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Ray Rice seeks end to exile from NFL

As NFL free agency approaches, Ray Rice speaks with The Baltimore Sun about the past year and the future.

Ray Rice became emotional inside a Hunt Valley hotel room while reflecting on the most turbulent year of his life.

One year removed from punching and knocking out his now-wife, Janay, on Valentine's Day inside an Atlantic City, N.J., casino elevator, the former Ravens running back told The Baltimore Sun he's experienced dark moments over the past year but holds no grudges against the Ravens or NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and is hopeful his football career won't end in exile.

In the wake of a violent episode that rocked the league, cost Rice his job and ignited a national conversation about domestic violence, the three-time Pro Bowl running back remains a free agent after being reinstated from an indefinite suspension in November.

"The big picture of it all, being the person that I am, I really felt horrible," Rice said in a recent hourlong interview. "You almost want to punish yourself. I know I'm never going to win the battle of public opinion. Honestly, I almost felt like at one point that it wasn't worth living. I see why people commit suicide.

"It hurt that bad. I was low, real low. It hurt that bad because you worked your whole life to do all the right things and then you're the world's most hated person. It was really tough. My daughter, oh Lord, I grew up without a father, there's no way I could check out on my own family."

Rice's comments, part of his first extensive interview with the local media since the Ravens terminated his $35 million contract in September, come as the start of NFL free agency approaches March 10. He previously spoke on NBC's "Today" show as he appealed his suspension, and before that answered questions during Ravens training camp.

Crisis management experts say it makes sense for him to speak now, as he attempts to persuade an NFL team to give him a second chance.

"It's a very smart move for Ray to become even more public and attempt to repair his image and restore the trust that he's lost since the incident," said Rob Weinhold, a crisis and issue management expert from the Fallston Group. "He needs to be more of a presence in the court of the public opinion."

Rice emphasized that he and Janay have improved their relationship significantly through counseling, and said he's grown since being charged last year with felony aggravated assault after the couple argued and fought following a night of drinking at Revel Casino. Rice avoided jail time when he was accepted into a pretrial intervention program by New Jersey prosecutors, which he's scheduled to complete May 19.

Rice said he has a good relationship with Janay. "Every day gets better," he said.

Rebuilding

Before last February, Rice had built a positive reputation for being involved in the community and as an anti-bullying advocate. Now, his name has become synonymous with domestic violence. He was cut by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by Goodell in September, hours after the casino surveillance video of his fight with his wife was posted on the celebrity website TMZ.

"It's tough, I realize that's a battle I'm going to have to face for the rest of my life," Rice said. "Time does heal everything, but I don't think people are going to forget this. I want people to not forget about the incident, but I want people to see there's a human being on the other side. This is not a monster, a guy who's a repeat offender. I'm not the guy they stereotype me to be. I'm not excusing what I did."

Rice said he's agonized daily about how he'll eventually explain to his young daughter, Rayven, what happened.

"I just want to tell her that her father made a huge mistake and there are certain things that aren't acceptable," Rice said. "I want to basically make my daughter understand the severity of these things."

Rice plans to move close to his hometown of New Rochelle, N.Y.

"That's going to be a hard pill to swallow, to leave Baltimore," Rice said of his pending move, adding that he still hopes to be involved in Baltimore charity events. "Truly, I feel like I have unfinished business here. I didn't finish it on the field. At least I can finish it in the community."

Rice was initially suspended for two games by Goodell, a punishment that was widely criticized as too lenient. Goodell made the suspension indefinite after the video was released, writing in a disciplinary letter that Rice's description of the incident in a June meeting was ambiguous.

"I realize that the only thing you have in life is your word, but I wasn't surprised by him to feel different if he hadn't seen the tape," Rice said. "I have the utmost respect for our commissioner. He took a stand. I couldn't deny that he shouldn't have taken a stand. I went there and explained what happened. I guess visual and actually hearing it is obviously two different things."

Ravens 'happy' if Rice gets a job

Former federal judge Barbara S. Jones wrote in her reinstatement decision that she believed Rice was truthful with Goodell and other NFL officials. According to sources familiar with the testimony of Ozzie Newsome, the Ravens general manager's affirmation of Rice's version of events was instrumental in his reinstatement.

"As much as I want to call it backing me up and vouching for me, it was just Ozzie being Ozzie," Rice said. "He's a straightforward guy. ... Ozzie never lied to me. ... As hard as it was for him to call me that day and tell me my contract was being terminated, that's Ozzie. They make him do the tough things around there. That's what his job calls for, being bluntly honest."

