Yes, it’s true. The Cowboys wanted to grab eventual Hall of Famer Jerry Rice in the 1985 NFL Draft, but the 49ers were able to steal him away.
Thankfully, you don’t. Only in an alternate universe would that apply.
With the Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers poised to play their first playoff game against each other this weekend since the Niners’ NFC Championship win way back in January of 1995, it’s only fitting to go back and explore some of the many stories of Dallas-Niners lore. And while the actual games between these two longtime rivals have featured plenty of great moments, including “The Catch” and the “How ’bout them Cowboys?” memories, one particular incident has to stand out as purely defining.
One which denied Dallas the opportunity it wanted, grabbing Rice in the 1985 NFL Draft.
Jerry Rice wasn’t going to fall beyond Cowboys in NFL Draft
Rice had made a name for himself at a small-school program, Mississippi Valley State, and was a bona fide first-round pick. At least in the mind of then-San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh.
Walsh was also keen on rumors that Dallas, too, was looking at Rice. The Cowboys owned the No. 17 overall pick in the draft that year, and two wide receivers, Wisconsin’s Al Toon and the University of Miami’s Eddie Brown, already were off the board by the time Dallas was going to pick at No. 17.
Both Toon and Brown were reportedly high on Walsh’s big board, at least according to the above video.
With both of them gone, though Walsh knew he had to be bold.
49ers steal Jerry Rice away from Cowboys
The one problem Walsh and the 49ers faced in the 1985 draft was they had won the Super Bowl the previous year, hence holding the final pick in Round 1.
No way Rice was going to fall that far, and Dallas was likely to be the team that grabbed the talented receiver.
Walsh’s draft strategy that year wasn’t to accumulate a bunch of players through the draft, rather it was to find the marquee players who could make all the difference. His team was looking for a new receiver, someone who could replace the longtime aging stalwart, Freddie Solomon.
Related Story: 49ers’ 15 greatest draft-day steals of all time
So, in one of the greatest draft coups of all time, he engineered a trade one spot ahead of the Cowboys, No. 16 overall, sending off the Niners’ first-, second- and third-round picks to the New England Patriots in exchange with the No. 16 overall pick and the Pats’ third-round selection.
Reportedly, Walsh also was interested in Brown. But the Cincinnati Bengals weren’t interested in budging from the No. 13 overall pick, selecting Brown instead of Rice.
Walsh and the Niners ultimately felt satisfied with Rice instead.
Befuddled, Dallas settled on Michigan defensive tackle Kevin Brooks with the following pick, a player who lasted only four years with the Cowboys and six in the NFL in total.
History would have been different if Cowboys drafted Jerry Rice
Yes, there is an immeasurable number of X-factors and variables that would have gone into the what-if scenario had Walsh not acted so boldly.
Rice would have all but likely gone to Dallas, and it’s certainly possible he would have thrived there, eventually catching passes from Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman, presumably fueling the Cowboys’ own powerhouse teams of the 1990s.
San Francisco, too, would have been vastly different. Those dominant teams of the late 1980s wouldn’t have been as much of a thing, and Rice’s subsequent command of the league and all those records would have come at the quarterbacking hands of Joe Montana and Steve Young either.
Maybe Rice would have had as prolific a GOAT-like career anyway.
But it certainly wouldn’t have been in a 49ers uniform. Good thing it all panned out the way it did.