Ray Rice might forever be a pariah to many for knocking out his fiancee in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino in February. Thousands of Ravens fans lined up at M&T Bank Stadium last month to trade in their once-cherished No. 27 jerseys.
But to two 9-year-old boys, Rice will forever be a friend unlike any other, the star athlete who spent his time and money over the past three years, in public and in private, to ease their daily struggles with lifelong ailments.
In 2011, when Ashton Dean of Bel Air met the running back at an autograph signing, the Harford County boy with a deadly blood condition asked Rice to pray for him. Today, Dean is the one praying for his fallen-star hero.
So, too, is Benjamin DuBose, a Middle River fourth-grader with cerebral palsy who has participated in Rice's community events.
And they're not the only ones. Rice has kept a low profile since being fired by the Ravens on Sept. 8, the day that video surfaced of him punching Janay Palmer, now his wife. But his publicist says he continues to fund scholarships and pay hospital bills, a Baltimore women's shelter says it is still talking with the couple about working together, and recipients of his time and money say they stand with him — all work that would be instrumental in any effort he might make to rehabilitate his image.
"If I were advising him, I would say that most definitely all of your good works are important to tell people who you really are," said Washington attorney Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Bill Clinton. "America is a forgiving people and country. Mr. Rice deserves a chance to rehabilitate himself."
Davis, a specialist in crisis management who has also worked with Martha Stewart and Penn State, cautioned that highlighting supporters will not be enough. He said Rice will have to admit he misled the public and the news media about just how violent the elevator punch was.
"If you're going to rehabilitate yourself and ask for forgiveness, you can't go halfway," Davis said.
When a Baltimore Sun reporter contacted Rice's publicist for this article, she expressed concern that it might be seen as an attempt by Rice to rebuild his image. She said Rice would not comment.
"The majority of what he did is not in public," publicist Deb Poquette said. "He's going to continue to do good work. The fund still exists. He's not going to start tooting his own horn just to look good. For every story people know about, there are 10 stories no one knows about."
House of Ruth Maryland, a Baltimore nonprofit that provides shelter and services to battered women, says it is still in discussions with Rice and his wife about how the couple can help raise awareness about domestic abuse.
Those talks began after Rice's arrest and initial suspension from the NFL but before the elevator video went viral.
"Ray and Janay's desire to work with us on the issue of intimate partner violence has not changed," Sandi Timmins, executive director of House of Ruth Maryland, said this month. "We are continuing to have conversations with them about the best way for them to be involved at this time."
The 27-year-old Pro Bowl player pleaded not guilty to an assault charge in May and was accepted into a pretrial program in New Jersey that will enable him to avoid a criminal record if he completes anger-management classes.
The NFL players union has appealed Rice's indefinite suspension. On Tuesday, the league scheduled a hearing for Nov. 5 and 6 in New York. The NFL has asked a former federal judge to decide, possibly next month, whether the ban will be altered.
Few expect the running back to begin rebuilding his image until then.
It is difficult to quantify how much Rice — who earned $25 million playing for the Ravens the past two years — has given personally, because he uses a private fund at Fidelity Charitable to manage his philanthropic interests, records show.
The Ravens Foundation, a nonprofit associated with the team, gave Rice's fund $10,000 per year from 2010 through 2013.
Poquette would not disclose how much Rice has contributed to the fund but said he always spent more than three times the $10,000 annual Ravens grant on charitable activities.
Other Ravens players have public charities that are required to report financial information. Cornerback Lardarius Webb's foundation reported more than $94,000 in contributions and nearly $69,000 in spending on tickets for underprivileged children, funeral expenses, donations to charities and other expenses. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata contributed $100,300 to his charity in 2012 and reported a $20,000 donation to a veterans group.
Mary Jo Siebert, an educational consultant for Benjamin and other disabled children, said Rice's influence goes beyond money. She said at least 20 of "her kids," as she calls her clients, consider Rice a mentor, especially for his work against bullying.
Many of the children she works with are in wheelchairs or use other equipment; they are often harassed. Others struggle with behavioral problems and developmental disabilities.
She says Rice has kept in touch with at least 20 of the children through "phone calls, notes, messages" and invitations to his camps.
