The New York Jets went over as a team to meet and greet the fans in the Hofstra stands after today's practice. And more than a few of the players knew the feeling, because on Friday they were in the fans' position.
When Jerry Rice came calling.
"It was a big surprise when Jerry walked out," Justin McCareins said of the Hall of Fame wide receiver's appearance as a guest speaker in the Weeb Ewbank Hall auditorium. "I remember watching highlights of him even as a high school player. I was always looking at the things he'd do, reading about him all I could. He was amazing.
"He makes me thankful that I made it as far as I have. I 've always wanted to shake his hand. I'd never met him before. I saw him on the field after games, but I didn't want to be a geeky player and go up and shake his hand."
Laveranues Coles had a similar reaction to the appearance of NFL royalty before him.
"Personally, I just wanted an autograph," Coles said. "He said we're going to work it out.
"It was great meeting somebody I grew up watching, somebody everybody talked about. He was the person you pretended to be when you were in your back yard catching balls. I was more amazed he was in the room with us than with anything he said."
"Early on, that's who I watched," Jerricho Cotchery added. "That's who I learned to play wide receiver from. That's who I learned how to stay inbounds and tap my feet on the sideline from. That's who I learned how to catch balls over my shoulder from. That's who I emulated."
Head coach Eric Mangini may have wanted to bring out the little kids in his men by inviting Rice to join his speakers' bureau and showing a highlight video as well, but there was another important message he was trying to impart:
"I just believe in the value of letting players hear how these successful people became successful."
I couldn't catch up to Rice today to pass on the Jets players' reaction to his appearance, but I did talk with him last December as the Jets were making their inspirational run to the playoffs. The reason was because Mangini mentioned early that month that Rice was one of the outstanding athletes he mentioned to his players from time to time.
"I can't remember when Jerry's name came up, I think it was around the bye week, but I've shown quite a few examples of him," Mangini recalled. "To me that's a great teaching tool, to hear it from other guys who are considered extremely talented."
At the time, Rice was on the West Coast with no business trips planned in the East, but he was very happy and enthusiastic to talk about Mangini and his team.
"I think Eric is doing a fantastic job with the Jets," Rice said. "I think this team is making the move at the right time. It seems to be very positive on the field. During warmups, the players have confidence in themselves to give their best effort. That has a lot to do with the head coach."
I listened to the Rice canon that day as rapt as McCareins, Rice and the rest of the Jets did when No. 80 spoke Friday:
- "I practiced every day like it was a game situation. Once I got to Sunday, I knew exactly what to expect. It's all about instincts. If I caught a pass, the things I'd done over and over again were automatic so I could explode upfield and separate from the defender."
- "A lot of guys really want to get to the Super Bowl, get rewarded. But there are sacrifices you have to make, a dedication to how you do everything possible for your teammates. What you're trying to do is accomplish something together. If the next guy's not doing his job, it's like there's a weak link in that chain."
- "I wanted to wear my opponent down. I knew it was going to be a battle back and forth, but eventually my opponent would get tired. I think it really helped me to play as long as I did, being in the best shape of my life. When you're in that shape, it's almost one of those scenarios where you don't get injured."
Coles was asked about his own impressive conditioning work and how it compared. He laughed.
"It is nowhere near what Jerry Rice did," he said. "One thing I can tell any kid coming up is that you can try to emulate some of the things he's done, but I don't think there'll ever be another Jerry Rice."
But Coles had a caveat about Rice's phenomenal receiving numbers: They might not have been quite as gaudy if he were playing today in Hempstead.
"Jerrry had Bill Walsh and they pretty much ran the West Coast the whole time. We actually got to watch tape of him during 49ers camp, when he came out there in tights.
"This is Mangini camp. If he'd have come out here, I don't think it'd be 20 years, that's for sure."
True, the coach's camp is a tough one. But at least the players still get great guest speakers and movies in between as they try to prepare themselves to win a ring or three, just like Jerry Rice did.