatched belief in self.
In Rice’s biography, he spoke about some of the things that shaped his belief about work and effort. Long days in the backwater of Mississippi would start by helping his dad as a brick layer. Football practices were in the afternoon, followed by extra 40-yard hill sprints after practice before a 10-mile run back home. The run home was necessary, but the extra sprints were to subdue the little voice in his head that kept telling him to do more.
I had to be great. The only way I knew how to do anything was to outwork, outperform, and outplay everyone else. – Jerry Rice
This was just the beginning of Rice’s foray into the world of overwork.
Once drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, he began to really apply the principles of deliberate practice: the essential type of practice that produces the top performers in the world (across broad applications of craft).
Consider the following passage from Geoff Colvin in Talent is Overrated:
In team workouts he was famous for his hustle; while many receivers will trot back to the quarterback after catching a pass, Rice would sprint to the end zone after each reception. He would typically continue practicing long after the rest of the team had gone home.
Despite Rice’s lack of pure physical talent, he developed very precise skills for his position. He worked on specific aspects relative to what would make him a great wide receiver, as opposed to just a great athlete. Rice called this football speed — the kind of speed that made his mediocre 40-yard dash irrelevant to scoring touchdowns and winning trophies.
Football speed is how crisp you come out of running routes, how quickly you can “stop on a dime” and change direction, and how quickly you break off the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped. Football speed can be learned through hard work and, after years of working on the track, I actually got faster as the years went on.
In a sport notorious for taming even the most physically dominant athletes, Rice got better as the years went on. Still, his reputation as an iron man and fierce competitor can mostly be credited to his work in the off season. When most players took some time off and did some traveling, Rice went straight to work. In his first 10 years in the league, he never took a vacation. He worked even harder when the lights were off, perhaps the greatest attribute of his long-term success.
Most remarkable were his six-days-a-week off-season workouts, which he conducted entirely on his own. Mornings were devoted to cardiovascular, running a hilly five-mile trail; he would reportedly run ten forty-meter wind sprints up the steepest part. In the afternoons he did equally strenuous weight training. These workouts became legendary as the most demanding in the league, and other players would sometimes join Rice just to see what it was like. Some of them got sick before the day was over.
These grueling off-season workouts shaped Rice into the perennial 20-year star that he became. It is rare to see a wide receiver contribute even 10 productive years, yet Rice was a force on the field well into his late thirties. He didn’t retire till he was 42.
Rice was an anomaly for sure, yet what made him special is available to all of us. Persistence, unrelenting work ethic and a commitment to deliberate practice that makes you better at what you do.
It’s hard work and most won’t do it.
Master of Work is series of short biographies on the work ethic, routines, habits, and mindsets of great leaders, entrepreneurs, athletes, and artists.