Today two of the greatest football players of all time made it. The greatest receiver, and one of the greatest runningbacks (despite playing for the Cowboys, yech!)
That they are being enshrined in Canton was inevitable. That they are receiving the sport’s most prestigious individual honor together as part of the Class of 2010 is unprecedented. “Who would have thought that we would be going into the Hall together?” Rice said shortly after the list of this year’s inductees was revealed.
Rice is a three-time Super Bowl champion and Super Bowl XXIII MVP who holds every significant career receiving record. He played for 16 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, where he became the favorite target of Joe Montana and later Steve Young, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame.
Smith will follow the likes of Walter Payton and Jim Brown as the latest all-time rushing leader to be immortalized after a 13-year career with Dallas that included four rushing titles, three Super Bowl rings, a Super Bowl MVP and a regular season MVP. Smith played his final two seasons with Arizona and retired as the league’s career leader in rushing touchdowns.
Never in the hall’s history have an all-time receiving leader and rushing leader been part of the same class, and their accomplishments may preclude that happening again any time soon. With 22,895 receiving yards, Rice is 7,687 in front of No. 2 receiver Isaac Bruce, who retired recently. The next closest active player is Terrell Owens, who trails Rice by more than 7,900 yards and, at 36, has had significant declines in production over the past two seasons. Smith’s all-time rushing record appears inaccessible as well. His 18,355 yards, including an NFL-record 11 straight seasons with at least 1,000, are nearly 5,900 ahead of LaDainian Tomlinson, his closest pursuer. At 30, Tomlinson’s production has diminished considerably over the past two seasons, and this season he’s slated to be a backup for the New York Jets. “You have to be very consistent in order to achieve the level Jerry has achieved in terms of being the all-time leading receiver, and also the level I was fortunate enough and blessed by God to be able to achieve,” Smith said.
Smith and Rice also are linked through one of the most contentious and entertaining rivalries in NFL history. The 49ers and Cowboys have 10 Super Bowl titles among them and during the 1990s contested three consecutive NFC championship games. The Cowboys won two of the games, including one in San Francisco in 1992. “Emmitt probably cheated me out of two or three rings,” Rice said, “but we had respect. We played the game with heart and determination. We represented the NFL the way it should be represented.”
Apart from their prolific statistics, both players became part of football lore for their extreme pain thresholds. In 1997, Rice, then 35, tore his ACL in the season opener. Three and a half months later, he was back on the field after major reconstructive knee surgery. The defining moments of Smith’s career came after he separated his shoulder on a chilly January afternoon in 1994 during the Cowboys’ final regular season game against the New York Giants. Injured just before halftime, Smith finished with 168 yards on 32 carries and had 10 receptions for 61 yards and a touchdown, accumulating much of that with one arm almost useless. He accounted for 41 of the team’s 52 yards on the final drive in overtime to set up the winning field goal in a 16-13 victory that delivered the NFC East title and sent the Cowboys on their way to a second straight Lombardi Trophy. “My body feels pretty good,” said Smith, who is the all-time leader in carries with 4,409. “I don’t have a whole lot of aches and pains, for which I feel very fortunate and blessed right now.”