“Last Friday, former 49ers great Jerry Rice made an appearance at the Eastman/Fairfield Boys & Girls Club, in North Long Beach, as part of the Nestle Very Best in Youth program to encourage physical, academic, and community-minded excellence.” That’s the lead I would write if this were a standard writeup of an ordinary event, and I were a $40-an-article hired freelance gun. But that’s not what this is—this is the greatest wide receiver of all time, maybe the greatest football player period, at Del Amo and Atlantic to give some stout advice to local youth. And as a lifelong 49er fan, it was thrilling to meet Jerry and see him speak, but as a Long Beach native, it was even more exciting to see such an accomplished athlete focus his attention on the north side of my city for an afternoon.
It’s not the first time in recent memory that Rice has helped Long Beachians from Atlantic Avenue—Rice was a mentor to Long Beach Poly alum DeSean Jackson in the last few months as he transitioned from Cal to the Eagles (where his standout first week has sparked early buzz about a Rookie of the Year nod). “He has all the talent in the world,” Rice says about Jackson. “There’s no reason he can’t be everything he wants to be.” Rice has made sure to drive home to Jackson that those goals are only attainable through hard work, something Rice was known for with his inhuman offseason workout regiment, which kept him from taking a vacation for the first decade of his stellar career.
While in Long Beach, it was those values Rice tried to instill in our youth. I was surprised by how serious he got while talking to them—you can see what I mean in the video JJ put together below. It was clear that, as the son of a poor brick worker from rural Mississippi, he knew his visit could be an important moment for the kids, if he did enough to drive home his message. So he talked to them for ten minutes about vegetables, being active, and studying, and the importance of getting involved in their community. And the kids seemed to listen, too, as happy to hear his speech as they were to ham around with the football legend (who played catch and took pictures with them).
Rice wasn’t the only speaker there as part of Nestle’s program—former Dodger great Tommy Davis spoke about how important the Boys & Girls Club in Brooklyn was to him, as well as the local Police Athletic League (incidentally, Tommy would strongly prefer that the Long Beach city government find a way to keep the Long Beach PAL). David Coons, a 2005 Nestle VBIY award winner, also spoke to the kids, and did an excellent job of MCing the raffle.
But Jerry Rice is a first-ballot Hall of Famer, an all-time great who strolled in wearing a Super Bowl ring on a chain around his neck. He was the one the kids mobbed, and he was the one whose simple presence may have meant more than everyone’s words put together could. After all, I’ve heard a journalist from another publication in this city say that no amount of money would get him to drive north of Bixby Knolls—and he wasn’t joking. For Rice to make an appearance is enormous, and will hopefully encourage Long Beach natives currently playing in the NFL, like Jackson and Willie McGinest, to heed Rice’s words and actions, and return to give back to their community.
In other words, when you hold pretty much every NFL receiving record on the books, you can get a lot done in two hours, with a speech and a smile and some handshakes. You can, maybe, change lives. To see someone with that power putting it to use in my community was something to behold, truly. Plus, it was pretty freaking cool to meet Jerry Rice.