Ray Rice was in elementary school the first time he sat down in front of a chess set. He was 9-years-old.
His fifth grade teacher, Calvin Heyward, believed this small boy from New Rochelle, N.Y., was capable of great things, but Rice — whose motor never stopped running — needed structure. He needed guidance. He had a wonderful mother at home, Janet, and she worked tirelessly to provide for her family all by herself after Rice's father was killed in a drive-by shooting when Rice was just a year old. But even a woman as strong as Janet Rice could not make her son sit still for long stretches.
The game of chess, however, made his world slow down. He was fascinated by the strategy, by the intrigue, by the satisfaction he gleaned from out-thinking an opponent.
"It was sort of to help out with school," Rice said. "Mr. Heyward figured if you could play chess, you could be really good at math. Because it's all about problem solving and logic. Ever since then, it's been a game that not only relaxes me, it helps me think before I react."
Rice wasn't just a novice at the game. He understood it well enough that he decided to enter a handful of youth tournaments, and the same year he learned how to play, he won a tournament in New York City, beating older and more experienced kids.
"I was nervous because all the guys I was playing against were these chess stars," Rice said. "I was like this local kid who looked at the timer [for the first time] and thought 'Whoa.' But it was all a process of thinking. As soon as you hit that timer, you need to be thinking about your next move."
Fifteen years later, almost everything about Rice's life is different. He's a 24-year-old man with arms the size of hubcaps, and one game into the fourth season of his NFL career, he's clearly established himself as one of the most dynamic offensive players in game. But if you look closely, the lessons he learned as a 9-year-old speed chess prodigy are still evident. He has simply applied them to football, out-thinking and out-maneuvering bigger and stronger opponents.
"Some of it is 'May the best athlete win,' but it's all about counter-acting someone else's strategy," Rice said.
Take, for example, the 11-yard touchdown catch Rice made against the Steelers in the Ravens' 35-7 win in Week 1. In many respects, it represents the best example of the Ravens offensive potential this season.
With 1:55 remaining in the second quarter, the Ravens were leading the Steelers 14-7. On 3rd-and-6 from the 11 yard line, quarterback Joe Flacco set up in the shotgun with three wide receivers split to his right. He sent Rice in motion to the opposite side of the field and received the snap from center Matt Birk. The Ravens revamped offensive line created a virtual bubble around Flacco, and the quarterback looked to his right.
His first read was covered. Flacco looked over the middle. His second and third reads were covered. He pump-faked once, then finally looked back to his left. Rice had already made the decision to break off his route, reverse his momentum, and juke Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons. Flacco took one step left, delivered a perfect ball, and Rice turned the corner and darted into the end zone.
Timmons kneeled near the goal line with his hands on his hips, still in shock over what had just unfolded. You might say he looked like a man who had just watched a pawn take out his queen.
"It may have looked like a designed route, but it was actually me and Joe's 'me-to-you' combination," Rice said. "I could have took it inside, I could have took it outside, but I knew the route behind me. I saw that no one was there. I took that quick peak. ... He made a hell of a throw. He got it where no one else could get it, and he actually gave me enough room to get turned and get to the pylon. It was great execution on both of our ends."
Part of what's fascinating about Rice's versatility is how few people saw it coming. At Rutgers, he started as a true freshman and ran for 1,120 yards on 195 carries (5.7 yards per attempt) but he caught just eight passes the entire year. The following year, he ran for 1,795 yards and scored 20 touchdowns, but caught only four passes. He did catch 25 balls his junior year — while rushing for 2,012 yards — but the Ravens certainly didn't think they were drafting a poor-man's version of Marshall Faulk in the second round of the 2008 draft.
"I think it was his second day of practice, I saw him catching punts and we all went, 'Whoa, this guy can catch,' " said Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. "You didn't really know."
It didn't take long for the Ravens figure out he could be their most consistent offensive weapon.
"The biggest thing about Ray is he can do a lot of things well," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "Ray, obviously, is a good inside runner and he always has been going back to Rutgers. But he's a better outside runner than people thought. People really didn't see him as a receiver. Receiver might be the best thing he does as far as catching balls out of the backfield. You put a linebacker on him and he's got [a go route], that's a problem. He can make plays down field. We've seen him make plays over his shoulder, and he's good in pass protection. Anytime you have a complete player at any position, it's tough to handle for an opponent."
Rice doesn't have the speed of Tennessee running back Chris Johnson or the power of Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson, but when the Ravens are able to get him the ball in open space, he's such a good cutback runner and undertands angles so well, he's incredibly frustrating to tackle. Pittsburgh was so annoyed with the way Rice was tormenting them in Week 1, safety Troy Polamalu nearly started a brawl when he refused to let go of Rice's leg several seconds after the play was over.
"Ray is a running back, and obviously, they have to put their best cover guys on our wide receivers and even tight ends," Flacco said. "With Ray's ability to work in that space and understand some of our route concepts, it gives us a chance to get him on guys that aren't used to covering. He has that quickness. He has that explosiveness that he can run those routes and separate from guys at the point of break, and that can really help us out."
Rice isn't doing anything in 2011 he hasn't done during the first three seasons of his NFL career. In 2009, he was second in the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 2,041 and he caught 78 passes. But with an improved offensive line opening bigger holes as well as giving Flacco more time to find his third or fourth option, Rice could be poised to have a huge season.
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That might be a double-edged sword for the Ravens, however, considering that Rice's rookie contract — a four-year deal worth $2.81 million — is up after 2011. Even if all he does is repeat his 2010 stats, he's going to warrant a considerable raise. That might be tricky considering Flacco has also expressed a desire for a new contract, although his deal isn't up until after the 2012 season.
Assuming he stays healthy, Rice will eventually be paid what he's worth, whether it's in Baltimore or elsewhere. But he is confident no amount money will make him to lose sight of how he arrived at this moment. When his NFL career is over — many years from now, he hopes — Rice plans to return to New Rochelle to coach high school football.
"A high school coach plays such a pivotal part in a kid's life," Rice said. "I know mine did. My coach [Lou DiRenzo] has never asked me for a dime. He couldn't care less if I'm an NFL player or not. He cared more about the man I became. If you look at the definition of a man, he's definitely it. He takes care of his family, he's an exceptional father, and at the same time, he's one of the best teachers I've ever known. When you play for him, you learn time management. You learn stuff you can take from the field to life. I want to be a coach someday because that's the time when you get to see a boy become a man. Success is not defined by becoming an NFL football player. It's more defined by what you become in life."
Although plenty of ink has been spilled in recent years about Rice's close friendship with Ray Lewis — the running back grabbed the open locker next to Lewis this year — Rice maintains that best friend in the world is an Air Force officer named David Richards that he has been close to since childhood.
"He's one of the people I look up to," Rice said. "We played sports together, but we grew up different. I grew up in the projects and he didn't. We needed each other. When he needed to know about football, he came to me. When I needed help with math, with reading, with my studies, I came to him. We fed off one another. He's such a great person, he'd give you the coat of his back and get wet in the rain for you. He's like family to me. We talk or text every single day."
Some days, when Rice is done talking to Richards, or his mom Janet, he will end the call and spend a few minutes playing chess on his phone. It relaxes his mind to think about strategy, about counter-attacking and anticipation, to remind himself of the 9-year-old boy who learned, years ago, there was no one he couldn't outmaneuver.