SAN FRANCISCO -- Pardon Jerry Rice if he's unable to explain his meteoric rise to the top of his profession. The truth is, Rice doesn't yet know what to make of his success in the NFL.

Each Monday morning, Rice arrives sleepy-eyed at the San Francisco 49ers' film session, and each Monday morning his lids pop open at the sight of his performances the day before.

"I'm amazed by some of the things I do," Rice said Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after doing some fairly amazing things against the Chicago Bears with three touchdown receptions. "On Monday, when we watch the game film, I can't believe it's me out there making those spectacular plays. I still have to pinch myself because it just seems impossible that it's me."

Rice may have problems believing what he's seeing, but defenses around the NFL aren't having the same trouble. If Rice isn't the outstanding player in the league this year, it's only because teammate Joe Montana and Denver's John Elway are having career seasons.

Even so, Rice is the only one putting new receiving records on the books. He has two games remaining in his bid to break Mark Clayton's 1984 record for touchdowns in a single season (18), which he tied last week.

And one touchdown reception in Sunday's game with Atlanta will break a record that has stood for 36 years, consecutive games with at least one touchdown reception (11), a mark he also tied last week.

There are people around the league -- many of whom make their livings as defensive backs -- who believe Rice was the best receiver in the league last season when 85 catches netted him 1,570 receiving yards, the highest total of all time if the old marks from the pass-happy AFL are thrown out. So what does that make Rice, 25, now that he has 18 touchdown receptions in just 10 games?

"Last year, he was the best receiver in the league," Washington Redskins defensive back Barry Wilburn said. "This year, he's come back and shown that over and over again."

Former San Francisco wide receiver Freddie Solomon, whose retirement was hastened by Rice's arrival in 1985, says, "If he continues to be consistent and works at it, there's no telling how good he could become in football history . . ."

Run the stats and the quotes pass Rice and he gets a sort of sheepish look. Having grown up as one of the most quiet in a family of eight children in Starkville, Miss., Rice isn't one to brag. "I really don't like to overrate myself," he said. ". . . I'll let others give me compliments. If they want to compliment me, fine. But I don't want to be conceited and say that myself. I wouldn't want to say that I'm the best receiver in football or anything like that. That just wouldn't be right."

No, but it probably would be accurate. Each touchdown Rice catches over the next few years will help wipe out the memory of a midfield fumble Rice committed en route to what should have been a long touchdown reception/run in the first quarter of an NFC playoff game last year against the Giants. To suggest the Giants would have lost a game they ended up winning, 49-3, sounds ludicrous. But the 49ers would have led, 7-0, and, well, who knows?

Rice dropped 15 passes as a rookie and suffered spells of the drops last season. "It was concentration and a matter of reacting in a complicated offensive system as opposed to thinking through every step," Rice says, meaning he now can concentrate on catching the ball and not so much on where he should be and how to get there. Whatever, the drops are gone. "I rarely see him drop one," Wilburn said.

That Rice has dominated defenses as he has is improbable for many reasons, beginning with the fact that he was a bookworm who never wanted to play football and had to be forced by his high school principal to join the team.

"I was skipping class one day when the principal slipped up behind me," Rice said. "He startled me, and I took off. All he could see was a flashing red jacket going around the corner. He ran after me, and told me I'd better go and play football. I wasn't into sports then at all. It just wasn't in my mind to play. I liked certain guys, like Drew Pearson and John Stallworth, but I never thought I'd play."

Rice was nothing spectacular when he did start playing. Archie Cooley, then head coach at Mississippi Valley State, remembered, "We went to see Jerry in high school and he was a great basketball player, too. Could shoot your eyes out. He was big, but he was slow. He ran a 4.8 in the 40. Just a big, slow, average kid. Nobody you really wanted. You could recruit his kind a dime-a-dozen."