"He didn't even have to be present," Siebert said. "All you had to say to those kids he had an impact on was, 'We're going to let Ray know.' Kids with behavior problems would straighten right up and say, 'I'll be good, I'll be good.'"
Ashton, Benjamin and their families all still wear their Rice jerseys on Sundays. When the security camera video of Rice punching Palmer appeared online, they texted the couple in support. Both families had submitted character reference letters to court officials in Atlantic City.
The video appeared Sept. 8 and the Ravens cut Rice within hours. That night, Ashton Dean's mother took to Facebook.
"I am not condoning his actions nor will I make any excuses but what I will say is this ONE incident will not change all the good I have first hand seen and been a recipient of," Betsy Dean wrote. "I truly hope these people judging him never find themselves being judged, or that they never need mercy, or that their children never make a mistake."
Her 647-word, 10:57 p.m. plea for forgiveness was shared by 4,403 people and "liked" by 84 — including Benjamin's parents, Benjamin DuBose III and Valencia Moody-DuBose.
Moody-DuBose said she texted Palmer, and her husband texted Rice that week to tell them they "were thinking about them and praying for them."
"She texted back and said 'Hello,' she was glad to hear from me and 'thank you very much,'" Moody-DuBose said. "Ray texted back saying it meant a lot to him."
When Rice first met Benjamin at a back-to-school event three years ago, he lifted the boy out of his walker, Moody-Bose said. She said he still misses him.
The kindness that stands out most for Moody-DuBose and for Betsy Dean came during Ray Rice Day at Calvert Hall High School in 2012. Both boys received special treatment from the moment they arrived. But at the end of the day, the football star gave the cleats off his feet to the boys — the left shoe to Ashton, the right to Benjamin.
"Ray Rice isn't just our friend, but we consider him family," Moody-DuBose and her husband wrote in their letter to the court. "My son says Ray is his BEST friend."
Rice was working with children with disabilities long before he entered the NFL. His mother was a special education teacher in New Rochelle, N.Y. When he was at Rutgers University, Rice visited schools and tutored and counseled children with special needs.
He has given money to his high school football team for new uniforms, Nike gear and high-end Beats by Dre headphones for players. In 2011, he gave $1,000 to the Oasis homeless shelter in New Rochelle, according to John Savage, the shelter's executive director.
Wade Brown, executive director of Diakon Kathryn's Kloset in Rosedale, has seen Rice interact with homeless people and recovering addicts. He said the former Raven is welcome any time.
"As opposed to putting him down, how do we help pick him up?" asked Brown, whose charity provides supplies to other nonprofits. "I'm more than willing to welcome him back and help him restore himself."
He said Rice's popularity was instrumental in helping thousands of children receive school supplies during a backpack giveaway in 2011.
Diakon Kathryn's Kloset had planned to help 1,000 students until Rice posted a note about the drive on his Facebook page. That drew a crush of pens, pencils and other supplies; the group was able to help 3,000 students.
"He's very giving," Brown said. "I believe he was genuine."
Kristopher Sharrar, development director for the Helping Up Mission, agreed. In 2009, Rice took responsibility for a Thanksgiving event started by former Raven Bart Scott after Scott left Baltimore to play for the New York Jets.
"Ray's time here has always been positive, genuine, real and encouraging," Sharrar said. "He's not just physically present here. He's giving of himself every time he's here. It's been real for him and it's been real for us."
The Helping Up Mission, he said, "is a place of second, third and fourth chances." The group provides emergency shelter for Baltimore's homeless and long-term recovery support for addicts.
"If he wanted to come and share time with us, we would welcome him," Sharrar said. "There needs to be a road back, a road of reconciliation. If that's not available to us, we're all in pretty bad shape."
The last time the Deans connected with Rice was a cellphone video he sent in July as a get-well message to Ashton, who was in the hospital at the time.
The next video they saw of him — from the Atlantic City casino elevator — was starkly different.
Still, Ashton misses his "buddy."
"Just the other day Ashton said, 'I know he won't be playing for the Ravens but will we be able to see Ray again?'" Betsy Dean said.
Rice's website, rayrice27, might provide an answer.
The website, which is under maintenance, greets visitors with a simple message: "Stay Tuned."
Baltimore Sun reporters Aaron Wilson, Mike Preston and Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.