More than just a partner

By Paola Boivin
Updated: September 8, 2005

EDITOR’S NOTE: In celebration of Jerry Rice’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend, BASN looks back at Rice’s running buddy at Mississippi Valley State in an article that first appeared on the site back in September of 2005 as Rice decided to retire.

PHOENIX — When he first met fellow Mississippi Valley State freshman Jerry Rice, Willie Totten noticed the big, rough hands but never suspected their greatness.

This was the land of sharecroppers, after all, and everyone’s hands told a story.

None, it would turn out, like Rice’s. For fans of the NFL, the announcement of Rice’s retirement offered an opportunity to celebrate a brilliant career.

For former quarterback Totten, the announcement was another hash mark on a timeline that chronicles careers spinning in different directions.

They were both gifted Mississippi high school football players with few scholarship offers. They came to a school built on a former Itta Bena cotton field because of coach Archie “Gunslinger” Cooley’s fascination with the passing game.

“I remember thinking (Rice) wasn’t the fastest receiver,” Totten, now the head coach at Mississippi Valley State, said. “But that work ethic. He was so motivated to be the best. Even then. That’s what made him who he is.”

Totten, after his redshirt season, and Rice played together for three years. In most formations, four receivers would line up on one side of the field and Rice would line up on the other.

It resulted in games such as the 86-0 rout of Kentucky State in 1984, when Totten set Division I-AA records with 536 yards and nine touchdowns. Rice caught 17 passes for a record 294 yards.

The pair put Mississippi Valley State on the college football map. Rice ended his career with 4,851 yards and 51 touchdowns. Totten passed for 13,128 yards and 141 touchdowns and set 58 Division I-AA records.

“It was a special,” Totten said. “We were a good combination that had one thing in mind: to demolish the opponent.”

21 years after playing together, Rice is reflecting on a 20-year professional career that brought statistical success, monetary rewards and more than a few suggesting he was the greatest NFL player.

Totten, meanwhile, is in the final year of a four-year contract with Mississippi Valley State and living with the uncertainty of his coaching future.

“I’m so happy for all he’s accomplished. I really am,” Totten said. “But do I think about what could have been for me if I wasn’t an Afro-American quarterback? Sure. You can’t help but wonder.”

Many, including Totten, thought an NFL career was a sure thing. He was 6-foot-2 and prolific. But in 12 rounds of the 1986 NFL draft, Totten was ignored.

“There were 28 teams and just three black quarterbacks at the time – Randall Cunningham, Warren Moon and Doug Williams – that were starting or backing up,” he said. “Now you’ve got guys who aren’t even putting up half the records I put up being drafted in the first round.”

Totten isn’t bitter, just matter of fact. He was happy to see Alcorn State’s Steve McNair succeed in the same conference he did and go in the first round of the 1995 draft. But every time his friend Rice hit a milestone, the moment was measured against his own life.

He can’t help but wonder “what if?”

No one will ever know if Totten would have been as good as McNair or Cunningham. Scouts said he threw side-armed, but so did Bernie Kosar. They said he played in the SWAC.

So did Rice. He had a fling with the CFL and a taste of the NFL during the 1987 strike season. Then he found coaching, which has helped fill the void.

He is thrilled for his good friend Rice, whom he sees every summer back in Mississippi. He just sometimes wishes he could have joined him for the ride.