A vintage Ray Rice run defies the limits of imagination.
Scampering upfield after disappearing momentarily behind his blockers, Rice dodges tacklers by making his diminutive body even smaller as he balls up low to the ground like an ice skater in football cleats.
Bounding out of his extreme crouch, Rice accelerates away from linebackers with uncanny speed before reaching his ultimate destination: the end zone.
The lightning quick feet of the power-packed Baltimore Ravens’ Pro Bowl runner was never a surprise to his mother.
Janet Rice had the benefit of a sneak preview of her son’s burgeoning moves.
“I always knew Ray was going to be special,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in New Rochelle, N.Y. “When he was in my stomach, he never sat still. He was always moving around. He came out six weeks early.
“He weighed five pounds, 11 ounces. He was a little, little thing, but the doctors told me he weighed enough I could take him home. He’s always been a blessing from God.”
Rice emerged from humble beginnings in a rough neighborhood to become a consensus All-American selection at nearby Rutgers.
Now, Rice is recognized as one of the top running backs in the NFL after rushing for 1,339 yards and catching 78 passes to lead the team in both categories.
Rice’s father, Calvin Reed, was the unintended victim of a drive-by shooting, dying as an innocent bystander to a senseless street crime when Ray Rice was a year old. His cousin and mentor, Myshaun Rice-Nichols, died in a car accident just over a decade ago.
He grew up nurtured by his mother, a spunky 4-foot-11 dynamo who encouraged him to remain humble and pursue his football dreams. They talk every day, routinely as early as 7 a.m.
“I share everything with her,” Rice said. “I don’t hold nothing back. It’s almost like a brother-sister relationship.”
Rice has been trying to talk his mother into moving closer, but she doesn’t want to leave the special-needs children she continues to teach in the New Rochelle school system.
“My mom has been everything to me,” Rice said. “I haven’t really got her ready to move yet. She’s got to the point where she knows I’m good and whenever she wants to come down, it’s all right.
“She loves working with special-needs kids. That’s something that’s not easy to give up. It takes time and patience and hard work. She’s dedicated to her job just like I’m dedicated to my job.”
Rice learned about the value of hard work from her example. He began working at age 13, riding his bike to his job as a counselor at a boys and girls club.
Rice isn’t the only celebrity from New Rochelle, the fictional home of the “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” It’s also the birthplace of Jay Leno.
Considering Leno’s flagging rating and the way Rice performed this season, he’s representing their shared hometown in superior fashion.
Growing up, Rice talked his mother into removing the training wheels from his bike when he was 3. He was always advanced for his age, and a happy kid.
“Ray was always smiling,” said Lou DiRienzo, Rice’s coach at New Rochelle High. “About the only time you would see him get really serious was when he got on the football field. He’s one of a kind, a true gem.”
At Rutgers, Rice rushed for a school-record 4,926 yards and 49 touchdowns in just three seasons before turning pro after his junior year to help out his mother.
“I saw this kid come in here when we had five running backs in the program and Ray was No. 6 as a freshman,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano told the Newark Star-Ledger. “Within 29 practices, he catapulted in front of all of them and started as a true freshman his first game at Illinois. Nothing amazes me about this kid. He’s a tremendous athlete and a tremendous competitor.”
Today, Rice’s workout regimen and dedication helped him become one of the best all-purpose backs in the league in just his second season.
“What I did this year is very special,” Rice said. “I’m never a guy who’s satisfied. You set goals, and this league is all about reinventing yourself. You try to set more goals for next year.
“It was a great season for me, a great way for me to get myself on the radar and get the respect. Going into next year, guys have to say, ‘He’s an overall football player.’ You’re no longer the guy who’s just a scat back.”
His 2,041 yards from scrimmage ranked him second in the NFL behind Tennessee Titans’ Chris Johnson. Rice averaged 127.6 net yards per game.
His yards from scrimmage ranked second in Ravens franchise history behind running back Jamal Lewis’ 2,271 yards in 2003.
“I think he’s a special back,” Lewis said. “He’s quick, he’s elusive and at certain times he can lower the hat on you. He can run it, they can throw it to him and he can catch it.”
Rice is often referred to as undersized. In reality, though, he’s just short, not small at 5-8, 210 pounds.
Rice has plenty of bulk in his powerful lower body to break tackles. And his biceps are practically the size of softballs.
If anything, his lack of height gives him an edge. Defenders can’t find him behind the Ravens’ imposing offensive line, especially when he’s running behind mammoth left tackle Jared Gaither, a 6-9, 340-pounder.
“The size thing, after you make a few plays, I think they forget about it,” Rice said. “I’ve been this size nearly my entire life, ever since I’ve been at Rutgers.
“Running the football and making plays was something I’ve been doing my whole life. Same thing with Maurice Jones-Drew. People talked about that guy, his size, and he made a few plays and now you don’t hear about his size anymore. I just look at my size as an advantage.”
This season, Rice’s special brand of moves helped springboard the Ravens to the fifth-ranked running game in the NFL.
Besides his 83-yard run on the opening snap for a touchdown during the Ravens’ 33-14 win over the New England Patriots, a game in which he rushed for a franchise playoff record 159 yards, Rice’s signature moment came against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
On Nov. 29 at M&T Bank Stadium, Rice converted a fourth-and-5 with a 44-yard catch-and-run to set up the game-tying field goal in the final two minutes of regulation. That led to an overtime win.
“He’s their leading rusher, he’s their leading receiver, he’s a big-time player,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Not only for them, but in the big scope of things in this league. He’s gotten to that status.”
Tomlin’s words held special meaning for Rice.
“For him to give me some kind of respect like that, obviously, I must be doing something right,” he said.
Rice attributes his success to never being satisfied, always striving to improve. And he admits to retaining a healthy-sized chip on his shoulder whenever he’s dismissed as being too small.
Rice caught a career-high 10 passes for 117 yards during a loss to the Minnesota Vikings, also rushing for 77 yards and two touchdowns.
Rice piled up 166 rushing yards against the Detroit Lions even though he left the game in the third quarter with a chest injury.
And he became the first player in 33 games to eclipse the century mark against the Steelers, rushing for 141 yards during a December loss.
“He’s an incredible player,” Ravens tackle Michael Oher said. “He’s a fan of the game. He loves what he’s doing.”
Added linebacker Jarret Johnson: “He’s down to earth, the ultimate teammate. Ray’s someone who doesn’t have a big ego and that’s great to see.”
Rice’s selection to the Pro Bowl marked the culmination of a year of climbing the NFL ladder.
Now, he’s enjoying the view a bit from the top.
“The Pro Bowl was just one of those things that when it came along, it felt surreal to me,” Rice said.
And with that accomplishment, Rice’s name is growing in value.
He has signed a six-figure endorsement deal with Steiner Sports Memorabilia. Although he’s already earned roughly $500,000 in endorsement deals, including a deal with Nike, a spokesman role for a jewelry store and several five-figure paydays for autograph shows, much more is expected in the future for the charismatic 23-year-old in terms of business opportunities.
Will his humble demeanor change?
That’s considered unlikely given how he handled all of his success this year in a low-key, respectful manner that his mother instilled in him.
“I’m still the same guy off the field,” Rice said. “Whenever I get a chance, I try to give to the community and get involved with kids. I’m very approachable.
“To anybody out there, don’t be shy to say, ‘Hi.’ … Just try not to jump on my back after a game and, trust me, we’ll be pretty cool.”