(A little bonus reading on a day without any hockey … I’ve become more of a skeptic over the years, but here’s a kid who stands tall and seems to be a legitimate role model. Enjoy.)
By Mike Dougherty
NEW ORLEANS — The play most likely saved the season for a Baltimore Ravens team that was getting desperate in late November, and it most certainly defined the career of Ray Rice.
Now he’s got a YouTube visual to go along with the overachieving and undersized label.
With the Ravens facing
a fourth-and-29 and trailing by a field goal with just under two minutes to play at San Diego, Rice caught a short outlet pass from quarterback Joe Flacco, who couldn’t find anyone open down the field. The 5-foot-6 running back latched onto the ball 3 yards past the line of scrimmage, then made five Chargers miss badly. Rice plowed between two more defenders and narrowly picked up the first down.
The Ravens went on to win in overtime. Today, they’ll play in Super Bowl XLVII.
“I don’t want to take all that credit,” Rice said with a spontaneous belly laugh. “I think it was the turning point in our season.”
The desperation and determination provided a serious jolt of adrenaline.
“I’m going to tell you the truth right now,” Baltimore running-backs coach Wilbert Montgomery said. “It’s fourth-and-29, and you throw a check-down play to a running back? Do the math; it’s not going to work. A 3-yard pass, … and you’re asking Joe, ‘What in the heck are you thinking about?’
“It was pure determination by Ray Rice to make something happen, which he did with a big block from Anquan Boldin. If we don’t win that game, we’re at home like everybody else.”
Instead, the Ravens have spent two weeks searching for holes in a San Francisco 49ers defense that has made a habit of stopping the run with a measure of authority.
Rice rushed for 1,143 yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season. He also caught 61 passes for 478 yards and one score. Over the last four seasons, the former New Rochelle and Rutgers University star has piled up a league-leading 7,506 yards from scrimmage.
That’s a lot of real estate for a running back who stands chest high to the average linebacker.
“He’s tough,” San Francisco running back Frank Gore said. “If you’re tough and love the game, you’ll be fine. He’s tough.”
Rice looks to deliver the punishment whenever possible.
“There’s lots of guys bigger than me, but if you look around the league, there’s lots of guys smaller than me,” he said. “The question is: How big is your heart?”
And the answer has generated 213,602 views … and counting.
“Everybody’s definition of ‘big’ is different,” said NFL Network analyst Shaun O’Hara, a former center for the Giants and a fellow Rutgers product. “I’ve always thought Ray Rice was big in his own way. He’s not tall, but he packs a punch. He reminds me of Mighty Mouse.
“What he doesn’t get credit for is his vision. Some guys just have that ability to see a play before it unfolds. Ray has that ability. Tiki Barber used to have a knack for that, and he used to find ways to hide behind us and pop out at the last second. Ray does that, too.”
Rice, 26, swears he wasn’t always small.
“I was actually one of the taller guys in Pop Warner,” he said. “I had my growth spurt early.”
And when he made varsity at New Rochelle, his teammates had caught up, but only in terms of pounds and inches.
“Coming out of college, I was told I wasn’t fast enough, I wasn’t strong enough, I definitely wasn’t big enough,” said Rice, who estimates he’s spent $30,000 on Super Bowl tickets for his family and friends. “That’s been the story of my life. Am I satisfied now? Absolutely not. I made three Pro Bowls, and I’m still not happy. I’m humbled by the achievements, but I’m not satisfied with my legacy. I have to keep going.”
And getting a taste of the biggest game of the season will add fuel.
There’s little doubt Rice will be closely watched by 49ers linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks. Rice is on the record here this week as claiming they might be able to stop the run, but they cannot stay in stride in pass coverage.
Rice loves a challenge.
“Ray is a different kind of guy,” Montgomery said. “He’s a happy-go-lucky kid. I don’t think Ray has ever seen anything he can’t do.”
So is he unstoppable?
“If a team wants to come in there and isolate Ray Rice, they can do that,” Rice said. “When you talk about stopping Ray Rice, you have to stop him in the pass game and you have to stop him in the run game. I’m just as dangerous catching a pass as I am running the ball. A pass to me is nothing but a long handoff. Once I get it, I’m good.”
All of the face time with the media in the week leading up to the Super Bowl forces players to reflect. Rice knows where he came from and how he got here. He also knows there is more to come.
“What’s next? We’re here at the Super Bowl. You win the Super Bowl, and the only thing to chase after that is a legacy,” Rice said. “That’s where I’m at in my career now. It went by fast. I can’t believe next year is going to be my sixth year in the NFL. It’s one of those things that goes by fast. I’m glad I didn’t wish this time away. I just took advantage of the opportunities I had.”