DENVER (AP) – After years in the spotlight, Jerry Rice wants to enjoy the twilight. More concerned with having fun than trying to live up to the expectations thrust upon football’s greatest receiver, Rice was hungry for a 21st season.

That’s why he signed with the Denver Broncos, who aren’t rolling out the red carpet, but are simply asking him to come in, try to make the team and, if he does, to help them win a Super Bowl.

“For so many years there was so much pressure on me,” Rice said Thursday in a telephone interview with reporters in Denver. “I had to set a certain standard and I still carry on that standard. But I had a lot of weight on my shoulders. I had blinders on. I couldn’t hear the crowd. I couldn’t hear them chanting my name and I couldn’t see little kids in the stands. I was so focused on what I had to do.”

The last couple of years, though, he has been more of a role player.

“The ball was not coming my way every down and I’m really enjoying the game and having fun,” he said.

Rice, who signed a one-year contract with Denver on Wednesday, concedes that at 42, he’ll never play at the level that made him the most productive receiver in NFL history. But there are signs things might not be over. Last year, splitting time between Oakland and Seattle, he averaged 14.3 yards a catch, which was only a half-yard less than his career average.

He is still in shape. Can still get open. The legs have lost some of their zip, but his heart certainly hasn’t. Many times during his engaging, 30-minute long conversation Thursday, he sounded more like an excited rookie than a grizzled veteran.

“I don’t think it really has set in yet,” he said. “With everything that is going on, the excitement, is great. … I’m not sleeping right now. I am working out hard. I’m trying to get myself ready and I can’t wait to get reacquainted with Mike Shanahan.”

Rice will begin working for Shanahan when he reports to a voluntary minicamp next Wednesday. How good might Rice be? Even Shanahan isn’t sure of that, which is why he made it clear that no roster spot is guaranteed.

, a caveat Rice agreed upon without hesitation.

“I don’t think you know what anybody can do until they are actually in,” Shanahan said. “Being around him enough, I know how dedicated he is and how he takes care of himself and how he played last year. Now, I have a chance to see him firsthand. He will be a plus for our team and hopefully he can still play at the level that can help us win.”

Shanahan views the Broncos as a team on the cusp of a championship, and it’s why he has spent the offseason plugging a few holes here and there instead of revamping. He doesn’t view Rice’s presence as a possible distraction, only as a possible help for a team that has missed a productive third and fourth receiver over the past few seasons.

Rice, meanwhile, doesn’t want to be the center of attention, wants “to keep this low-key as possible.” One of the most-asked questions since his signing is whether he would ask Rod Smith, Denver’s all-time leading receiver, for jersey No. 80.

“I’m not going to fight for that jersey,” Rice said. “Rod is the guy there and deserves to keep that number.”

Smith also will continue to be Denver’s No. 1 receiver and it’s likely Ashley Lelie will be No. 2.

“He’s someone to learn from,” Lelie said. “He’s been there and done it. He’s been doing it at a high level for such a long time.

“If he asked for my number, I’d give it to him.”

Really, though, it’s not about the number – or the numbers. Rice has, indeed, already been there and done that.

This is about taking a final lap around the league, and doing it with a team he thinks has a good chance of making it a victory lap.

“It’s the enjoyment of it,” Rice said. “People walking up to tell me how I bring excitement to their day. I take pride in that, and the competition.”

AP-ES-05-26-05 1826EDT


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