By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 17, 2003
ALAMEDA, Calif. -- It's understandable if Oakland backup quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo views star receiver Jerry Rice as a father figure. Tuiasosopo's father, Manu, played with Rice when both were with San Francisco in the mid 1980s. Now Marques, who's 22, is teammates with Rice.
Rookie tight end Doug Jolley sat in front of the TV on Sunday afternoons, barely a teenager, watching Tim Brown and Rich Gannon, then would pop in a Nintendo video game and play as the 49ers so he'd have Rice on his team. Defensive end Kenyon Coleman would stand in his front yard countless afternoons catching the football and pretending he was Rice.
"I watched all these guys play when I was in high school," Oakland cornerback Charles Woodson said. "You never really think that one day you'll actually be on the same team with them. But here we are. . . . It's just great to be around these guys."
On one side of the Oakland locker room, Gannon, the 37-year-old quarterback, is plotting how to get the ball to Rice (40) and Brown (36). On the other, safety Rod Woodson (37) and linebacker Bill Romanowski (36) are talking about stopping Tennessee in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
Al Davis took his commitment to excellence to a new extreme this season, building a team to win now around a veteran group for the ages.
And they're not just oldies, but goodies.
Gannon won the NFL MVP award, throwing for a league-high 4,689 yards on a record 418 completions. Brown and Rice teamed for 173 catches (including nine touchdowns) and 2,141 yards. Woodson had a league-leading eight interceptions, taking one back 98 yards to help the Raiders snap a four-game losing streak. Romanowski had 90 tackles, including four sacks, while changing the look of the Oakland defense.
"Look at Rod Woodson, Pro Bowl player," Brown said. "Look at Jerry Rice. Look at Rich Gannon. Romanowski had a great year. I didn't have the numbers I usually have, but I hope no one thinks I'm slipping. You look at the guys who are the elder guys around here, the guys can still play football."
What are these nearly middle-aged men doing playing such a young man's game? Having a blast, apparently.
"Your birth certificate and your age don't determine how good you're going to be as a football player," Woodson said.
Sure, they'll admit to being a step slower, but they make up for it with added knowledge. Woodson takes the perfect angle to cut off a receiver. Rice and Brown run precise routes. Gannon is a master at knowing what to do with the ball. Romanowski can read any offense.
"It's like an All-Star team seeing the guys introduced," tackle Barry Sims said.
What the, um, more experienced players do on the field is only part of what they bring to the team.
"It's valuable for any team to have experienced, veteran players on the roster of Hall of Fame caliber," coach Bill Callahan said. "They're of tremendous value. In more ways than one."
At a time of year when the pressure mounts, they take the lead and they set a measured tone.
You can't walk through the Raiders locker room without hearing a story about how one of the veterans helped out one of the younger players, whether it's Woodson giving tips to safety Anthony Dorsett, or Rice showing a receiver how a route should be run, or Romanowski opening his tackle box of herbal supplements and providing nutritional advice.
"It's a blessing," said Coleman, a 23-year-old from UCLA. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They've been around and they've been in the game so long so you just try to soak up as much as you can from them. They've been there and they've done it."
There is some concern that stockpiling veterans will cost the Raiders next season, when they could be as much as $50-million over the salary cap. At the least, there is tremendous pressure to win now.
The players say that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"These chances are very rare, and I think we are a mature team that understands what we have here," Woodson said.
Or as guard Frank Middleton put it: "We've got a lot of old guys that don't have much of a career left so we've got to take advantage of it now.
(Can he call them old guys? "Everybody else calls them old," Middleton said. "Whenever you've got to call somebody Mr. Brown or Mr. Rice, they're considered old.")
For the most part, the young players take the respect-your-elders approach, struggling with the concept that they belong on the same field as their heroes.
"Three lockers away from me could be the greatest player to ever play the game," Jolley said. "It's awesome. And definitely an honor."
"Jerry always jokes around with me, telling me I make him feel old, and all that stuff," Tuiasosopo said. "But he sure doesn't play old.
"It's something that's a real treasure, to be able to play along side him and watch him work and see how he's been so successful over his career."