He caught 11 passes for 215 yards, tying and setting Super Bowl records. "It was totally a team effort," he said.

He was named Most Valuable Player by 10 of the 11 reporters who had a vote. "I would have given it to Joe Montana," he said.He leaped and pirouetted and performed magic before a television audience of 120 million. "A pretty good day," he said.

Pretty good.

"I'm a modest guy, OK?" Jerry Rice said. "I don't like to take credit, OK?"

Fine. OK. But we are going to get this story told, Jerry. Sorry. We have to.

"That was his greatest game," said Mike Wilson, Rice's teammate and fellow receiver. "He's had games where he's caught three or four touchdowns. But not in a Super Bowl. And not after not practicing all week. You know, when he finally came back to practice Friday, he didn't have his best practice. He didn't catch everything thrown at him. He looked kind of rusty."

Rusty. That was Friday, two days before Super Bowl XXIII, four days after Rice had sprained his ankle in practice. When the bright lights were turned on Sunday at Joe Robbie Stadium, though, Rice was as thrilling and potent as any player in Super Bowl history, helping the San Francisco 49ers to a 20-16 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals.

"I felt good," he said, as if that explained it. "You know, except for this one time I landed funny on my ankle . . . "

He felt good. He caught passes of all shapes and sizes. He caught them surrounded by defensive backs in the middle of the field. He caught them dragging his toes on the sidelines. He caught them over his right shoulder. His left shoulder. On third down. Second down. First down. For big gains. Small gains. Mostly for big gains.

"They were playing me man-to-man a lot," he said. "I feel I can exploit man-to-man. As the game kept going, I kept telling (49ers Coach) Bill (Walsh) they were giving me an awful lot to work with."

The Bengals had used man-to-man coverages all season. It is a sign that they respect their cornerbacks, Eric Thomas and Lewis Billups. "And they deserve that respect," Mike Wilson said. "They're good coverage men. We didn't expect them to change in the Super Bowl. But no one covers Jerry like that."

Just for show, it seemed, Rice started the show with a one-handed catch in the first quarter. Montana aimed too high on a crossing pattern, and Rice stuck up his hand as he headed for the sideline and . . . the . . . ball . . . stuck. "Just tried to hold on," he said.

The Bengals managed to muffle him fairly well from then until the last minute of the third quarter, after Stanford Jennings' kickoff return had given Cincinnati a 13-6 lead. It was as if Rice had waited for the game's first touchdown to begin asserting himself.

On the very next play, he ran down the sideline and beat Billups to a ball Montana virtually lobbed into the air on a prayer, hoping something good would happen. It did. A 31-yard gain. The 49ers were alive again.

Three plays later, on a second down at the 14-yard-line, Montana flipped Rice a pass in the flat. He turned upfield and neared the end zone and, as he was being pushed out of bounds, stuck the ball over his head back toward the field. The ball crossed the goal line in bounds, even though Rice was out of bounds. It was a moment of brilliance and ballet, and it was a touchdown.

"I've never made a play like that in my life," Rice said. "When I turned upfield, I saw I had a chance to score. All I did was stick the ball out there. I didn't know I had scored until I turned around and saw the official with his hands in the air."

There would be more. After a Bengals punt gave the 49ers the ball again, Montana threw to Rice for 44 yards. But three plays resulted in little gain and a field goal was no good. The Bengals regained possession and drove to a field goal and a 16-13 lead with 3:10 remaining.

The 49ers took over. A couple of passes were good for a first down. Rice caught one for 7 yards. Three plays later, he ran a square out and was open. Montana's pass was good for 17 yards. Three plays after that, after a penalty put the 49ers in a second-and-20 situation, Rice broke open across the middle and Montana saw him. Twenty-seven yards. First down at the Bengals' 18.

"Things were happening so quickly I didn't have time to read the defense," Rice said. "I tried to work toward the middle and find an open space. I did, and Joe found me."

One play later, with the 49ers at the 10, Rice went in motion before the snap, drawing a safety with him. The ball was snapped and the 49ers' other receiver, John Taylor, ran into the area the safety had vacated. Touchdown. Super Bowl to the 49ers.

"We're talking a difference of maybe two or three steps with the safety," Mike Wilson said, "but Jerry, being Jerry, is sure to draw that kind of attention and open up the area. Amazing."

Yes. Amazing. In the end, Rice had this silly grin on his face and it would not go away. Reporters were shouting questions at him. His wife, his parents and his 19-month-old daughter were standing behind him on the podium. He could not stop smiling. He was the MVP. It was all happening so quickly.

"Hold up the trophy, Jerry," the photograhpers shouted.

"I'm tired," he said, and oh, how he was smiling.