By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 16, 2010; D04
NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- This family feud, it's liable to tear apart the Rices, young Ray and his mother Janet. It's been bubbling for at least six years now, since the night Ray was in 11th grade and his mother was running the bath for him after football practice in their tub in the projects of New Rochelle. Ray looked out the window then said, "Mom, I'm going to the League. One day, I'm going to come here and tell you, 'Mom, you don't have to work anymore.' "
Back then, Janet just nodded, tears filling her eyes. That was just a poor boy talking. She had worked her whole life, sometimes multiple jobs, a single mother raising four kids on hourly wages and welfare checks. But then the boy became a star running back at Rutgers, and then, lo and behold, he made the NFL, just as he had vowed.
And now, two years into a meteoric pro career, Ray Rice is one of the elite backs in the league -- a 5-foot-8, 210-pound cannonball, with more yards from scrimmage in 2009 than anyone not named Chris Johnson -- preparing to lead the Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis on Saturday night in the AFC divisional playoffs.
And, well, he's starting to lose patience with his mother: She won't quit her job. She won't pick up and move to Maryland with him. She can't bring herself to leave the special-needs students she teaches at Isaac E. Young Middle School. Those kids need her, she says, and it's also true that she needs them.
So this war of wills with her son goes on.
"I wish I could get her to quit. I tell her, 'Mom, you don't have to work anymore. I'm going to take care of you,' " Rice said after a recent practice, shaking his head. "But she won't have it. She's stubborn."
Okay, truth be told, it's not a feud, and it's not tearing them apart, and Ray is not losing patience. He's smiling. Truth be told, they could never be torn apart, after all they've been through together. If she won't leave New Rochelle, Ray will keep visiting home every chance he gets. And when he can't, he'll keep calling her every morning at 7 o'clock, like he's always done. And if he misses a morning, Janet will call him five, six, seven times in a row until he answers.
"Are you okay?" she'll say. "You got a fever or something?"
"No, Mom," he'll answer. "I'm just waiting for you to move down here."An early maturity
There was always something about Ray Rice -- from the way he karate-kicked inside Janet's womb, to the way he rode a bicycle without training wheels at the age of 2, to the way he hit like a sledgehammer as a 7-year-old in his first season of youth football. He was small for his age, but could he hit.
"Sad to say, he was putting kids in the hospital," Janet said. "One time, they took a kid out of there on a stretcher, and I was just horrified. Ray had to calm me down. He just said, 'Mom, it's football.' "
His coaches would put Ray at nose guard on defense, because he'd blow past the center and smother the quarterback practically before the poor kid could even take the snap. Once, when Ray was 12, it just got to be too much. The second quarter had barely started. Ray had touched the ball just twice, scoring touchdowns both times. On defense, he knocked out the other team's starting quarterback on the first series, then one series later, the second-stringer.
"The coach of the other team, he calls a timeout, and the referees call us out to midfield," said Joe Fosina, the president of the youth league and the coach of Ray's team at the time. "He just said, 'We're pulling our kids off the field, getting on the bus and going home if you don't take number 27 out of the game.'
"What was I going to do? So Ray is just sitting there on the bench, with this face -- he was crushed. Finally, I decided to take out our whole first team, so Ray wouldn't feel so bad."
There was something else about Ray Rice -- a maturity other kids didn't have. When Ray was in sixth grade, there were some gang problems in New Rochelle, which bled into the middle school, and school administrators asked Ray to mediate.
That maturity, it surely stemmed from Ray's circumstances. His father, a good man named Calvin Reed, was killed in a drive-by shooting -- an innocent bystander, victim of a lousy triggerman -- when Ray was just 1 year old. When Ray was 11, another father figure, a cousin named Myshaun Rice-Nichols, died in a car accident.
"I think that has a lot to do with his striving, and making him who he is today -- because of what we've been through," his mother said. "He watched me raise his siblings. And I remember the day I told him, 'You're the man of the house.' You know, he took that to heart, and really stepped up and became a man."
Once, when Ray was in high school, Janet was fired from a job at a day-care center two weeks before Christmas, her bosses apparently upset that she asked for a raise.
"I remember going home crying and saying to Ray, 'I don't know what I'm going to do.' I wanted to buy Christmas gifts, but I didn't have it. I had to pay rent and feed my kids," she said. "He saw my tears and he patted me on the back and said, 'It's going to be all right. One day, I'm going to make sure you're never in this position again.'"The doubts persisted
There's this thing Rice does, this trick, this move, this illusion, where he disappears after taking the handoff, hidden in that heaving forest of ham hocks and pork bellies that rises before him around the line of scrimmage. And then . . .
"And then I come out the other side -- out by the safeties!" Rice said, laughing as he completes the sentence. "Yeah, people tell me that all the time. I guess that's one of the benefits of being small."
