Previously appearing on Preston’s Perspective’s Blogspot Site in 2009…

 

The donning of the jacket. The acceptance speech. The cheers…there’s nothing quite like a Hall of Fame Enshrinement. And this summer Jim Ed Rice received his rightful moment– and took his appropriate place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

I know many in the Boston era have voiced the famed “what if”?  What if Rice hadn’t attended Nebraska to play wide receiver and become an All-American safety/punt returner? What if the Red Sox had been able to sign their number one pick? But it just wasn’t meant to be and Jim Rice as a Boston Red Sox is merely the flight of fantasy.

Although he did not play in the Game of the Century (freshmen were ineligible in 1971), Rice watched and learned from one of the most electrifying players ever in college football–and when 1972 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Rodgers graduated, Rice took over the punt return duties with flair–although he didn’t outrun tacklers, the South Carolina born mack truck bulled through them. A position switch to strong safety after his sophomore season gave the born hitter his stage.

Who could forget how Rice took the NFL by storm in 1975 with fellow rookie Fred Lynn? As ironic as this sounds, Lynn was also a Red Sox draft pick (he played both football and baseball at USC)–could you imagine the two playing side by side at Fenway instead of Foxboro? Manning the two safety positions in the Patriots defense the duo was dubbed the “Gold Dust Twins”— while Lynn played free safety like an all-star centerfielder (truth be told Lynn probably had better HOF credentials until his infamous 1981 holdout caused the Pats to trade him to the Los Angeles Rams-where he was never the same at Anaheim Stadium) Rice punished tight ends, running backs and wide receivers alike. He was titled the “most-feared hitter of his generation in the American Conference”…and was an instrumental part of the Patriots rise to dominance in the late 70’s.

Rice’s fumble causing hit of Ken Stabler in the 1976 AFC Divisional Playoff game held off a Raiders rally made possible when “Sugar Bear” Hamilton was whistled for roughing the passer a few plays earlier on the drive. Stabler and Oakland coach John Madden (who resigned after the year to become an executive for Greyhound–go figure)both maintain Stabler was tucking the ball away as Rice applied the hit…to no avail.

After disposing of the injury-ravaged Pittsburgh Steelers (Rocky Bleier’s broken toe and Franco Harris’ bruised ribs prevented the 1,000 yard rushers from taking the field) the Pats completed their miracle run by upsetting Minnesota in Super Bowl XI. Rice’s late-game interception return for a touchdown is a fixture of NFL Films…and for those taking a closer look one can see a cast on Rice’s wrist. Forgotten by most is that Rice broke his wrist in the Pats’ final regular season game- and instead of taking the postseason off, played with a heavily buffered and taped cast at risk of the rest of his career. One can only surmise they wouldn’t allow that in baseball.

Fresh off a Celtics NBA Championship (and Stanley Cups from the Bruins earlier in the decade), the Hub was soon dubbed the “City of Champions”. Rice threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park the following April–and told Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk “they were next”.

We all know what happened next–the Red Sox responded by winning the 1977 World Series…fans can recount the rest of the championship lineup in their sleep–starting with an outfield based on speed and defense– Dwight Evans, Rick Miller and Andre Dawson (picked up in the steal of the century for Juan Beniquez and Bob Stanley the previous winter) all won gold gloves…power on the corners with 3b Butch Hobson and 1b Cecil Cooper (thankfully wiser heads prevailed and he wasn’t dealt for George Scott and Bernie Carbo in the offseason)… the middle infield of Denny Doyle and Rick Burleson…and veteran Carl Yastrzemski in his final season playing DH (Yaz’s decision to retire on top may have hampered his Hall of Fame chances–instead of DHing into his early forties and finishing with 3000+ hits and 400+ homers, Captain Carl left the game with 366 homers and 2,724 hits that made him wait until his final year of eligibility for Cooperstown in 1998).

The Patriots dynasty would be short-lived; holdouts by Leon Gray and John Hannah would torpedo the 1977 campaign; 1978 would be marred by Rice’s brief switch to wide receiver…put to rest when he knocked Oakland receiver Jack Tatum unconscious in a preseason game–ending the Raider safety’s career with a massive concussion. Rice caught some heat for not visiting Tatum in the hospital, sending wide receiver Darryl Stingley instead. Pats fans recall that was the year coach Chuck Fairbanks almost left the team to for the University of Colorado.  Rice made one of his best defensive plays ever— as the Nebraska alum took the ex-Oklahoma coach aside and told Fairbanks the folly of a move to a school that had no prayer in the Big Eight.

A return to the Super Bowl after the 1980 season would bring heartbreak; Steve Grogan’s late interception by Herman Edwards sealing the Patriots loss to Philadelphia. While trips to the Pro Bowl and the playoffs would await Rice during the latter part of his career–his dream of one final shot at the title would come short in 1986–as the Patriots were routed by Chicago in Super Bowl XX (although Rice’s return of a Walter Payton fumble for a touchdown on the game’s first drive gave fans hope). Three injury marred seasons robbed Rice of much of his greatness that had been celebrated and he finally called it quits during the summer of 1989.

Rice’s trip to Canton was rather intriguing–as a safety he was more of a run-stopper than an interception-collector…in fact when he played with Fred Lynn he never had more INT’s than his teammate.Stat compilers that had taken over the process kept Rice at bay for years until cooler heads finally prevailed this past winter.

The waiting ends and the celebration begins…although one still wonders what may have happened had he chosen the diamond instead of the gridiron–Lynn too, for that matter. But that’s for another day…like what would have happened had Butch Hobson stayed at Alabama and played QB for Bear Bryant.

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