Ron Agostini

Talking OK with J.J. Stokes

So sure is J.J. Stokes, he laughs about it. He couldn't conceal his confidence even if he wished. He talks with the easy confidence of a professional athlete, his former profession.

"The game is never out of my system. I know I can still play," Stokes begins. "If I got in great shape, I could be on somebody's team."

Stokes, 34, the receiver of 30 touchdown passes in a nine-year NFL career, almost convinces his guest until it's time for a reality check. He played his last NFL game in December of 2003 and picked up a Super Bowl ring with the New England Patriots before hamstring and quad injuries stopped him before the next season.

Four years later, Stokes insists he has a few TD receptions left inside him. His swagger is not surprising. Athletes who've performed at the highest level truly believe they can just flip a switch and find their form. It's how they got there in the first place — the kind of confidence that kept Willie Mays on the field and Muhammad Ali in the ring long after their skills eroded.

Well, J.J., why not give it a shot?

"One thing is the way the NFL looks at you once you turn a certain age," he says. "They move on fast and don't wait for anybody. I understand that. I know what I can do. I think some teams can use that."

Meanwhile, the real world continues to spin and Stokes has climbed aboard his second career. He's one week into his radio sports-talk gig with Mike "The Mouth" on KESP (ESPN 970 AM). The Mouth sets the table and Stokes, the well-known ex-San Francisco 49er, adds the expertise Monday through Friday from 1 until 4 p.m. Though he accrued both TV and radio experience since his playing days, Stokes is learning about everything from how to articulate his viewpoints to how to handle the traffic to and from his Dublin home.

"This is something I've wanted to do for the longest time. I always had a passion for sports," he said. "My dad and mom watched it and so did my brothers. The Sunday game was a big thing with the Stokes family."

So far, Stokes often defers to The Mouth before he weighs in on the topics of the day. He always was cooperative with the media during his career, so it's not a shock that he's making a smooth transition as a member of the media.

But not too long ago, Stokes made big news on the football field. He was a consensus All-American at UCLA and was sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting in 1993. So sure were the 49ers about Stokes, they drafted him with the 10th overall pick in '95. Then it got worse. He was supposed to be the next Jerry Rice, an odd expectation given the fact Rice often is called the best football player of all time.

Stokes got along fine with Rice but struggled with all the extra baggage. He wasn't Tony Mandarich, the poster child for all first-round busts, but becoming the next Rice simply wasn't doable.

"People were telling me Steve Young is used to throwing to Jerry Rice and that I needed to go somewhere else so I could be like I was in college," Stokes said. "I thought, 'Look, we're winning. Stay where you were drafted.' But in all reality as I look back, I think I would have done better had I gone to another team. I went to a team that did not need a No. 1 receiver. I would have done better from a personal standpoint somewhere else."

Stokes believes he should have vented his frustration.

"I should have been more boisterous. I missed out on a lot of opportunities," he said. "But the way I was brought up, my dad was a military man (Navy) and he always said, 'Discipline, discipline. It's not about you. It's about the team.' But as a receiver, I thought I should have touched the ball five times per game, minimum. After a while, I wondered, 'Why am I here?' "

If Stokes' biggest sin was not being Rice-like, he's done OK. A man of Rice's talent comes along about once every third generation. Besides, Stokes is not one to whine. He's conducting six youth football camps this summer while he runs his slant pattern with radio.

"I'll bring some laughter, perspective and some great guests," he promises. "A lot of people quote statistics. I look at body language, how momentum changes and how you can tell if a guy has the juice to take it in the fourth quarter."

Whether or not he can still play, Stokes without question can talk.

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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