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NFL legends fire up Synapse Summit

Brian Hartz

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NFL legends Steve Young, left, and Jerry Rice, center, speak with moderator Ryan Nece during the 2021 Synapse Summit on Wednesday, March 10.

Quarterback Steve Young and wide receiver Jerry Rice connected for 92 touchdowns during their time together as members of the San Francisco 49ers, a number that ranks behind only the combos of Peyton Manning/Marvin Harrison and Tom Brady/Rob Gronkowski. They won three Super Bowls together and are both enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Rice, along with Brady, is often mentioned in greatest of all time (GOAT) discussions.

To wit, Rice’s many post-football business interests include an energy drink called G.O.A.T. Fuel, while Young, who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two seasons before joining the Niners, has forged a career in private equity, establishing Huntsman Gay Global Capital in 2007 and serving as the firm’s managing director.

The two legends appeared together on Wednesday at the Synapse Summit, an innovation conference that usually takes place at Amalie Arena but is being held virtually this year because of the Covid-19 crisis. Along with moderator Ryan Nece, a member of the Bucs team that won the Super Bowl in 2002, Young and Rice discussed their approach to leadership, community impact and entrepreneurship now that their playing days are over.

Young and Rice have reconnected in recent years to form a nonprofit called 8 to 80 Zones — named after their respective uniform numbers — that provides funding to underprivileged youth in Atlanta, Miami and Tampa who want to pursue careers in technology, e-sports, video games and media. The program is affiliated with Young’s Forever Young Foundation, which he said is a way to give back to communities that supported him when he was trying to make it as a professional football player.

“No one’s going to change the world themselves, like in a big global way, but we can change the world one-on-one individually,” Young said. “That’s what the Forever Young Foundation picks away at.”

Rice’s work ethic is just as much the stuff of legend as his uncanny ability to catch passes and evade defenders, but he said that even the hardest-working kids can face long odds, and that’s why he and Young have teamed up once again.

“Throughout my career, it was all about the fans,” he said. “You know, how they support me, how they inspired me to go out there and play my best football. It was all take, take, take at first. I find it more rewarding now to be able to give back and to be able to help the youth and put them in a position where there’s a level field — this is what 8 to 80 is all about. I was glad that Steve brought me on board.”

Nece asked Young how he maintains a competitive edge now that he’s no longer playing football. He said that, in many ways, the world of private equity and venture capital can be just as difficult as the NFL. “It’s the same dynamic that I had in my previous life — trying to get people across the goal line,” he said.

Young cited Rice’s maniacal dedication to self-improvement as inspiration for continuing to do his very best every day, even in retirement. Even after the Niners won the Super Bowl, the wide receiver’s workout regimen wouldn’t change. Returning to the team’s training facility to clean out his locker one year, Young saw Rice running wind sprints, all alone, a full seventh months before the next season was set to begin.

“I don’t define [competitiveness] any more as trying to beat someone else,” Young said. “I focus on yesterday. I want to be better today than I was yesterday.”

Rice summed up his philosophy thus: “Today I’ll do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can’t. That’s what it’s all about for me.”

He said that approach is just as relevant for him today, in the business world.

“I never let myself get out of shape,” Rice said. “That’s the reason why I was able to perform the way I did on the football field. And it’s true in business too. It’s the same thing.”

He added, “The way I apply myself, I get in there; I do what I have to do. It’s just in my nature … I’m not gonna shortcut myself. I’m always gonna open every door.”

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