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.