Last offseason, Sidney Rice heard and read all of the critiques about his premature demise as a Minnesota Viking.
Odd, he thought. He was only 22.
Injuries in his two NFL seasons had delayed his development as a wide receiver. Still, evidence mounted higher than a January snowbank that a lack of durability might cripple the potential of the NBA-style aerial playmaker with the super-sticky mitts.
"So I knew what this season meant to me," Rice says softly. "The doubters said, 'He already has fallen off.' "
Critics fried Rice for his injury-marred production, which included 15 catches in 2008. In April, the Vikings drafted Florida Gators playmaker Percy Harvin at receiver.
Then last summer, Rice glumly listened as ESPN analyst Cris Carter, the Vikings' all-time leader in receptions, told the world that Jaymar Johnson — a sixth-round, 6-foot, 175-pound practice squad player — was a more polished receiver who could become a starter.
Carter's words served as the ultimate motivation.
"Everybody has an opinion — can't get mad at that. I guess you can only try to prove them wrong," Rice says.
Rice, built like a ballistic missile at 6-4, 200 pounds, blasted into the NFL stratosphere with a Pro Bowl season. He uses his rather unique body-twisting, ball-snatching ability and pterodactyl-like wingspan to pluck rainbows and alley-oop passes from quarterback Brett Favre. Rice displays the grace and hand-to-hand instincts of a basketball player as a two-time South Carolina prep player of the year in that sport.
The old man-young kid combo has vaulted the high-flying Vikings (13-4) into Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the New Orleans Saints (14-3).
"There are faster guys. There are taller guys. There are quicker guys," Favre said after Rice grabbed an NFL record-tying three touchdowns in a 34-3 rout of the Dallas Cowboys last weekend. "But the thing about Sidney is he wants to be good — it matters to him."
On the second touchdown, Rice cut down DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys' fierce Pro Bowl pass rusher, with a block, popped up and hustled downfield.
Since learning what it takes to be a top-tier receiver — and after hooking up with a confidence-boosting veteran quarterback — Rice has done nothing but sizzle.
Recruited by then-South Carolina coach Lou Holtz, he has vindicated the Vikings' decision in 2007 to draft him as a 20-year-old who broke most of Sterling Sharpe's school receiving records. Rice signed a four-year, $2.98 million contract, including a $1 million bonus.
The Vikings were second-guessed for not drafting Southern California's Dwayne Jarrett. But Rick Spielman, the Vikings' vice president of player personnel, said Rice "reminded me a little bit of (former Detroit Lions star wide receiver) Herman Moore — a tall guy who could jump out of the gym (but) who wasn't extremely fast. He (could make) electric plays, circus-type catches."
Vikings coach Brad Childress said Rice reminded him of a "Great Dane — all arms and legs."
Rice, who can dunk a basketball, played guard for three state championship teams at Gaffney (S.C.) High, so it's not surprising to hear him say he used to think about playing in the NBA … except Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier wouldn't allow him to play college basketball.
The principle involved remains the same in his sport of choice.
"When the ball's in the air, it's basically like getting a rebound. Grab it, hold it tight, come down with it — and don't let anyone knock it out of your hands," Rice says.
This season, Rice's 1,312 receiving yards ranked fourth in the league and second in the NFC.
He posted a 201-yard explosion vs. the Lions and had 312 combined receiving yards in back-to-back games against the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He recorded career bests in touchdowns (eight), receptions (83), 100-yard games (four) and yards per catch (15.8).
"People had been saying he wasn't going to make it, that he wasn't living up to his billing," says friend, mentor and peer Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals. "He hasn't forgotten folks were writing him off."
After Rice worked a few days with Favre in training camp in August, Childress said the quarterback told him, "I've never had a guy like Sidney Rice."
Big dreams, big heart
Rice — nicknamed "Showtime" — always cared; he just didn't know how to become a professional football player.
Raised by a single mother, Ida Coleman, Rice is the proverbial "down-to-earth, good ol' country boy," Fitzgerald says.
