Condoleezza Rice's first overseas trip as secretary of state may coincide with a moment of historic opportunity in the Middle East, but the timing couldn't be worse for her inner football fanatic. Since the dawn of the Super Bowl, when Rice was 12, she never has missed a kickoff. For 38 Super Bowl Sundays, she was in the stands or glued to a television, most of them beside her father and football mentor, the late John W. Rice.
But Super Bowl XXXIX will find the new secretary of state in Jerusalem, where it will be 1:30 a.m. Monday at kickoff time. "Unless she can find an all-night sports bar in the West Bank, she may have to miss it," laments Carmen Policy, a close friend and former president of Rice's favorite team, the Cleveland Browns.
Rice is an ardent football connoisseur who muses about one day being commissioner of the National Football League -- and means it. But this does not begin to reflect how deeply the game is ingrained in her life. She traces her early passion to her father, a high school football coach, guidance counselor and minister with whom she began watching and listening to games at age 4.
Rice has said football fascinates her in part because it so resembles war -- the strategy, the object of controlling territory, the air and ground attacks. Indeed, presidents and policy makers have often noted the resemblance and some analysts have called football "war without death." But long before Rice loved military strategy, she loved football.
"She thought Jim Brown [the Cleveland Browns Hall of Famer] was the greatest thing since sliced bread," says Rick Upchurch, a former Denver Bronco and all-pro kick returner who dated Rice in the 1970s when she was a University of Denver doctoral student. "She loved the way he played the game because he was aggressive and he went after what he wanted. And that's the way she was, she went after things she wanted. She knew how to strategize and get control."
Rice declined to be interviewed for this story, but through aides she supplied names of several people with whom she has shared the game. In their view, and others', Rice's long relationship with football reflects larger themes in her life -- her closeness with her father, her intellectual intensity, her comfort level as a woman in a man's world and as an African American in a white world. Football even touched, in one comic moment, on her belief in God.
But that's getting ahead of the story. Suffice it to say that if the Duke of Wellington believed that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, friends of Condi Rice believe that the rise of the new secretary of state likely began on the improvised, postage stamp-size football field of her back yard in Birmingham.
The Rice Bowl was her father's name for it. After Thanksgiving dinner in 1958, John Rice took 4-year-old Condi outside with a football and ran a few plays. It was the first of many Rice Bowls. Rice often has said with a laugh that her father was hoping for a son -- "I was supposed to be his All-American middle linebacker" -- and that she learned football to make it up to him. Neighbor Carolyn Hunter remembers a pint-size Condoleezza declaring: "When I grow up I'm going to marry a professional football player!"
She was a prodigy in more than football. Under her parents' tutelage -- her mother, Angelena, was a classical pianist and English teacher -- she played piano at 3, accompanied the choir at her father's church at 4 and read fluently at 5. "My parents were very strategic," Rice told The Post in 2001. "I was going to be so well prepared, and I was going to do all of these things that were revered in white society so well, that I would be armored somehow from racism. I would be able to confront white society on its own terms."
The Browns were her favorite team from the start, a choice she attributes to the caprice of television programming: Cleveland games were regularly broadcast in Birmingham. She leaves out, however, the team's racial history. In 1946, Browns coach Paul Brown recruited and signed black players into what then was an almost exclusively white sport. His farsightedness paid huge football dividends. For all these reasons, says Oregon State University professor Michael Oriard, author of several books on football history, the Browns during Rice's childhood were "black America's pro football team."
"That was a lesson I think her father pointed out to Condi: You need to be steadfast," says Haven Moses, a former all-pro wide receiver for the Broncos, a friend of Rice's since meeting her family in Denver. "The ones who never waver are going to be the ones who are going to effect change."
But as with the role of race in her life generally, Rice avoids playing up the dark aspects of the past. Former Browns president Policy says he and Rice once discussed Paul Brown's legacy, and "it was so like Condi. She appreciated what he did, but the way she put it was that this man was ahead of his time in every way, he improved every aspect of the game, and he stepped forward with courage and leadership, even when it came to issues of race, to make the team better."
Interestingly, Rice was also a childhood fan of Bear Bryant's all-white University of Alabama Crimson Tide. Like everything else in Alabama, the Tide and the Birmingham stadium where the team often played were segregated, off-limits to the black players her father coached. But Upchurch, the former Denver Bronco who dated Rice, says he was not surprised that she sat with John Rice by the radio on Saturdays and rooted for 'Bama.
"She looked beyond stuff because she wanted to experience the fun of sports," he says. "She was looking at strategies, how they get down the field, how the defense would stop the offense."