Everywhere he goes, Simeon Rice is the bigger man. He is very
tall and his arms span 86 inches and he runs faster than a body
his size should be allowed. He has a laugh that sounds like the
jingle of money. Simeon Rice has no doubt he can dominate the
NFL right now. "Nope!" Rice cries, voice rising into sudden,
cocksure singsong. "No question at all. That's like asking, Are
you going to wake up tomorrow and be healthy? That's a dead
The Mercury busts the edge of Champaign, Ill., whizzes past
cornfields and warehouses and every quick and dirty element of
highway America. Rice presses the pedal to 75 mph: Chicago soon.
Everybody's early pick as the best college player in the nation
splays his slender legs under the wheel. He stares through the
windshield. Slow cars, slow running backs, his fourth season at
rush linebacker for Illinois all loom ahead, and, yes, he plans
to be healthy and primed for every bit of it. Want to argue?
He's got a laconic, self-promoting answer for everything.
His Big Ten opposition? "If I'm playing against kindergartners,
I'm going to play hard; I don't care," he says. "Some guys at
this level may not be blessed with a lot of physical
capabilities, but I approach every game the same way. My play
depends on my frame of mind. I don't wait for someone to
motivate me. I don't wait for the competition ."
Linebacking legend Lawrence Taylor? "I don't even think LT was
good. I can't see why he was special. He doesn't impress me."
Miami's Warren Sapp, last year's Lombardi Award winner as the
nation's top defensive player and now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer?
"Come on, man," Rice says, screwing up his face into the
universal expression signaling the arrival of something rank.
"I've got a 4.5 40--and gettin' faster."
Maybe somewhere a football god plans a day of reckoning for such
disrespect, but it's not coming this July afternoon, not this
final free summer of his life, not now. Last season Rice broke
out as a major talent in the Illini's first game, in which he
pummeled Washington State, making five sacks, blocking a field
goal and forcing a fumble, which he recovered. He finished the
season with 16 sacks, 20 tackles for losses and four caused
fumbles, a 6'5", 253-pound slasher pivoting so quickly into the
backfield that it seemed almost unfair. Only two Illinois
players, on offense or defense, are faster. Rice stopped running
with linebackers in practice long ago because they were so slow.
"A man among boys," says fellow Illini linebacker Kevin Hardy, a
top-five NFL draft prospect himself, and it's true: Rice already
boasts the Illinois career sack mark--33 in 35 games--and now
battles only history. Locally, he has been lumped with alums Ray
Nitschke, Dick Butkus and Dana Howard, last year's Butkus Award
winner, and with Heisman Trophy hype sure to reach fever pitch,
observers are comparing Rice to All-Timers from all over.
"His speed? I've never seen anything like it in a pass rusher,"
says Illini coach Lou Tepper, who coached Buffalo Bill All-Pro
Bruce Smith at Virginia Tech. "In my 28 years, I haven't had a
guy who makes more big plays. He's the kind of guy that, every
snap, you've got to have a plan. What are you going to do with
this guy? He gets to people so fast.
"It's rare that a defensive player can be like a Red Grange or a
Gale Sayers, can take on that kind of dimension," Tepper adds.
"But he's the Red Grange of defense."
"I've seen two guys make the same play: Lawrence Taylor was one,
and Simeon's done it twice," says Illini defensive coordinator
Denny Marcin, who coached Taylor at North Carolina. "In that
game against Washington State, Simeon slaps the ball out of the
quarterback's hand and recovers it. Against Michigan, same thing
two years ago. End of the game, Michigan leading and running the
clock out. Simmy strips the ball and recovers it." The play led
to Illinois's 24-21 win. Adds Marcin: "Most people can't both
strip the ball and recover it--who knows where the ball's going?
In the NFL few talents are more revered than pass rushing. A
great pass rusher can disrupt an offense by himself, draw double
and triple teams, free up teammates, weaken protection and cause
such havoc--and the fear of such havoc--that no quarterback can
operate without wondering. Last spring the NFL's top scouting
operations, BLESTO and the National scouting combine, both
rated Rice their No. 1 returning player and a sure starter on
the pro level. Some pro scouts, pointing to last season's
no-tackle effort against Penn State, question Rice's
consistency. But if a season of spectacular numbers makes him
the first defensive player to win the Heisman, he is all but
guaranteed to be the No. 1 draft pick, too.
