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SONOMA - A man with his sporting resume, who spent 21 years in the NFL spotlight, defined his position, scored more touchdowns than anyone else, Jerry Rice should not have had his fanny strapped into a stock car going 140 miles an hour Monday.

Superstars who have spent that much high-profile time in front of the public typically, in retirement, live in gated communities, are seen for the occasional local fund-raiser and watch their kids play soccer behind dark sunglasses and broad-brimmed hats and speak only when spoken to.

Superstars of Rice's pantheon don't "Dance With the Stars," host a sports talk radio show, co-host a television football show, work for an agency that represents NFL players, write an autobiography that pulls no punches and become a race grand marshal of a sport they have never seen.

All within two years of retirement, by the way.

The spotlight, for those who have experienced the excessive exposure, burns not the skin but the psyche. The superstar, once his game is over, leaves it to heal.

"I think I just grew up," Rice said at Infineon Raceway, his Super Bowl XXIII MVP ring dangling on a necklace. "I was able to be myself for the first time. When I came to the 49ers out of tiny Mississippi Valley State, I had so much pressure on me. Here was this legendary coach, Bill Walsh, picking this kid from this small black college. And I came to a team that had Joe (Montana) and Ronnie (Lott). I had to find myself.

"I found the best way for me was to shut up and just perform. I was too focused. I didn't want to let Bill down. I felt I owed it to the fans to play the right way. I remember later in my career Larry Kirksey (49ers assistant coach) said I should stop sometimes and smell the roses. I never did that. Now I am."

You might even call it a fantasy life, and maybe Rice would, too, except on Monday. Rice was a passenger for four laps, driven at race speed by Shane MacMillan of the Richard Petty Driving Experience, and Rice was brutally frank about his ride.

"I felt I was going to lose it the entire time," said Rice, who has said he has never driven over 100 miles an hour. "I kept working on my breathing. I kept telling myself, 'Just don't lose it.' There's no where to go with it if I lose it."

Meaning, Rice couldn't hang his head outside the window like the family dog and let it fly. Especially with all the cameras rolling.

"Of all the celebrities we give rides," said Blair DuPree of Petty Enterprises, "football players have it the toughest. Rock stars? Bring it on, they say. But football players? They are so used to being in control. This is when they are not."

Quentin Jammer, safety for the San Diego Chargers, dropped to his knees and kissed the ground after his ride. Rice, said MacMillan, was grabbing the roll bars for stability. "Sometimes he wasn't able to hold on," MacMillan said. By the fourth lap Rice was screaming, "Is this the last one?" Rice, MacMillan said, was ready to park it.

The irony was not lost on Rice, who will turn 46 this Oct. 13. The man is driven. Yet, this time, he was being driven. All the other decisions he's made since retiring after the 2004 season were his choice. But helpless is not a lifestyle Rice cares to embrace.

"Something is driving me and I don't know what it is," Rice said. "I am hungry. I keep pushing myself. I know that most people who have accomplished some things don't do this. I know when I go to the gym to work out, people look at me and wonder: 'Why is he doing this? He's not playing anymore.' "

Actually, Rice understates his daily workout. He begins by running 800 yards three times for time, then 10 100-yard dashes, then six 60s. He then lifts weights for 30 minutes. He goes on the treadmill and runs for six miles. Then, if Rice feels he hasn't gotten all his work, he does his laps inside the gym. That's when he gets the stares.

"I have been doing this my whole life," said Rice of his workouts. "Why change now?"

The exercise regime hasn't changed and neither has his weight. Rice still looks as fit as when he played. But practically everything else in his life has. He has become gregarious to a point that he might make a politician blush. Monday he was hamming it up for all the cameras, talking to other passengers, signing autographs (for free), acting like he was getting paid by the spoken word.

"Who would have thought this shy kid from a little town in Mississippi would be doing all this?" Rice said.

I reminded him when we first met, 22 years ago, at the Niners' Redwood City facility, the first Bay Area interview given, the one in which Rice was so polite he said "Sir" about every other sentence.

I told Rice I didn't see this day coming at all, when he's hosting shows, dancing on national television, writing quite-frank biographies and slapping hands like he's the governor.

"No, I didn't know I had this in me either," said Rice, half-surprised himself the sentence came out of his mouth.

He is emerging, Rice said. He said he has no idea what's next, where he's going, or how he's going to get there. He sounded like a kid when he said that for the first time in a long time he could relax, enjoy life and go wherever the stream took him. Sure, he said, he's thinking of trying to qualify for the PGA Tour. A scratch golfer now, Rice said he needs to clip off a few more strokes.

Maybe he'll bungee jump. Or hang glide. He doesn't know. And frankly, it doesn't look like he cares, either. Rice has taken off the wraps, and the freedom of an unscripted life, he said, is exhilarating.

"I am bobbing and weaving all the time," joked Rice, as he feigned boxer moves. "You just never know where I am going show up next."

But wherever it'll be, the spotlight will be there. It's his for the taking, because people never tire of a gifted athlete with a real handshake and a real smile. Maybe that's why Jerry Rice is so out there and why it's not difficult for him.

Nice. People can't get enough of that these days in sports. And Rice has enough nice for everyone. And then some.

You can reach Sports Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5490 or at bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com