CANTON, Ohio — Jerry Rice only took forward strides - very fast ones - during the best career any NFL receiver had.
As Rice stood onstage Saturday night while being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he at last recognized the need to step back.
"This is finally it," he 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."
The man who took away everyone's breath during an incredible 20-year career was one of seven NFL greats to enter the shrine as the class of 2010. It is one of the strongest groups ever inducted, including career rushing leader Emmitt Smith, John Randle, Dick LeBeau, Rickey Jackson, Russ Grimm and Floyd Little.
Smith fought back tears during a one-minute standing ovation as he stepped to the microphone. He immediately praised Walter Payton, the man he surpassed as rushing king, and recognized the two other Hall of Fame members of the Cowboys' Triplets, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin.
And he broke down when saluting his former fullback, Daryl Johnston.
"You took care of me as if you were taking care of your little brother," Smith said through wet eyes.
Smith rushed for 18,355 yards, with 164 touchdowns, 11 seasons with 1,000 or more yards on the ground, and 78 games with 100 yards rushing.
Smith made the hall in his first year of eligibility and won three Super Bowls, taking MVP honors in the 1994 game.
Rice holds every important pass-catching record as the game breaker in the West Coast offense for the San Francisco 49ers. In becoming the top target in the pro game's most dangerous scheme, he established marks that might never be broken.
Rice caught 1,549 passes, more than 400 beyond anyone else. He gained 22,895 yards, more than 7,600 ahead of second place. He scored 208 touchdowns, easily shattering the previous record. He made 10 All-Pro teams, was chosen for 13 Pro Bowls and made receptions in an almost-unimaginable 274 consecutive games.
While Rice and Smith were immediate selections for the hall, LeBeau finally was inducted after a 32-year wait.
"Man, this really is a great day to be alive," said LeBeau, elected by the senior committee.
LeBeau was chosen for his 14-year career as a cornerback with the Detroit Lions, in which he had 62 interceptions, still eighth overall. He's best known as an assistant coach, the mastermind of the zone blitz. Currently the defensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, LeBeau singled out his players who sat in a corner of Fawcett Stadium.
He was immediately followed on the stage by Randle, who as an undrafted defensive tackle with the Vikings and Seahawks accumulated 1371/2 sacks in 14 seasons, most for anyone at that position.
Randle made six straight All-Pro teams (1993-98) and was chosen for seven Pro Bowls. He had a league-high 151/2 sacks in 1997.
Grimm was called the "Head Hog" by former Redskins offensive line coach Joe Bugel. From 1981-91, Grimm led the Hogs and helped the Redskins win three Super Bowls. He is the first member of that memorable line to make the hall.
Jackson, one of the most versatile linebackers in league history, is the first New Orleans Saints player to be enshrined. Jackson made six Pro Bowls with a combination of strong run defense and a tenacity that led to 128 sacks. He helped turn New Orleans from 'Aints' to a division winner for the first time (1991) and finished his career with the 49ers, winning a Super Bowl in January 1995.
Little was a star running back for the Denver Broncos from 1967-75 despite being the only offensive threat on the team. He had to wait nearly three decades since becoming eligible before getting elected.
One of football's most dynamic runners during his career, Little also was a dangerous punt and kickoff returner. In a relatively short career, he had 12,157 all-purpose yards and scored 54 touchdowns. Yet the Broncos never were better than 7-5-2 in his career.