A few biographical facts about Rice: He grew up in the scrappy
Roseland streets of South Side, Chicago, dodging gangs like the
Gangster Disciples and the Vicelords, losing some of his
childhood friends to drugs and guns. Once, after being shoved to
the ground by an older boy, Simeon went home, got a carving
knife and ran out of the house. His mother, Evelyn, ran him down
and disarmed him. By the eighth grade he had a dossier of
suspensions, fights, disruptions and vandalism as thick as a
brick. "When they showed it to my father, it landed on the
desk--boom!" Rice says.
Rice would, in fact, fit perfectly into that too-typical
category of Troubled Urban Youth Saved by Athletic Talent but
for these other facts: He turned down sure millions as a likely
top-15 NFL choice, opting to return for his senior year. By
December, Rice will have all but completed his degree in speech
communications, finishing in 3-1/2 years what most students do in
four. His off-season workouts--from four to six hours daily--are
so brutal that Rice has, every summer, fallen victim to heart
palpitations and shortness of breath. "We'll be out running
two-a-days in August, and at the end he'll stay out and do
sit-ups or run more," says Hardy. "Everyone's walking off the
field tired, and you look back and, man, he's still running."
But then he has had to travel quite a distance from Simeon
before to Simeon now--and the road wasn't easy. Such chaos and
such discipline are unruly bedfellows, which explains how Rice,
on the January day he announced he would stay in school, on this
same Interstate 57 back to Champaign, suddenly decided to change
his mind. Only the lack of a telephone stopped Rice from
reversing his decision and turning pro that night, that and the
same thing that bridged his life from delinquent to All-America.
It was that familiar, raspy voice in his head, then as always,
telling him: You've got to be educated. I don't care how much
money you have. Money doesn't mean anything without a brain to
deal with it. And Rice could no more resist that than he could
decide to stop breathing.
"You'll see: My dad's one of those grumpy types of fathers,
growling: Grrrrr," Rice laughs. "Doesn't have a lot of friends.
You wake up in the morning: What's up, dad? Grrrrr. Go clean up
Rice shoots the car toward Roseland. The plastic medallion
bobbing off his key chain reads SIMEON: SUCCESSFUL AND
GOODWILLED/THIS TRUTH IS TOLD/A STRONG PERSON/UPRIGHT AND BOLD.
Traffic thickens, the towers of Chicago rise ahead. "Back home
in Chi-Town!" he shouts at the windshield. "The Juggernaut's
He is the biggest man. Doesn't matter that he stands just 5'8",
with a little paunch and spindly legs. Behind his glasses,
61-year-old Henry Rice takes in the room--his room, his house--
with hawk-sharp eyes. He sits in his easy chair. When Simeon
comes in, taller and stronger, he shrinks himself perceptibly;
he gives Henry all the space. Simeon listens to his father
without saying a word. "You get so hyped," Henry says, speaking
of being in a crowd of strangers, watching his son be great.
"You really can't understand it, how hyped you are. Sometimes
you scream and enjoy it, sometimes you sit back and watch. You
feel like a millionaire, and you don't have a dime."
You don't hear much about the American dad anymore, not good
anyway. The sports landscape is littered with stars whose story
is oddly the same: Father broken, father dead, father left the
family; mom kept the family alive. For at least 20 years now
that's how it has been--the old sports father, hard-nosed and
hardworking and keeping sonny straight, vanishing into some
grainy vision of how it used to be. Dad doing this slow fade.
Not here, though. Not in this clean, spacious house on State
Street. Henry Rice, going on 30 years on the line at Ford Motor
Co., has hovered with his wife over everything his six kids have
done. Simeon, the most gifted, the wildest one of all? Only one
way to handle that. "You're not going to play," Henry would tell
him. "You're no good." The voice gravelly and stubborn. The
voice saying what every child-rearing expert says you shouldn't.
