The greatest receiver of all time realized he would be no better than the fourth wide receiver for the Denver Broncos. It was no way for Jerry Rice to end his career, so he called it quits after 20 seasons.

"I never thought I'd ever see this day," Rice said Monday during an emotional news conference at Broncos team headquarters.

The 42-year-old receiver, a first-round draft pick from tiny Mississippi Valley State in 1985, leaves the field with 38 NFL records, including the most career receptions (1,549), yards receiving (22,895) and touchdowns receiving (197).

But as much as the numbers, it was the way he did things that made the biggest impression -- the right way. He was a slave to details, a master of route-running precision, a good guy off the field and a workout junkie both in season and out.

Revered by fans and his peers, Rice told the players he was retiring during a short meeting held after his public announcement. The Broncos gave him a standing ovation.

"Not many people that own all the records spend that type of commitment and give that type of commitment in the offseason," Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan said. "That's why, in my opinion, he's the greatest player to ever play the game."

Rice helped lead the 49ers to three Super Bowl titles, mastering the West Coast offense and making a career of turning short catches into long gains. His work ethic and attention to the little things gave an entire generation of receivers someone to look up to.

How detail oriented was he?

Shanahan said Rice insisted the right-handed assistant who threw practice passes to the receivers be replaced with a lefty when the 49ers switched from right-handed quarterback Joe Montana to the left-handed Steve Young.

After 16 years with the 49ers, Rice went to Oakland, where he had three productive seasons. But it became clear the end might be near last season when the Raiders phased him out, prompting a midseason trade to Seattle.

He still averaged 14.3 yards a catch last season and scored three touchdowns, showing traces of the big-play capability he flashed so often in his career.

Last spring, his agent put out a league-wide memo stating that the GOAT -- the Greatest Of All Time -- was available.

Denver looked like a great fit: a team with a winning tradition, coached by a man with whom Rice was familiar and comfortable. So Rice signed with the Broncos, knowing there was no guarantee of a roster spot.

After some early trouble adjusting to the mile-high altitude, Rice looked in shape and ready for a 21st season. About halfway through training camp, he moved ahead of Darius Watts, to Denver's number three wide receiver spot.

That move caused a stir, and a closer look showed a receiver who had trouble separating from third- and fourth-string cornerbacks in practice, a receiver who finished with four catches for 24 yards in four preseason games.

Rice was bumped back down the depth chart. After the preseason finale, Shanahan told Rice he'd be the team's fourth wide receiver, at best.