That's why Mississippi Valley State -- a predominantly black, Division I-AA school -- got Rice, instead of, say, Ole Miss or Mississippi State, one of the big-time schools where he would have been noticed. But because of Cooley's unique brand of football, Rice was noticed. Cooley's team threw the ball 50 times a game, at least. South Carolina calls its wide-open offense the Run-'n-Shoot. Rice called Cooley's the Run-'n-Gone.

He had more than 100 receptions each of his last two seasons, 1,000 yards in each of three seasons. In an astonishing senior year, Rice caught 28 touchdown passes and totaled 1,845 yards. He had grown to 6 feet 2 and 200 pounds, yet the NFL scouts were skeptical.

"A lot of scouts thought we just lined up and ran," said Cooley, now coach at Arkansas-Pine Bluff. "But how can you never have any two receivers in the same spot if you just run? . . . What it all meant was that Jerry and the others hadn't had a white coach, so there were doubts. It was ridiculous."

Rice agrees. "There were lots of guys who were not as fortunate as me, but who were just as good," he said, referring to Delta Devils teammates Curtis Debarlaybo, Cleo Armstrong, Wilbert Corley, Joe Thomas and the quarterback who made it all go, Willie Totten.

Two things finally worked in Rice's favor. "I think the main reason {he was drafted in the first round} was that on Christmas Day {1984} I had a good Blue-Gray {all-star} game," Rice said.

Also, the 49ers, under Coach Bill Walsh, are one of the NFL clubs that run what amounts to an exchange program with black college coaches. When Walsh invited Cooley and his staff out to San Francisco, the two coaches exchanged information and film reels, and Walsh saw all he needed to see of Rice.

On draft day, fearing some scout from another team had done his homework, Walsh and the 49ers traded up to get Rice with the No. 16 pick in the first round. In Rice, the 49ers got a receiver to pair with Dwight Clark, a man who was almost the size of a tight end, with long strides and deceptive speed. Rice felt his hands had softened from the summer days of catching bricks when he helped his father, the bricklayer.

But the speed was seen as a problem, as was the fact Rice had not blocked in college. "No blocking at all," he said. "I thought my role was to just go out, catch footballs and score touchdowns."

The issue of his speed is particularly strange. Rice runs past cornerbacks and safeties. Ask any defensive back who has faced the 49ers the past three years. Yet, Rice never has been clocked faster than 4.5 in the 40, and sometimes slower, which means there are linebackers in the NFL who will beat him in a footrace wearing shorts.

Wilburn says, "He's probably not considered a speed demon. But I'll tell you what: When the ball is up, he goes and gets it as well as anyone in this league. That's considered great speed as far as I'm concerned."

In a tight game in Green Bay two weeks ago, Rice caught a slant pass between two defenders who had the angle on him, but he pulled away from both and scored what turned out to be the crucial touchdown in a 49ers victory.

"I've got what I call football speed," Rice said. "The second I see that ball in the air, I'm able to just explode. If I'm out running a 40 by myself, I'm just not going to do that well. But line some defensive backs up in front of me and I get so excited, somehow I'm a totally different person."

Rice has almost become a different person in other ways. "Coming from Mississippi, I was not exposed to so much attention," he said. "When I first got here, I was uncomfortable."

Rice asked a Bay Area radio personality, Sylvester Jackson, for help in changing his speech patterns and improving his delivery in front of the camera. "If you're going to be a public figure, and a role model to kids, you may as well do everything the right way," Rice explained. The french poodle haircut that has earned him the nickname "Fifi," and the "World 80" tags on one of Rice's two sports cars are other things the folks back home didn't instantly recognize.

As long as Rice continues to produce as he has, the 49ers don't care what his hair looks like or what he drives. With two games left, he has 58 receptions for 930 yards. Montana says he's a better quarterback because of Rice. Certainly, backup Steve Young must be, too. After all, three of Young's four touchdown passes against the Bears went to Rice.

"I really try not to focus on the records," Rice said. "I might reflect on it after the season, but right now I don't pay much attention because it might be a distraction. It's still a big surprise to me. I'm just like a little kid on the field. The fun is still in the game for me."