"You know how Southern guys have that deep-rooted respect?" Fitzgerald says. "He has good manners. It really makes you gravitate toward him because he's such a good person and he wants to be special. He is special."
Ida recalls picking up her 6-year-old child after peewee football practice one day and being startled at his vision for the future. Ida was both mother and father because her children's father, Jerry — no relation to the former NFL star — had abandoned the family, she says.
"He said, 'Mama, guess what?' " Ida says. " 'When I make it in the NFL, I'm going to buy you your first house and car.' "
So he did. Sunday, she will be at the Louisiana Superdome.
Soft-spoken, humble and sensitive, Rice always had big dreams — and a big heart. Last week, he took it upon himself to make sure a 7-year-old Wisconsin girl, battling the effects of chemotherapy for leukemia, was his guest with her family at the Cowboys game. He stunned the girl, Kathryn Glor, with this out-of-the-blue phone call greeting: "Hi, this is Sidney Rice of the Vikings."
"I like to see people happy," he says. "I think I'm in a position to help them. If (I can), I will."
Quiet and unfailingly polite, Rice was a target in school. Because the family lived on his mother's $300 monthly disability check, he was taunted for wearing raggedy clothes and shoes.
They were so poor, Rice never had a birthday party.
His brothers, Jarvis and Tramell, teased him, making him cry when his youth teams lost. Rice was enveloped with love and support as Ida told him to pay no attention to his tormentors.
"Keep working hard," she said. "Don't ever give up."
Ida watched over her youngest son like a mother hen.
"I wouldn't let him run the streets like that," she says.
She recalls telling him, "You see what it's done to your brothers (who dropped out of school). I'll be darned if I let you end up like that. Uh-uh, it ain't happening. No, no, no. You're my baby."
Prodding from Carter
Baby's all grown up now — and he's a "baller," as Carter says. And, seemingly the anti-Ochocinco of today's NFL.
"Contrary to a lot of other (star) receivers we've seen the last 10 years, Sidney's more of an introvert," Carter says. "He's a country boy — a basketball player playing football. He was laid-back, and a little cavalier, coming to the league. (Unlike) the first time I met Randy Moss, who said, 'I'm gonna rip the league up.' "
After Rice missed Day 2 of a workout with Carter in July because of a twinge in his hamstring, it was Carter, an eight-time Pro Bowler, who did the shredding. As Vikings receivers coach George Stewart says, "That's when Cris tore into him. 'Hamstrings! You (claim you) want to be the best you can be?' "
Carter says he was surprised by Rice's lack of attention to detail and his failure to add post-practice drills to improve fundamentals. He warned Rice that, because of his size and length, if he did not learn how to "play small" by accelerating in and out of his cuts, he would become a one-dimensional receiver.
"And they don't last long in this league," Carter says.
It wasn't that Rice didn't want to be a great player or lacked a work ethic. His attitude didn't need adjustment. He was young.
"Lots of players don't get it, they don't understand what it takes to be a professional — I learned," Rice says. "Coming in real young — a knucklehead — I didn't take care of my body. You need to understand this is a job. Some players feel like something's owed to them. It is not."
Last spring, he endured wickedly intense workouts in South Florida with, among others, Cowboys running back Marion Barber III. To build strength and endurance, the players pushed blocking sleds, swung sledgehammers on tires and climbed ropes — "All kinds of crazy stuff," Rice says.
"There wasn't one day that went by where we didn't throw up," he says.
It took a text message from Fitzgerald, whom Rice idolized in high school, to persuade him to join a pre-camp workout with Carter, the Hall of Fame hopeful and ordained minister.
"Sidney asked me to critique his game," Carter recalls. "After we did the drills, I told him I thought he was pretty pathetic."
Now, Carter says, "What you're seeing is Sidney's love and passion for the game. He's got that want-to. You don't come in and cut-block DeMarcus Ware and then get up off the ground unless you're sure enough a baller."
Rice, who has no relationship with his father, thanked Carter for caring enough to apply a tough-love approach.
"After our last workout, I told him I was going to keep working, because he had preached that the whole time."
Edited by: MORGANLAFEE at: 1/21/2010 (12:07)
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