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Ray Rice: 'I want to be one of the greatest'

The man's last wish was to meet his favorite Raven. But, sick with cancer, he never thought Ray Rice would knock on his front door.

 So last March, when the running back stepped into Paul Pelfrey's living room in Eastwood, Pelfrey mustered his strength, stood up and gave Rice a hug. The men sat at the dining room table and chatted for 21/2 hours, said Rice, who shared tales of his own trials.

"I wanted [Pelfrey] to get to know me, as a person, not just about running the football," he said. "I wanted it to be a remembrance that he could take with him. I told him the stuff he was battling was way bigger than anything that I've battled in life."

When they parted, Pelfrey, 51, a maintenance supervisor for Lockheed Martin, grasped Rice's hand and hugged him again.

"You'll make it to the Hall of Fame," he whispered.

Pelfrey died two weeks later.

Such acts of kindness are becoming routine for Rice, the team's Pro Bowl runner whose moves off the football field are often as special as those on it.

Few players excite crowds like Rice, who's primed for Monday night's opener against the New York Jets in East Rutherford, N.J. His hardscrabble roots, bantam size and obsessive work ethic resonate with fans, who have embraced the third-year back out of Rutgers.

"He's fast, strong and has great balance," Ravens' coach John Harbaugh said. "Ray can be as good a back as there is" in the NFL.

Rice's reputation spills over into his private life.

"It's nothing for Ray to go into a store and walk up to a poor kid who's eyeing a $70 video game," said Bryan Shannon, Rice's cousin. "First, he'll ask the kid how he's doing in school. If he's doing OK, Ray will buy him the game — and autograph it."

Rice's response is always the same, Shannon said.

"He'll say, 'Man, that felt good.' "

Rice doesn't trumpet these outings, some of which he has roped other Ravens into.

"He has phoned me from hospitals and had me talk to people he's visiting there," offensive lineman Michael Oher said.

Once, Rice was even asked to autograph some football paraphernalia for a deceased fan who wanted to be buried with it. Rice did it willingly.

These gigs, he does gratis. His success (2,041 yards gained from scrimmage in 2009, second-best in the league) and upbeat demeanor have landed him endorsement deals with M&T Bank, Verizon, BGE, Carbiz and others that will earn Rice about $500,000 this year. That's a tidy sum for a player who's not quite 5-foot-9 and was labeled a backup when he was selected in the second round of the 2008 draft.

"There's a good vibe around him," said Ben Renzin, his marketing representative. "Ray's personality just lights up a room. Kids look up to him, his energy level is high and his drive to be one of the best is amazing."

At 23, Rice said, he knows where he's headed.

"One thing I know about life is that you build an image for yourself," he said. "I want to read my name in the books one day. I want to be one of the greatest.

"I want to be known as a guy who made it — and gave back."

Born running

It wasn't a typical birth. Rice came into the world six weeks early, legs churning. His mother, then 23, was glad to be rid of him.

"He kicked all the time [during pregnancy], from four months on," Janet Rice said. "Ridiculous. Every time I tried to sleep, Ray would kick. And the kicks kept getting stronger."

Rice grew up poor, sleeping two to a bed in a scruffy neighborhood called "The Hollow" in New Rochelle, N.Y., where guns and gangs were rife. His father died when Rice was 1, killed by mistake in a drive-by shooting in 1988. All Rice knows of Calvin Reed are some old photos, and what his mom has told him. "Slick" Reed was a supermarket stock clerk, a sharp dresser and an avid bodybuilder.

"We'd met in high school, in home economics," Janet Rice said. "Guys took the class to meet women. If I was mixing cookie dough, Calvin asked to be my partner, so everyone knew he had a crush on me."

They dated, off and on, for six years before their son was born, and they had planned to be married.

"I remember how nervous Calvin was, holding Ray in the hospital," Janet Rice said. "That baby was so small."

But Ray Rice seemed focused from the start.

"At 9 months, he walked very fast," his mother said. "By 11/2 , Ray was potty-trained. He told me that he wanted to wear underwear, and I haven't had to put Pampers on him since."

At 2, Rice graduated to a two-wheel bicycle, a red-and-black Huffy, and rode it over makeshift wooden ramps on a nearby playground. "My little daredevil," his mother called him, and kept the Bactine and Band-Aids handy.

At 3, he did pull-ups on the water pipes in the hall outside their public housing apartment.

"I watched him," said James Wagstaff, an older cousin. "I lifted Ray up, near the ceiling where the cold pipes were, to see if he could do one pull-up. He did 20. I had to make him stop."

By 5, Rice begged to play football with kids twice his age on that concrete playground.

"It was crazy, an obstacle course, with monkey bars, swing sets and metal sprinkler heads sticking up out of the ground — but we wanted to play," said another cousin, Khalid Rice. Ray's grade-school class photos show him with a skinned nose or scraped cheeks.

The older kids took note of Rice, calling him "man-child" for his physique.

"He had muscles at 5," Janet Rice said. "Ray looked like a little bodybuilder, but he had a big head. I'd tell him, 'Boy, if your body don't soon catch up to your head …' "

Inside that head, the wheels were turning. In third grade, to help out at home, Rice got a job sweeping floors at the Big Three Barber Shop on Main Street. There, at 7, he learned to work the crowd.

"I didn't just clean people up, I entertained," he said. "I told [the customers], 'I'm gonna be somethin' someday, and you can help me out along the way.'

"They'd give me a dollar, or a five. I loved the fives. I made the fives last."

Rice's football face was something else. In youth league play, the smallest kid on the field was the one most feared.

