Hometown awaits its hero
New Rochelle never far from Ravens’ Rice
OWINGS MILLS, Md. - Back in his hometown New Rochelle, N.Y., Ray Rice has an entire day dedicated to him.
The town has done it the past three years. It’s usually set aside for the last week in June. His old Pop Warner coach, Joe Fosina, is the chairmen.
Last year, it drew some 650 kids.
“It’s unbelievable,” Fosina said.
They come because NFL stars will be there. Joe Flacco spent the day one year. So did Michael Oher. So have Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty and his twin brother Jason.
But more than that, they come to see the Baltimore Ravens running back, the hometown hero.
There’s security. Not for the kids, but for the parents.
“They all want to get to Ray,’’ Fosina said. “They all want to talk to Ray.’’
They set up a long table, so the kids can line up for autographs. The whole time, Rice is practically a kid himself, throwing the football around, racing, tackling, running from a waist-high stampede. He wants to see them as much as they want to see him.
“I am a product of my community and I really wanted to give back,’’ he said. “I want to be someone that kids in my community look up to and want to strive to give back when they grow up.’’
To call him a hometown hero would be understating the footprint he’s left there. He’s a walking statue. When Ravens games are on, Fosina said, the town goes quiet. Rice and the Ravens are a game away from reaching the Super Bowl.
“You know why? It’s because of what he does,’’ Fosina said. “He gets a day off, he comes up here. What does he do? He shows up at the middle school, walks in the principal’s office, says, ‘Hi, can I go visit some of my old teachers and some of the kids in the class?’
“They say, ‘Of course!’ They love it.
“He goes to the high school, he goes and works out in the weight room with whatever team’s working out that day, whether it’s the football team, basketball team, whoever. He’s over there working out with them.
“Wherever there’s something going on, Ray appears. That’s why in this city, it’s Ray. Whenever you hear Ray Rice, you hear, ‘Ray Rice from New Rochelle.’ ’’
The people in the city identify with the player and share in his successes, but more than anything they connect with his story.
Above all else, Rice overcame.
When Rice was just a year old, his father, Conrad Reed, was murdered as he walked home from work in Mount Vernon. He was the unintended target of a drive-by shooting.
Rice’s cousin, Myshaun Rice-Nichols, became a father figure to him, but when he was 11, Myshaun died in a car crash, a victim of a drunk driver.
Despite the tragedies, he and his mother, Janet, carried on.
“It definitely had an impact on both of our lives,’’ Janet said. “And we both had to realize that life has to move on. It’s not a day that goes by that either one of us doesn’t think about his father and wish he could be a part of what’s going on in his life right now. It’s definitely on our mind at all times. But it allows us to stay focused and keep us rooted and grounded in what we need to do.’’
Rice was 6 when he told his mother he wanted to be a professional football player. At that point, he was only old enough to be a waterboy.
“I definitely stayed behind him and encouraged him to allow his dreams to become a reality,’’ she said.
Once he was able to play, he was dominant, whether it was Pop Warner, when he scored 45 touchdowns, or at the high school level, when his team won a state title, or at Rutgers, where he helped transform a program.
His freshman year, in 2005, he rushed for 1,120 yards, and the Scarlet Knights posted their first winning season in 14 years. By the time he left, he guided the team to its highest national ranking in school history.
“I didn’t want to use my tragedies as a reason to not succeed,’’ Rice said. “I wanted to use those things to push me and help me to prevail and to provide for my family. No matter what we went through, my mom worked so hard to keep us on the straight and narrow and did whatever she could to keep afloat.
“I wanted to succeed for her and for my family. I always wanted to a be positive force for them.’’
Learning from Big Ray
When Rice was drafted by the Ravens in the second round in 2008, Ray Lewis, the franchise’s identity the past 16 years, saw how important he would be.
They developed an immediate bond.
Few people in the NFL, and no one in the Ravens’ locker room, had experienced as much as Lewis.
He was on the ground floor when the Ravens won four games in 1996. He was at the summit when they won the Super Bowl four seasons later.
He’s been in the middle of controversy - none deeper than the obstruction of justice charges he pleaded guilty to in 2000 in relation to a fight that led to two killings in Atlanta after Super Bowl XXXIV.
He’s had personal redemption and individual triumphs, including winning defensive player of the year in 2000 and 2003. The first thing Lewis taught Rice was, ‘Take care of the game and it will take care of you.’’
Rice absorbed the advice.
“Learning from Ray is a blessing,’’ he said. “You look at what he has done in his career all of the players he has mentored and taken under his wing, I am so blessed to learn from him.
“You see all the ups and downs he has been through in his career, but he always stayed positive. I want to learn from the good and the bad. He is the best in the game after 16 years, and I hope to be that kind of positive on and off the field when I am the old, wise vet.’’
Rice has become a smaller version of Lewis on the other side of the ball.
Around the locker room, teammates call Lewis “Big Ray’’ and Rice “Little Ray.’’
But beyond that, Little Ray has rung up more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage twice in his short career. He scored a franchise-record 15 touchdowns (12 rushing, three receiving) this season.
He’s been named to two Pro Bowls in four years and it’s generally understood that he’s the face of the offense.
“Ray Rice is our guy,’’ fullback Vonta Leach said. “He’s the guy on offense. He’s the playmaker. Every team has a playmaker and Ray Rice has to be ours. As he goes our team goes.’’
Man of the hour
Rice’s old Pop Warner team has a banquet at the end of every season. Usually, Rice is there to make a speech. Last year, was the first year Rice missed it.
The Ravens had a playoff game. Janet came in his place.
“It means that much to come back, and not only to come back to give back,’’ she said.
This year’s dinner is tomorrow. Rice, obviously, has an excused absence. Besides, Fosina said he already had a few ideas depending on how far the Ravens go.
“We’re kind of excited about the possibility of getting to the Super Bowl,’’ he said. “We understand that [Tom] Brady and Co. are going to make it tough for him.’’
If the Ravens win the Super Bowl, Fosina said, he would immediately call the mayor and start planning the parade for Rice.
“The streets would be lined with thousands of people,’’ Fosina said. “Put him up on a convertible and have the place go crazy and it would.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.