CANTON, Ohio -- This should surprise no one. But when it came Jerry Rice's turn to talk here Saturday, the man was prepared.

Know why? He was scared. He has been scared all along, as he acknowledged in his meticulous yet powerful induction acceptance speech at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"I'm here to tell you that the fear of failure is the engine that has driven me throughout my entire life," Rice said. "It flies in the faces of all these sports psychologists who say you have to let go of your fears to be successful. But not wanting to disappoint my parents, and later my coaches, teammates and fans, is what pushed me to be successful."

Rice then added: "When I was a kid ... I was always running, even before I played sports. I ran everywhere. I didn't even know why. But I guess was preparing myself for something, destined for something, but I didn't know what."

Saturday, of course, was the "what." It was the ultimate "what," really. Rice could finally stop running. He officially joined the most elite club in his sport. In doing so, he looked and sounded like a million bucks. Again, it was no upset for a football player who always paid painstaking attention to detail.

An induction ceremony is not a contest, of course. But while some of the seven Hall of Fame inductees seemed to spend a lot of time either rambling or shouting, Rice made a very contained, impressive and moving 16-minute presentation.

In fact, Rice was so well organized and rehearsed in addressing the crowd of 19,300 at Fawcett Stadium, he did not appear to shed the tears he had said might leak from his eyes -- although he did noticeably sniffle once or twice when mentioning his late father.

Rice then gratefully saluted his 72-year-old mother, Eddie B. Rice, who rode here with most of the extended Rice family on a chartered bus from Mississippi. She sat, beaming, in the front row. Eddie is in a wheelchair. She is not in terrific health. But she was not going to miss this.

"I was thinking about all the good times and how his mom is still around to see this," Eddie said a few minutes before the inductions began, staring up at the stage. "It's a blessing. I just thank God I can be here."

And naturally, Eddie had her own favorite Jerry Rice anecdote. It was about when he was maybe 7 or 8 years old, playing catch with his brothers in the Rice backyard.

"Jerry would catch everything," Eddie said. "If you threw it into a thorn bush, he would catch it."

Maybe that's how Rice was able to shred so many NFL secondaries, none of which had thorns. Rice is now one of 29 receivers in the Hall of Fame, but he almost deserves a separate category.

That was certainly the contention of Rice's presenter, former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo, who boldly proclaimed in his videotaped introduction that "there's no question that Jerry Rice is the greatest athlete and greatest football player that has ever put on a uniform."

Actually, there is a question about that, especially from Jim Brown and a few others. But there is definitely no question that Rice is the best NFL receiver ever to run routes, all run to exact specifications.

Just as precisely, Rice's speech Saturday touched every necessary element. He thanked his many former teammates in attendance. He put in a plug for DeBartolo to join all the other 49ers players in Canton. He specifically acknowledged Joe Montana and Steve Young, his two principal quarterbacks with the 49ers, both present and seated in chairs flanking Rice on the stage along with the other Hall of Famers.

What else? Rice thanked his family and his ex-wife, Jackie. He cautioned today's players to think about what they can do for football rather than vice versa.

Also, in a touching interlude, Rice spoke lovingly of former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who did not live long enough to see this night ("I never wanted to let my father down, and I was afraid to let Bill Walsh down."). And although Rice did give a complimentary nod to the Raiders, his team for three-plus seasons, he focused the bulk of his remarks on the 49ers.

"There will never be another organization like that in the history of sports," Rice said.

Brent Jones, the former 49ers tight end, was among those impressed -- although he joked before the ceremonies that the only glimpse he'd been able to catch of Rice was when his limousine drove past and Rice waved out the door to Jones and his wife.

"It was like seeing the King of England," Jones said.

Hey, royalty is royalty. But for once, Rice allowed himself to enjoy the ride. He concluded his remarks by saying that if he had a single regret about his career, it was that he didn't take the time to properly enjoy it. He admitted that when he learned of his Hall election, a lot of submerged emotion did surface. He also faced a realization that his football life had reached some sort of conclusion.

"This is finally it," Rice said. "There are no more routes to run. No more touchdowns to score. No more records to set. That young boy from Mississippi has finally stopped running. Let me stand here and catch my breath. Let me inhale it all in, one more time."

And then he stepped to the front of the stage and waved his hands, soaking up the standing ovation. After perhaps 30 seconds, he returned to the microphone.

"Thank you," Rice said. "You know what, guys? I feel like dancing."

And then he was off to the post-ceremony party thrown by DeBartolo in a tent adjoining the stadium. For perhaps the first time on a football field, Jerry Rice did not worry about being scared. He had nailed it.

INSIDE:
Jerry Rice commem-
orative photo page.
Page 7.