Aditi Kinkhabwala
Thursday January 10th, 2008

Ray Rice thanked me. OK, he actually thanked all the writers who've covered him at Rutgers for the past three years.

"You guys helped me become the player I was," Rice said during a press conference in which he announced his intentions to forego a senior season and enter the NFL draft. "Your articles, talking about the person I am and the way I carried myself ... you really let the world know who I was off the field."

Rice gripped the podium, he looked out at all of us and said, "Thanks for everything you guys have done for me."

I'm not going to lie. I got a little verklempt.

Three Augusts ago, Rice showed up to Rutgers' training camp as a little 5-foot-9, fire-hydrant-sturdy afterthought. Sure, he'd been a two-time all-state player in New York and originally committed to Syracuse. But Syracuse was the only school -- except for Rutgers -- that wanted him as a running back. And Rutgers already had two senior tailbacks, a junior tailback and a sophomore tailback who'd each had at least one 100-yard game. The first story written about Rice was that he was at Rutgers with two of his high school teammates.

A month later, in the opener at Illinois, Rice was in Rutgers' starting backfield.

He was supposed to be too small and too slow, but Rice kept doing things that had me wondering who had come to such shortsighted conclusions. He'd run with one hand on the ground and he'd somehow scoot out of scrums. He had this uncanny patience, waiting behind his line for a seemingly absurd amount of time until his hole opened. His balance was incredible, and he reminded me of Tiki Barber. Except he didn't really talk.

We heard Rice liked to dance. We heard Rice was wickedly funny. Rice's cousin Khalid told me crazy stories about Ray demanding his training wheels come off (at age two) and Ray running stairs like Rocky (at five). But Rice just quietly followed Brian Leonard around, listening when Leonard told him to hand the ball to the ref, watching when Leonard started every postgame interview by thanking his linemen.

The next year -- Leonard's fifth at Rutgers -- the school's marketing folks got Leonard a Heisman spot on the jumbotron in Times Square. The coaches then slid Leonard to fullback and told Rice he was going to be the star.

Rice celebrated a touchdown in camp with a dance. But only after asking coach Greg Schiano for permission.

Rice broke Rutgers' single-season rushing record that year -- finishing with 1,794 yards -- and he rocketed into the Heisman conversation. And he still followed Leonard around, modestly deferring to the player he'd taken to calling his big brother. Late in the season opener -- a game in which he rushed for 201 yards and three touchdowns -- an ABC camera caught Rice's attention. But Leonard yanked Rice's face mask around and told him to pay attention to the game. Rice didn't hot-dog for a camera again.

Then Leonard graduated and was drafted by the Rams. Rice got the spot on the Times Square jumbotron. Rutgers' new offensive coordinator said he didn't care if he could have two 1,000-yard wideouts, he wasn't going to take carries away from Rice. Inherently, we figured this was the year Rice would let loose with the swagger.

Rutgers did indeed have the two 1,000-yard wideouts, but Rice still carried the ball 380 times. Rice's mother happily became a camera darling, mugging in a painted helmet in the stands all year, squeezing into ESPN's postgame mic sessions several times. Ray, though ... we're still waiting for him to big-time someone. Leonard may not have been around to keep him in check, but the whole year, it was like Rice was desperately conscious of being the same sort of example for the younger backs behind him.

Rice's high school coach Lou DiRienzo warned, "Ray's no saint." And even a sweet shout-out to his beat writers can't make me gloss him up as a super straight-laced, football-focused automaton.

I've heard him talk trash. He tells safety Courtney Greene, his one-time Pop Warner teammate, that he hits a lot harder than him. ("Ray talks a lot," Greene said.) He regularly tells lightning-quick wideout Timmy Brown he can run faster than him. ("Come on now," Brown said.) He keeps swearing to me he can dunk a basketball. ("I don't know about that," DiRienzo said.)

But the truth is, blandness wouldn't have made Rice any better. There's a difference between confident and cocky -- he playfully raised an eyebrow at me when he saw me carrying a Darren McFadden notepad. He never asked me where I put him on my AP All-American ballot.

Rice regularly let his teammates rip him and he patiently smiled at every Rutgers fan who asked him in the Toronto airport, after the International Bowl, if he was staying for one more year. He's projected to be a third-round pick. This draft will be deep in backs, with Rashard Mendenhall, Kevin Smith, Mike Hart, Allen Patrick, Tashard Choice, Yvenson Bernard, James Davis and a few more underclassmen who are expected to declare (including McFadden). When asked how he stacked up, instead of pitching his own exploits, he simply said, "Those guys are all great players."

In his farewell press conference, Rice openly said he wants to work on his 40 time and that he's eager to show he can catch balls and block better than the average back. He's never missed a game even though his body's taken a beating; after 910 carries as a Scarlet Knight, he could have said he was worried about his health. Instead, he insisted Rutgers' coaches "have been very smart with me," still playing the part of the perfect program player.

And so Ray, you're welcome. You made it easy.

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