In the wee hours of Sept. 17, a tall, lanky Martian sneaked through the darkened hallways of a house in Atherton, Calif., searching for something sharp. Detection would've been disastrous, so the Martian moved slowly, using his extraordinary night vision to descend a staircase and enter the garage. When it comes to Earth tools, this Martian is all thumbs, but this was a desperate situation: The alien's left leg was encased in a plaster cast that stretched from ankle to thigh. He found a saw and spent the next 20 minutes hacking his way to freedom.
Three months later, there's still no logical explanation for the behavior of this Martian—a.k.a. Jerry Lee Rice, a man believed to be the greatest wide receiver on Earth. In 12 seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, from 1985 to '96, Rice caught 1,050 passes for 16,377 yards and 154 touchdowns, all NFL records. He starred in three Super Bowl victories and earned 11 Pro Bowl invitations. Now, with Rice on the verge of setting perhaps his most amazing record of all, we have discovered that he's truly out of this world. His doctor, 49ers team physician Michael Dillingham, who repaired Rice's mangled left knee after it was injured in San Francisco's season-opening defeat at Tampa Bay on Aug. 31, said so while watching Rice race through pass patterns in late November. "There he is," Dillingham said as Rice reached up to snag a ball thrown well over his shoulder. "Take a good look at him: the man from Mars."
Dillingham's conclusion was based on the premise that no human could possibly do what Rice, 35, says he will do next Monday night when the 49ers host the Denver Broncos: line up at receiver a mere 3½ months after major reconstructive knee surgery.
"I can't even look at my scar," Rice says as he lifts his nylon sweat pants and reveals the five-inch boomerang-shaped blemish on the inside of his left knee. Nor can Rice bear to watch a replay of the reverse on which he was injured. He was met in the backfield by Buccaneers defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who grabbed him by the face mask and twisted him sideways while Rice's left foot was caught in the grass.
That Rice had never missed a game in 19 seasons of football before this one was no coincidence. Beginning on the muddy roads of Crawford, Miss., and continuing in the dry hills of northern California, Rice has pushed himself beyond the limits of mere mortals. He is so well-conditioned he makes Jamie Lee Curtis look like James Earl Jones.
Standing in the ballroom of a hotel near the San Francisco airport on the night of Dec. 3, where he spent two hours signing helmets and jerseys, Rice became grumpy when discussing the play on which his knee gave out. Rice says Sapp, who was assessed a personal foul for the face-mask takedown, hasn't even contacted him to wish him well—not that Rice is waiting by the phone. "If it had been a legal tackle, I wouldn't have had a problem with it," he said. "You always get yours in return, and somewhere down the road he'll get his. Let's just say this: If I had an opportunity to hit him, I would hit him." A long pause. "But I would do it in a legal way."
For all of the fight in Rice now, he was practically lifeless immediately after the injury. As soon as the Niners landed in San Francisco late on the night of Aug. 31, Rice and Dillingham drove to a clinic in nearby Redwood City, where they were met by Jerry's wife, Jackie. An MRI confirmed what Dillingham had feared and then some: In addition to a torn anterior cruciate ligament, Rice's medial collateral ligament was strained, essentially rendering the knee useless, and the posterior medial capsule was completely torn.
Jerry was despondent as he lay in the MRI tube. "He told me, 'Well, you know, it's over. I think this is it,' " Jackie says. "I couldn't believe I was hearing those words from him. I told him, 'Listen to you. You're the person who spent a year telling me I could make it through, and now you're giving up?' "
Jackie had a right to protest, given what she had gone through. In May 1996, after giving birth to their third child, a healthy girl named Jada, Jackie began hemorrhaging and was rushed into emergency surgery. She barely survived, going through 250 units of blood, and spent 3½ weeks unconscious and hooked up to a respirator. Because of nerve damage sustained during the life-saving surgery, Jackie was confined to a wheelchair for four months, and it took her 14 months to recover completely.
Now Jerry was the one facing a rigorous rehabilitation. First, there was a choice to be made among several surgical options, one of which the Rices rejected immediately: allowing the medial collateral ligament to heal on its own and then, about eight weeks later, operate to repair the ACL. Jerry was too impatient for that, although he didn't choose what would have been the quickest cure for an average guy, using a patellar tendon from the knee of a cadaver to replace the ACL. Instead Rice elected to have part of his own patellar tendon removed and used to repair the ACL, a technique that usually leads to a stronger overall recovery.