Becoming the NFL's top pass rusher is no longer a goal for Simeon Rice. It's an obsession.
The senior defensive end from the University of Illinois has a lot to prove to his friends and critics, and for his grandmother, Adelia Ross, 69, who died nearly two weeks ago of heart failure.
"My grandmother was my heart. We were extremely close," said Rice, 6 feet 5, 259 pounds. "She practically raised me. I told her before she died that I was going to make it in the NFL, that I wanted to become the best ever."
Rice is rated the best pass rusher in the NFL draft, which begins Saturday. Before the start of the 1995 season, he generally was regarded as the best player in college football. Since then, his stock has fallen.
Ozzie Newsome, the Baltimore Ravens' director of football operations, said the team still is considering Rice, along with Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips, Southern Cal wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, UCLA offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden and Illinois linebacker Kevin Hardy. The Ravens have the No. 4 pick in the first round.
When asked why Baltimore owner Art Modell had not mentioned Rice last week as one of the four blue-chip players the Ravens would like to draft, Newsome said with a smile: "Well, we can only let Art know a few things.
"Rice can do one thing we all look for, and that's rush the passer," said Newsome. "We still rate him very high."
Rice's position in the draft started falling midway through last season, when his statistics were comparable to his junior year.
Two years ago, Rice had 58 tackles, 20 for losses. Last season, he finished with 67 tackles, 23 behind the line of scrimmage. His sack total dropped from 16 to 10.
This wasn't supposed to happen to Superman.
"He had a great junior year and decided to stay in school for another season," said Newsome. "When that happens, everybody expects you to be the man among the boys, that you should make every play and make every tackle. When that doesn't happen, people start to get down on you."
Illinois coach Lou Tepper said Rice was a victim of his own success. Opposing teams would double- and triple-team him. Quarterbacks would roll the opposite way.
But Pro Football Weekly draft analyst Joel Buchsbaum recently said Rice did not give consistent effort, and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has Rice listed as the third-best college defensive end.
Rice said he feels insulted.
"I didn't get any slower, and the motivation was there," said Rice. "I feel good about my season, because the people who really know football know I had an impact. A lot of teams geared their game plans around stopping me.
"It's kind of funny that some of the same guys, like Buchsbaum and Kiper, who said I would be a No. 1 pick if I came out as a junior, are dissing on me," said Rice. "People are questioning my toughness. That's ignorant. But once I get drafted and make it, I'll laugh at people like Kiper, the draft messiah."
Rice was reared on the south side of Chicago, where he had to be tough to survive. He saw gangs such as the Vicelords, Latin Kings and the Counts hanging on street corners. Quite a few of his friends were shot to death.
"It's really cool when I go back home, because a lot of people feel that I have made it, and they say, 'Simeon, give me some love, man; you're at the top,' " said Rice. "That's one of the reasons I play so hard. I play for my family. I play for those that grew up with me. I can live their dream."
Maybe that's why Rice plays with such doggedness. Listen to how he describes the art of pass rushing:
"You have to have speed and quickness, but you need the audacity to do anything you want on a football field. You have to let a quarterback know you're nasty and relentless and that once he is in your sight, you're going to zero in."
Rice has a nearly perfect frame for a pass rusher. He is tall, lean and has a giant arm span. He might be a little light, but he works out six hours daily. Strength is no problem -- Rice said he has bench-pressed 225 pounds 26 times.
He's a former high school tailback who once ran the 40-yard dash in 4.38 on a track surface at Illinois.
"I can guarantee you that I'm going to be good at the next level," said Rice. "When it all comes down to it, I'm going to be the best of all time. All this year did was make me hungry."
Tomorrow: Leeland McElroy
Friday: Lawrence Phillips
Saturday: Keyshawn Johnson
The Rice file
Name: Simeon Rice
Position: Defensive end
Size: 6 feet 5, 259 pounds
Career statistics: Rice had 208 tackles, including 69 for losses that cost opposing teams 385 yards. He had 44 1/2 sacks in 46 games, costing opponents 304 yards. Rice is eighth on the all-time Division I sacks chart and 10th on the NCAA career tackles for loss chart. He is the Big Ten's all-time sack leader and third in tackles.
Awards: First-team All-Big Ten, first-team All-American by Walter Camp Foundation and Football News. Second-team All-American by AP, UPI and Sporting News.
Quote: "With a great talent like Rice who can play up or down, a creative defensive coordinator in the NFL should have a field day maximizing his skills." -- Mel Kiper, ESPN draft analyst.
Pub Date: 4/17/96