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FOOTBALL : SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

He put a spin on Rice's fame

49ers aide Ted Walsh bridged the gap between right-handed Montana and left-handed Young, throwing practice passes to the all-time receiver

August 07, 2010|SAM FARMER

Jerry Rice will stand on a podium Saturday in Canton, Ohio, and give his enshrinement speech for football immortality. Behind him will sit his two star quarterbacks, Joe Montana and Steve Young, both already members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

In front of him, in the crowd of thousands, will be someone who threw him more passes with the 49ers than Montana and Young combined.

You know Joe and Steve. Now, meet Ted.

In his 18 seasons with the 49ers, Ted Walsh had the official title of assistant equipment manager. But for several of those years, he also had the coolest assignment in sports: playing catch with the NFL's greatest receiver.

This wasn't some kind of privileged perk -- Walsh is no relation to legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh -- but began by happenstance. Walsh, now clubhouse manager for the Seattle Mariners, is left-handed, and Rice needed a southpaw to help smooth the transition from the right-handed Montana to the left-handed Young. A right-handed ball spins clockwise off the passer's hand; a left-handed ball spins counterclockwise.

"Ted saved my arm," Young recalled. "Jerry wanted to catch 4 million passes a day, and I needed Ted to throw 31/2 million of them or I wouldn't have made it. That's how Jerry got used to the spin; it was Ted Walsh. And I've got to tell you, for 10 yards, Ted throws a nice spiral."

Walsh, who plans to attend Saturday's ceremony, never had any aspirations to play quarterback. He only dabbled at receiver in high school. But he threw so many passes to Rice during and after practice, and hours before each game, that he had to ice his throwing arm on a daily basis.

"He threw a pretty decent ball for a lefty," Rice said. "He got me adjusted to Steve. Every break that we had he'd throw me footballs. After practice, we'd do the same thing. Pregame warmups, whatever. He was my designated guy."

The two worked on all types of catches: high, low, sideline, one-handed, as well as routes Rice ran in games.

"His hands were unbelievable," said Walsh, 47, who worked for the club from 1979 through 1996, his first six seasons as a part-timer. "He could catch a ball any way. Sometimes, he would run a go pattern, I'd throw a ball over his head and think, 'Shoot! That's a bad ball. I blew it.' He'd come back and say, 'No, that's a good ball. I've got to get that ball.' "

Occasionally, his passes were too good. At least one former 49ers quarterback thought Walsh created unrealistic expectations with his throws.

"Elvis Grbac used to say I spoiled Jerry because I would throw it so fast on the slant pattern," Walsh said. "Quarterbacks when they throw a slant, they're taking a three-step drop. So I'd say 'Go!' and then pump it and hit him right on his break.

"And Elvis would say, 'He's cutting that route short. It's not possible in a game to throw the ball that fast because you're going to throw it right into a lineman's head. You've got to take a drop to get behind the line. So Jerry's out there and thinks we're slow because we don't get it to him as fast as [Walsh] does.' "

Rice didn't pay much attention to that, nor did Walsh. They had a routine, and it was one for which the 49ers were willing to bend team rules.

When the defense was on the field at practice, then-coach George Seifert didn't want the offensive players messing around. He wanted them up and watching what was happening on the field. When Rice and Walsh stepped away to throw passes, though, Seifert looked the other way.

"I remember one of the defensive linemen, Kevin Fagan, would stand right by George and say [in a playful voice], 'Hey, no playing catch in the background! Come on, guys!' " Walsh said. "George would just have a smirk on his face and let it go."

The routine shared by Rice and Walsh encompassed more than throwing passes. Because Walsh worked in the equipment room, he was responsible for providing the players their gear. Rice was a little different from most in this regard.

Unlike a lot of players, who are very particular -- and often superstitious -- about the equipment they use, Rice constantly switched his depending how he felt that particular day.

"He'd go a day before the game and he'd go back to where our shoulder pads were and he'd pull out a different pair," Walsh said. "Never wore them before and he'd say, 'I'm going to take these to the game.' It was like, 'What?'

"He'd never worn them before, but they felt lighter. Never tried them out. On the day of the game, he'd go through a whole pants bag with me -- we had extra pants -- and he'd try on a pair. He'd be stretching them and feeling them and say, 'Yeah, I'm going to go with these.' "

Recalled Rice: "I always went with quarterback pads because they were really light. As a receiver, you've got to be able to run a majority of the time. I didn't need anything heavy, so I'd be able to move around. Speed was everything."

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