Two of the best players in the history of the NFL will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith, rivals on the field during the prime of their careers, will accompany each other in Canton, Ohio and be welcomed by a number of football legends. Few would argue that Rice and Smith are among the best their respective positions have ever seen, but how did they fare in the college game?
The two traveled opposite roads to the NFL. Smith attended Florida and quickly made an impact in the Gators’ backfield, breaking a 40-year old rushing record in his first career start for Florida with 39 carries for 224 yards against Alabama as a freshman on national television. He scored a pair of touchdowns in the upset of Alabama. Just four games later against Temple Smith eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark earlier in his career than any player in college football history. Smith was a bright spot for the Gators, who had to deal with some tumultuous times in the late 1980’s. Galen Hall stepped down from his position as head coach in the midst of NCAA investigations and quarterback Kyle Morris was kicked off the team. Looking for something to smile about Gators fans had #22.
Smith rushed for a career-high 316 yards and entered the end-zone three times in a victory over New Mexico. In that same game Smith took control of the school career rushing record. When Smith was ready to move on to the NFL his school record for career rushing yards, which would later be broken by Eric Rhett. Smith was concerned about his role in the offense under new head coach Steve Spurrier when the old ball coach was hired in 1990 so the best running back in Florida history at the time declared himself eligible for the NFL Draft, where he was drafted by the Cowboys. Smith was drafted with the 17th round by Dallas in the 1990 NFL Draft.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Rice on the other hand took a more obscure route to the pros.
All Rice did during his time in college was set the NCAA 1-AA receiving record for career receiving yards (4,693) and added 18 more Division 1-AA records including most touchdown catches in a season (27 in 1984). Does that surprise anybody?
Rice was a consensus All-American in 1984 and he recorded back-to-back 100 catch seasons as a junior and senior and recorded over 1,000 receiving yards in his final three seasons.
“A lot of scouts thought we just lined up and ran deep,” Rice’s college coach Archie Cooley once said. “What it all meant was that Jerry hadn’t had a white coach, so there were doubts,” Cooley once said of doubters of Rice. It did not take long for that opinion to change.
The 1984 season may have made Rice’s career in the NFL. With Mississippi State scoring an incredible 628 points in a season the program quickly caught national attention. The receiver caught 17 passes for 199 yards in a game against Southern, 17 for 294 yards against Kentucky State and 15 for 285 against Jackson State. Twice that season Rice scored five touchdowns in a single game. Rice’s NCAA record of 50 career touchdowns stood until 2006 when New Hampshire receiver David Ball recorded his 51st touchdown reception.
The AP listed Rice on their All-America team in his senior season and Rice finished ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1984.
Rice was selected by the San Francisco 49ers in the 1985 draft with the 16th overall pick and he went on to have one of the most decorated careers in NFL history.