Ray Rice: 'I want to be one of the greatest'

Rice works to polish off-field reputation as his fame soars

September 11, 2010|By Mike Klingaman, The Baltimore Sun

The man's last wish was to meet his favorite Raven. But, sick with cancer, he never thought Ray Rice would knock on his front door.

 So last March, when the running back stepped into Paul Pelfrey's living room in Eastwood, Pelfrey mustered his strength, stood up and gave Rice a hug. The men sat at the dining room table and chatted for 21/2 hours, said Rice, who shared tales of his own trials.

"I wanted [Pelfrey] to get to know me, as a person, not just about running the football," he said. "I wanted it to be a remembrance that he could take with him. I told him the stuff he was battling was way bigger than anything that I've battled in life."

When they parted, Pelfrey, 51, a maintenance supervisor for Lockheed Martin, grasped Rice's hand and hugged him again.

"You'll make it to the Hall of Fame," he whispered.

Pelfrey died two weeks later.

Such acts of kindness are becoming routine for Rice, the team's Pro Bowl runner whose moves off the football field are often as special as those on it.

Few players excite crowds like Rice, who's primed for Monday night's opener against the New York Jets in East Rutherford, N.J. His hardscrabble roots, bantam size and obsessive work ethic resonate with fans, who have embraced the third-year back out of Rutgers.

"He's fast, strong and has great balance," Ravens' coach John Harbaugh said. "Ray can be as good a back as there is" in the NFL.

Rice's reputation spills over into his private life.

"It's nothing for Ray to go into a store and walk up to a poor kid who's eyeing a $70 video game," said Bryan Shannon, Rice's cousin. "First, he'll ask the kid how he's doing in school. If he's doing OK, Ray will buy him the game — and autograph it."

Rice's response is always the same, Shannon said.

"He'll say, 'Man, that felt good.' "

Rice doesn't trumpet these outings, some of which he has roped other Ravens into.

"He has phoned me from hospitals and had me talk to people he's visiting there," offensive lineman Michael Oher said.

Once, Rice was even asked to autograph some football paraphernalia for a deceased fan who wanted to be buried with it. Rice did it willingly.

These gigs, he does gratis. His success (2,041 yards gained from scrimmage in 2009, second-best in the league) and upbeat demeanor have landed him endorsement deals with M&T Bank, Verizon, BGE, Carbiz and others that will earn Rice about $500,000 this year. That's a tidy sum for a player who's not quite 5-foot-9 and was labeled a backup when he was selected in the second round of the 2008 draft.

"There's a good vibe around him," said Ben Renzin, his marketing representative. "Ray's personality just lights up a room. Kids look up to him, his energy level is high and his drive to be one of the best is amazing."

At 23, Rice said, he knows where he's headed.

"One thing I know about life is that you build an image for yourself," he said. "I want to read my name in the books one day. I want to be one of the greatest.

"I want to be known as a guy who made it — and gave back."

Born running

It wasn't a typical birth. Rice came into the world six weeks early, legs churning. His mother, then 23, was glad to be rid of him.

"He kicked all the time [during pregnancy], from four months on," Janet Rice said. "Ridiculous. Every time I tried to sleep, Ray would kick. And the kicks kept getting stronger."

Rice grew up poor, sleeping two to a bed in a scruffy neighborhood called "The Hollow" in New Rochelle, N.Y., where guns and gangs were rife. His father died when Rice was 1, killed by mistake in a drive-by shooting in 1988. All Rice knows of Calvin Reed are some old photos, and what his mom has told him. "Slick" Reed was a supermarket stock clerk, a sharp dresser and an avid bodybuilder.

"We'd met in high school, in home economics," Janet Rice said. "Guys took the class to meet women. If I was mixing cookie dough, Calvin asked to be my partner, so everyone knew he had a crush on me."

They dated, off and on, for six years before their son was born, and they had planned to be married.

"I remember how nervous Calvin was, holding Ray in the hospital," Janet Rice said. "That baby was so small."

But Ray Rice seemed focused from the start.

"At 9 months, he walked very fast," his mother said. "By 11/2 , Ray was potty-trained. He told me that he wanted to wear underwear, and I haven't had to put Pampers on him since."

At 2, Rice graduated to a two-wheel bicycle, a red-and-black Huffy, and rode it over makeshift wooden ramps on a nearby playground. "My little daredevil," his mother called him, and kept the Bactine and Band-Aids handy.

At 3, he did pull-ups on the water pipes in the hall outside their public housing apartment.

"I watched him," said James Wagstaff, an older cousin. "I lifted Ray up, near the ceiling where the cold pipes were, to see if he could do one pull-up. He did 20. I had to make him stop."

By 5, Rice begged to play football with kids twice his age on that concrete playground.

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