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He put a spin on Rice’s fame

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.”

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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.”

What’s more, Rice was able to maintain his shoe deal with Nike even though he “spatted” his cleats on game day, wrapping them in athletic tape and making it impossible to see the logo. The company typically wouldn’t allow clients to do that.

Rice got around that requirement, however, by having Walsh draw the Nike swoosh on the tape in black marker. It took about 10 minutes before every game, and Walsh even drew fake shoelaces.

“Ted was like my handyman,” Rice said.

Young is only half-joking when he says Walsh was much more than that.

“Ted was squished in between two Hall of Fame quarterbacks,” he said. “He was the only thing that allowed it to happen. He was glue.”

It’s only right, then, that Walsh will be in that Canton crowd Saturday. He’s taking a red-eye flight to get there.

“I missed Joe’s. I missed Fred Dean’s. I missed Ronnie’s,” Walsh said, referring to safety Ronnie Lott. “This is my last chance to go to one of these, something I can tell my kids about. I’ve got to make a run at this one.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

RANKING THE RUNNERS

A panel of experts ranks the best NFL running backs of all time

STEVE YOUNG

ESPN analyst and Hall of Fame quarterback

1. Barry Sanders: He was the most unbelievable guy ever. I just couldn’t fathom the things that he did. He was the only guy I knew that, instead of going back and talking to the coaches when we were off the field, I would tell the coach, “Hold on, I’ve got to go watch Barry run.”

2. Emmitt Smith: He was a pure workhorse. You hand him the ball, and he always fell forward. He’d be tackled for a gain of five, but it would be for eight. You could say that 30% of his yardage came after he was tackled, partly because he was so low to the ground.

3. Walter Payton: He was a man’s man. He ran like Adrian Peterson, but I don’t know that Adrian Peterson will be able to run that long. He ran so physical. He punished everybody, and yet didn’t hurt himself. Usually, guys who run like that wind up punishing themselves.

4. Eric Dickerson: I remember watching him as a kid when I first broke into the league. He was smooth and effortless. You almost felt like at the end of the game: Did he get dirty? Did anyone touch him? Did he fall?

5. Marcus Allen: He was just slithery. Guys couldn’t get a bead on him. He was smooth like Dickerson, and he was smart, with tremendous vision.

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JIM MORA

NFL Network analyst and former coach

of Seahawks and Falcons

1. Walter Payton: He rushed for 16,726 yards, the most in history until Emmitt Smith broke the record. Nine Pro Bowls, one world championship.

2. Jim Brown: Nine Pro Bowls in nine seasons, three-time league MVP, led the NFL in rushing eight of his nine seasons. Only player to average more than 100 yards rushing per game for his career.

3. Barry Sanders: Made the Pro Bowl every year of his career, averaged 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns for his career, and the only player to rush for more than 1,500 yards five times.

4. Emmitt Smith: All-time leading rusher (for now), great postseason performer who won three Super Bowls, rushed for more than 1,000 yards 11 times. In 1993, he led the league in rushing, was the league MVP and Super Bowl MVP.

5. O.J. Simpson: I just can’t leave him off the list.

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STEVE SABOL

President of NFL Films

1. Jim Brown: He remains the very definition of greatness. His career is a yardstick by which all other running backs are measured.

2.Walter Payton: He had all the moves: a lowered shoulder for a defensive lineman, a slack leg for a linebacker, and a lead-pipe stiff arm for a defensive back. He would pivot, change speeds and run laterally when necessary. But he never lost sight of a great runner’s first principle: When everything else fails, gut out a couple of yards.

3. Barry Sanders: He challenged the notion that football is a contact sport. Many times I saw him run 50 yards or more for touchdowns without being touched by a defender.

4. Gale Sayers: He was what coaches in the 1960s called an “anywhere, anytime runner,” meaning he was a threat to score from anyplace on the field at any moment of the game.

5. Emmitt Smith: If I was in charge of introducing an alien being to the epitome of human potential, perseverance and will, I would introduce that alien being to Emmitt Smith.

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SAM FARMER

Los Angeles Times NFL writer

1. Barry Sanders: Some of his cuts seemed to bend the laws of physics and gravity. How could someone keep his feet leaning at those angles?

2. Walter Payton: He might not have been the fastest guy on the field, but, from his jarring stiff-arm to his elusive stutter-step, nobody had a better blend of brutality and finesse.

3. Tony Dorsett: A testament to Dorsett’s greatness: He set an NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown run . . . and the Cowboys only had 10 players on the field because their fullback mistakenly came out.

4. Eric Dickerson: He had a fifth gear when everybody else was working with four. He ran so smoothly and effortlessly, it was like he could balance a tray of champagne glasses on his helmet.

5. John Riggins: So many others belong on this list -- Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith, Gale Sayers -- but you have to applaud Riggins. Everybody who played the Redskins knew the “counter trey” runs were coming, but seldom could anyone effectively stop them. The Diesel was too tough.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

PRO FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME CLASS OF 2010

- Russ Grimm Guard | 1981-91 Washington

- Rickey Jackson LB | 1981-95 New Orleans, San Francisco

- Dick LeBeau CB | 1959-72 Detroit Coach | 1973-2010 5 teams

- Floyd Little RB | 1967-75 Denver

- John Randle DT | 1990-2003 Minnesota, Seattle

- Jerry Rice WR | 1985-2004 San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle

- Emmitt Smith RB | 1990-2004, Dallas, Arizona

Note: LeBeau and Little selected in a separate senior candidate vote.


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