Two years ago, Antonio Rice found it troubling that the few traces of football tradition at the University of Virginia existed only about five decades back into the record book, where there were the pictures of guys who played a schedule that included Hampden-Sydney College.
Rice's solution to this gap in tradition was to get together a few other Virginia history students, such as former strong safety Lester Lyles, and talk them into shaving their heads, Mohawk style. Admittedly, the symbol of the Mohawk haircut has little to do with the symbol of the Cavaliers. But it made a point about the seriousness of the Virginia team.
Virginia went 6-5 that 1983 season, even though Rice broke his arm. So he carried on with his scheme in 1984, when Virginia went 8-2-2. The Cavaliers made their first appearance in a bowl game, the Peach, in which they beat Purdue. But Rice was switched from tailback to fullback and didn't play much.
Rice now figures that the Cavaliers can stand on their own two feet, and so he can revert to his conventional cut, which he would like to think makes him look like Bryant Gumbel of "The Today Show." Being a team player is one thing, but sacrificing one's senior season to tradition is a little baroque.
"My first year, I had a nice little haircut and I did well," he said. "The second year I get the Mohawk and I break my arm. The next year, I get the Mohawk again and I'm moved to another position. There is no way I'm getting another haircut.
"It's not that I'm superstitious, other than the fact that I must have my right ankle taped before my left. And the hair."
Rice, Virginia's unofficial morale officer and resident Henny Youngman, is not going to do anything to jepoardize his senior season. After three years of being shuffled around, Rice, who attended high school at McKinley Tech in the District of Columbia, is expected to be a full-time starter in the backfield for the first time, at fullback. In addition, partly in tribute to his nonstop talking, he has been elected one of three team captains.
He takes the captain's role seriously. Another Virgina tradition he has begun is asking freshmen to stand up and introduce themselves to the team, a seemingly harmless practice. But the unaware freshman stands and suddenly finds himself being slowly picked apart -- clothes, shoes, hair.
"Team unity, you know," Rice said. "Breaks the ice."
Rice's decreasing role the previous two years was disappointing in light of the Cavaliers' increasing success. He was among Coach George Welsh's first recruits in 1982 and immediately caught the eye of the first-year coach. He saw more playing time than most freshmen, carrying the ball 196 times for 764 yards and six touchdowns and finishing second in the voting for Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers went 2-9.
His sophomore year was the Year of the first Mohawk. He started the first five games of that season but was a little sluggish, rushing for 321 yards on 75 carries. In the sixth game, against Virginia Military Institute, he broke his arm and sat out the rest of the year.
When Rice returned in 1984, Welsh's recruits had started to develop and there suddenly was a wealth of backs. Howard Petty became the starting tailback. Barry Word, another sophomore, also came up fast and won the alternating job, the two combining for 1,414 yards and 14 touchdowns. They are joined this year by redshirt freshman Kevin Morgan, a highly regarded prospect who could move up over everybody.
To get some use out of Rice, he was switched to fullback last season behind senior Steve Morse, who since has gone to the Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent. Rice again saw limited action, gaining 230 yards on 56 carries while Virginia had its second straight winning season since 1951-52. In the 27-24 victory over Purdue in the Peach Bowl, he carried once, for one yard.
Still, Rice does not complain about his fortunes at Virginia. By now, he is familiar with the role of utility player and is good at it. At McKinley Tech, he earned four letters each in football and baseball. He played quarterback, tailback, linebacker, defensive back and kicker before settling down to captain the team at tailback his senior year. When he wasn't in Virginia's games last season, he was leading a cheering section from the sideline.
Rice is the youngest of Sylvia and Phillip Rice's seven children -- three boys and four girls. Two brothers are computer technicians, "making money like I'm going to be." His mother is a medical technician, two sisters are in the armed forces and another sister works for the CIA, as did his father, a retired personnel officer.
Rice was fairly heavily recruited out of McKinley Tech. He considered Wisconsin, Wake Forest and West Virginia, among others. But he was charmed by Virginia's Jeffersonian campus and by Welsh, who was about to take over the program after coaching at Navy. He also was enough of a realist to know that his football career might likely end in college.
"I figured if I was going to bust my butt for four or five years playing football, then I wanted to come away with a degree, something that was worth something," he said.
Throughout his less successful seasons, Rice has remained a favorite of Welsh's. He has developed something approaching a close relationship with the normally reserved Welsh, mainly because he sensed the droller side of the two-time ACC coach of the year. As a freshman, he simply decided to stroll into the office of the close-mouthed first-year coach and get to know him.
"Antonio has added something to the team every year since he's been here," Welsh said. "He's vocal when he needs to be. He has the leadership quality . . . and he's funny."
Rice, a sociology major, has a passion for college life and is considering acquiring another degree in speech and communication. His real aim, beyond a taking a shot at the NFL, is to work in public relations, which undoubtedly would suit him. Or to go after Bryant Gumbel's job.
"I'd love to steal Gumbel's job," he said. "I love to talk. I'd just get behind that camera and run my mouth."
Rice seems to have taken to fullback since last season. He was named most improved player in spring drills and hung around campus over the summer to build up his strength and put on some weight. This should be his most successful season. If not, he probably still will find something to laugh about.
"Look, the point is to have fun," he said. "When that stops, you know something is wrong."