On Tuesday during the Ravens' state-of-the-team news conference, Newsome said he would be happy if Rice gets another opportunity in the league.

"I think we will find out probably before April whether Ray will get the opportunity to sign with another team," Newsome said. "He was in really good shape when he was with us this offseason, and from what I'm hearing, he's still working his butt off. If he gets that opportunity to play with another club, I'll be happy for it."

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said in a September news conference that he would be willing to hire Rice to work in the team's player development department. The news conference was called to rebut a report by ESPN that said the Ravens participated in a "pattern of misinformation and misdirection" in their handling of the Rice incident. The report also said Rice felt Bisciotti's offer was akin to taking hush money, but the team released text messages between Bisciotti and Rice in which Rice thanked the Ravens owner.

In a statement recently released to The Sun, Rice again thanked Bisciotti and the Ravens for his time with them since being drafted in the second round out of Rutgers seven years ago. Rice was paid $25 million by the Ravens on a contract he signed in July 2012 that included a $15 million signing bonus.

"I still feel the same about Steve," Rice said. "They were family. ... You have to understand the fine line that it's business. That doesn't mean they don't feel a certain way about the person. Steve is a great, great guy.

"I put him in a tough position. I screwed that up. I always take that approach. I have to be accountable. If I had never committed my act, then Steve is never in that position because he had already done what he had to do, he took care of my family."

Playing future

NFL general managers and personnel directors told The Sun they believe Rice eventually will get another chance, though it might be "a tough sell." In addition to the domestic violence incident, Rice is 28 years old and was unproductive in 2013, when he played overweight — as heavy as 225 pounds — and struggled with hip and quadriceps injuries.

Prior to his indefinite suspension, Rice appeared to be primed during training camp for a resurgent season in offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak's run-oriented offense.

"I sure hope he gets back in the NFL," Kubiak, now the Denver Broncos head coach, said during the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. "I know the time I was here Ray gave me everything he had and worked extremely hard. It's a tough situation to go through. I know the Ravens are tremendous in their support of him and I wish him all the best."

Jonathan Bernstein, a crisis management expert, said an NFL team probably should avoid Rice if it has a viable alternative.

"Any team that takes him on is potentially choosing to be a target ... and they have to decide if he's good enough to warrant taking that risk," Bernstein said. "That's very difficult to overcome, no matter how contrite he is and how much he's cleaned up his life. ... Ray's swimming upstream against something that's very formidable."

When asked what he would tell an NFL general manager or coach considering him for employment to convince them he can be trusted, Rice replied: "I would own my mistake. I would let them know all the steps I've done to become a better person. I would just reassure them that the person that created this, that committed that horrible act of violence, that's not the person, that's not who I am."

After four consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, Rice rushed for only 660 yards in 2013, his lowest total since becoming a regular starter. He went down without being hit against the Cleveland Browns and said recently that he was playing with a torn quadriceps.

"Because I'm a free agent ... I can't get in the doghouse for talking about my injuries," Rice said. "When I went down in Cleveland, that was a pain I can't even describe. I get told in the locker room that it's a two- to three-week injury, but it lasted the whole year.

"I was basically playing with one leg ... I played through an injury I probably should have sat through."

Rice missed the following game against the Buffalo Bills after being injured against the Browns and appeared on the injury report throughout the season. The Ravens didn't respond Friday to a question about Rice's injury.

Rice now appears lean and muscular, and said he weighs 207 pounds.

"I'm optimistic that I'll get a second chance," Rice said. "I don't think this boils down to whether I can play football or not. Obviously I know that. I just think there's so much more that comes with it. I know the PR side of it will be tough. I understand that."

Two players' paths back to the NFL could prove instructive for Rice as he tries to return to the league.

New York Jets quarterback Michael Vick served time in a federal prison for his involvement in a dogfighting ring that included the killing and torture of dogs before being signed by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Buffalo Bills recently signed guard Richie Incognito after he was the central figure in the Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal two years ago and was out of the league last year.

"I don't want my career to be defined by this one moment," Rice said. "I've been smart with money and the NFL is a great-paying game, but I really want to get back out there for my pride and to be able to leave the game with dignity. I don't ever want to feel exiled out because I wasn't that guy. ... I know I'm not ready to call it quits yet."

awilson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/RavensInsider

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