"Ray loved to hit. He was really, really aggressive," cousin Anthony Rice said. "He de-cleated guys, knocked them off their feet. Other teams' moms cried and asked the refs, 'Could you please take [Rice] out of the game?' And the refs said, 'Ma'am, he's younger than almost everyone on the field.' "

Pound for pound, no one was tougher than the stocky 10-year-old who played alongside him, said Anthony Rice.

"During games, Ray would say, 'Anthony! Anthony! I'm gonna hurt somebody right now!' And on the next play, he'd hit some guy and, sure enough, he'd be hurt. Ray wasn't a dirty player. He hit you straight up — but hard."

Rice grew up determined to prove himself.

"When people said he was too small or too slow, too this or too that, it made him work harder," said Courtney Greene, the Jacksonville Jaguars' safety who grew up with Rice. "Once, when we were 10 and playing in the same backfield, he asked me to miss my block on purpose so he could run this dude over. I tripped, looked up and saw Ray step on the guy — and go 40 yards for a touchdown."

He prepared for games "like a commando," said David Richards, a childhood friend.

"He ran the stairs to his sixth-floor apartment, over and over," he said, "and then did pull-ups on the monkey bars outside."

In their 12-year-old title game, Richards said, Rice played nose guard and slammed the opposing quarterback to the ground so hard that he was ejected from the contest. In the first quarter.

"The ref threw a flag and said, 'This kid is entirely too strong to play in the championship,' " Richards said. "Ray was just doing his job. We blew the other team out, and he sat there and watched the rest of the game with a smile on his face."

In middle school, Rice began feeling the pressures of the neighborhood. When times got tense, he reached out to Richards, who lived a few blocks away from The Hollow.

"Ray would say, 'Dave, I need a favor. Can I come by?' " Richards said. And Rice would spend the night.

"It was the best thing for me to do," Rice said. "I had to get away."

But he couldn't always escape. In eighth grade, facing peer problems, he slipped a pellet gun into his backpack and went off to school. Security guards found it, and police surrounded the place.

Rice's sentence: one week's suspension, a year's probation, exclusion from his middle school graduation and 100 hours of community service.

"Our mother took away everything possible from Ray, including football, for a while," said Markell Rice, his younger brother. "It was strong punishment."

Lesson learned.

"That was definitely the turning point in my life," Rice said last week. "It came at a time when I was headed in the wrong direction. I sought forgiveness, not only from the community, but also from my mother. From then on, I never made a mistake like that again."

His father's death still weighed on Rice, as did that of an older cousin, Myshaun Rice-Nichols, who had been Rice's male role model and who was killed by a drunken driver in 1998. Once, in middle school, while visiting the Richards family, Rice leafed through their family photo album, looked up and sighed.

"I wish I could have met my father and talked to him, but I didn't get that chance," he said.

Then Rice looked at his friend and smiled.

"But not having a father brought me to you guys," he said. "God does everything for a reason."

Rice blossomed in high school, made All-State first team and led New Rochelle to a state championship. In college, he made second-team All-America and took Rutgers to three straight bowl games. At every level, Rice ramped up his game and fashioned his name.

"He may not be one of the fastest guys, straight ahead, but Ray has one of the best first bursts ever," said Brian Leonard, the Cincinnati Bengals' running back who played with Rice at Rutgers. "I tell guys here, 'Watch out for Ray's stiff arm.' In college, against Connecticut, he ran to the outside, stiff-armed a lineman in the chest and knocked him right on his [butt]. Didn't matter that the lineman outweighed him by 100 pounds. Ray drove him into the ground."

In hindsight, Rice was meant to play for the Ravens. His great-grandmother, part Cherokee Indian, was born and raised in Baltimore. And, with the exception of college, Rice has worn purple jerseys all his life.

Right thing to do

Even now, Rice looks up to his mother. Never mind that she stands 4-foot-11. A teacher's aide for special-education children, Janet Rice has three younger children in addition to Ray, who became man of the house early on. Since turning pro, he has showered her with gifts — a new apartment, two cars (Lexus and Acura), diamond earrings, designer bags and a $1,000 watch.

"I don't want for anything, since Ray became who he is," Janet Rice said.

He still calls her daily, at 7 a.m., to check in.

"Last week, I picked up the phone and he was singing the national anthem," she said. "With Ray, you expect the unexpected."

Like the time she dozed off on his sofa and he videotaped her snoring. Or the time, during a group tour of M&T Bank Stadium, that Rice tackled his mother at the 50-yard line to show folks how it's done.

"Why not?" Rice said. "I took her down easy. If you ain't having fun with your mom, you're going to miss out on a lot of opportunities."

Theirs is as much a brother-sister kinship as mother and son, family members said. Pranks abound when Janet Rice visits her first-born at his Pikesville townhouse.

"Ray puts baby powder all over her face while she's asleep. Or he wakes her up, making siren sounds in her ear with a bullhorn," Khalid Rice said.

Any guest is prey for Rice's antics, his mother said.

"Whoever stays at Ray's, I tell them to please lock their door at night — it's a must," Janet Rice said. "Some listen. Some don't."

When Rice eats out, he won't hide from fans.

"He goes to Outback Steakhouse or Bonefish Grill, wearing his Orioles cap, and sits in the first booth available, knowing people will be coming up to him," Shannon said. "He doesn't have that sense of entitlement of, 'Yeah, I'm a football star.' "

Why put up with the public?

"I do it because it's the right thing to do," he said. "These people want to be in our shoes; they get to feel a part of us when we're with them."

Success has not changed Rice, said Richards, whose house was his haven from The Hollow.

"When I see him, he always thinks back to those times," Richards said. "Ray will say, 'I don't know what I'd have done without you, Dave.' "

Those words alone validate Richards' belief.

"Ray is the same person he was before, but with more money," he said.

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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