He was born six weeks early, 5 pounds 11 ounces, in the middle of a blizzard. The folks at the hospital nicknamed Ray the "Blizzard Baby."
Only once can Janet recall Ray complaining about his height.
"He said, 'Why can't I be just a little bit taller?' " she said. "I said, 'Don't ask me. Ask God -- because I'm only 4 foot 11.' He said, 'Dang, Mom, why did I have to inherit your height?' "
It's natural -- and a cliche -- to assume Rice's small stature drove him to overachieve, to convince the doubters. But in truth, whatever convincing there needed to be done, it never took very long.
"Every step I've gone I've nipped that in the bud pretty quick," Rice said.
As the 2008 NFL draft approached, running backs all over the place leaving school early to declare -- Darren McFadden and Felix Jones of Arkansas, Oregon's Jonathan Stewart, Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois, among others.
Rice, a junior at Rutgers -- the Scarlet Knights' all-time leading rusher, with 4,926 yards and 49 touchdowns -- did so, too. Opinion was mixed as to whether it was a good move, but for Rice it was never a question. He was ready to make good on the vow he had made to his mother. He was ready to start taking care of her.
But even in a league where numerous undersize running backs have dominated -- from legends Walter Payton and Barry Sanders, to modern prototypes such as Maurice Jones-Drew -- Rice had his doubters.
The doubts persisted after he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds at the NFL scouting combines -- a good time for a tailback, but not exceptional, especially not on the same day that Chris Johnson, a senior out of East Carolina, ran a 4.24.
"He didn't run the 4.3 at the combine," says Eric DeCosta, the Ravens' scouting director at the time, now their director of player personnel. "He was a 5-foot-8 running back who ran a mid-4.4. He also had ton of carries in college, which some people look at as a negative, but that we looked at as a positive -- because he's durable.
"People place a premium on size and speed in this league. But there were intangibles about Ray that made us really value him."
Six running backs would be taken before the Ravens got Rice with the 55th overall pick, having traded down in the second round as a gamble that other teams would undervalue Rice. To the Ravens and a handful of other believers, Rice's size and speed only told a small part of his story.
"I remember the first time I saw him on tape. I said, 'Oh. My. God,' " said Merril Hoge, a former running back who spent eight years in the NFL and is now an analyst for ESPN. "He had this perfect combination of footwork, power and leverage. It was uncanny."A rumble all across town
The Hollows, as the project where the Rices lived for two generations is known, looks pretty much like this: Two nondescript brick buildings, with a trash-strewn, concrete courtyard between them.
Janet Rice strolled through that courtyard, pointing out the locations of some of her son's milestones. This is where he learned to play football. That's where he rode that bike as a 2-year-old. That's where he did his 'Evel Knievel' thing and bloodied up his face. Those monkey bars is where he would do pull-ups all day with the older kids, while the other kids his age were playing games.
Rice hasn't been able to convince his mom to quit her job, but in his first year in the NFL he at least talked her into moving -- not that that required much prodding. "It was time for me to go," she said.
Her move was only about six blocks, by distance, but in terms of comfort and luxury it is a continent away. She's on the water. It's peaceful.
"I park in a garage now," she said, pointing to the shiny, red Lexus that Ray recently bought her.
Pick a Monday during the NFL season, or any day between February and June, and Ray is liable to show up in the Hollows, or over at his mom's school, or maybe the high school. Once, he showed up at Young Middle School with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco alongside him. Just a couple weeks ago, at the end of the regular season, Lou DiRienzo, the longtime head football coach at New Rochelle High, watched Rice and the Ravens beat the Raiders in Oakland late on a Sunday afternoon -- a win that secured the Ravens' wild-card playoff berth -- then arrived at the school's athletics office on Monday morning to find Ray sitting there, clowning around with the staff.
"I said, 'Wait, didn't I just . . . ?' " DiRienzo said. "He said he slept on the plane the whole ride back, then hopped right on a train and came up."
Six days ago, having decided to skip the Ravens' wild-card game at New England -- "Ray knows I don't do cold," she said -- Janet Rice had barely settled into her couch for the start of the game, when Ray took the handoff on the first play of the game and did his little disappearing thing on his way to an 83-yard touchdown run.
"There was like this rumble that went up all across town," said Anthony Bongo, the principal at Young Middle School. "And then it just grew into a scream as Ray went down the sideline. You could hear people just screaming out their windows."
As she walked around the courtyard at the Hollows, Janet Rice stopped at a spot near the center. "This is where my Aunt Judy used to have a big cookout every summer," she said. "Everybody would be down there. It was the best day of every summer."
Starry-eyed, she started to describe the cookout she's going to throw this summer, just like the ones Aunt Judy used to throw.
"Hot dogs, hamburgers, juice boxes for the kids," she said. "It's something I really want to do, now that we're in position to give back. We'll have the whole neighborhood there. And Ray will be there, of course."