But what do the experts know about Roseland? About kids killing
kids, about 12-year-old dealers and drugs and the thirst for the
latest sneakers? How do you fight the easy power that comes from
crooked money and the feel of a loaded gun? Simeon teetered. His
parents shipped him across town to the quieter confines of
George Washington Elementary, but that didn't calm him. He had a
vicious temper, took swings at teachers. He was sent home over
and over, and finally one afternoon Henry had had enough. He had
been working the night shift at Ford, and Evelyn was teaching
school, and the four girls were just squawling kids, and the
call came from George Washington: Come get your boy. Second time
that week. In the car home Henry wouldn't even look at Simeon.
He parked, went upstairs, turned on the faucet in the tub.
Watched the water rise.
"Simmy, come here!" He called his nine-year-old into the
bathroom. "Simmy," Henry said. "I'm tired. I can't take it. I'm
going to drown you, and then you'll be dead."
He grabbed his son's head, and brought it near the water. "I
thought he snapped," Simeon says. The boy started screaming,
"Dad, please don't drown me.... Please don't kill me.... I
promise I won't give you more trouble...."
"If it happens again, I'm going to drown you."
It happened again--but worse. The scariest moment might have been
a short time later when a fight got out of hand, went from fists
to one kid chasing Simeon and his friends with a pistol. Or the
time Simeon took to ransacking abandoned houses with another
boy, except sometimes they weren't abandoned. Standing there,
Simeon had a TV in his hands when he heard a new voice from
below: "There's somebody upstairs! Get my gun!" And then he was
off running, jumping roofs, laughing with the thrill of getting
away. Thinking back, he still can't believe it. "I used to
steal," Rice says slowly, as if his mind can't quite get around
the thought. "In people's houses."
Football saved him, yes. That was one constant. Even as he was
flirting with one disaster or the other, Simeon would still be
playing ball wherever he could get a game. And whenever the kids
were done, he would make his older brother, Diallo, play for an
hour more, and if Diallo was gone, then it would be Henry,
pitching footballs for hours as darkness came down. All Simeon
wanted was to be Walter Payton, a running back, the star. By the
end of his freshman year at Mount Carmel High, a Chicago
parochial school, Simeon was six feet tall and faster than most
everyone. He shed his old friends, began to dedicate himself.
But Henry didn't trust it. Didn't trust that talent alone could
turn Simeon. So Henry would talk. Weekend mornings he would get
the boys out of bed early, work them from 8 a.m. until sundown
in the basement, on paneling, carpentry. Simeon's friends would
come over, and Henry would sit them down and speak of education
and energy and hard work. "He's a very wise man," says Bennie
Morrow, Simeon's oldest friend. "Even though we were silly and
childish, he spoke to us like we were mature. He brought the men
out in us. My father was there--but he wasn't. Simeon's father
was there for everybody."
However, he didn't like how street bravado would seep into
Simeon's football talk, how he would chatter on about winning a
trophy, getting a scholarship, going to the Hall of Fame
someday. Henry wouldn't hear any of it. "Football is a waste
of time," he would say. "Get your education. I'm not paying for
you to go to school to play football." During Rice's first two
years at Mount Carmel, coach Frank Lenti put him at running
back, but by the next season he was too big. Lenti wanted Simeon
at tight end. But Simeon wanted to be Payton, so he would drop
passes on purpose, refuse to play. Lenti benched him for most of
his junior year. There was talk of transferring, but Simeon's
parents wouldn't hear of it. "A coach is like a father," Henry
said. "The only thing you can do to be smart is listen." And
still he rode his son hard: You're not gonna do nothing. How are
you gonna get a scholarship if you don't play?
Simeon couldn't be sure: Was his father crazy? Trying to push
him? Who could tell? To this day his father's attitude still
bothers him. "He won't say it now," Simeon says, mouth grinning
but eyes flat. "He'll say he backed me. But then he was saying
it for real."
Henry just wanted to keep Simeon guessing, working harder. He
would buy the new shoes, footballs, helmets; but who else could
keep Simmy in line? He made his son get to practice on his own.
"If I'd have told him yes all the time, that would've
overexercised his mind," Henry says. "I hated to say those
things; it hurt me every time."
But Henry's acting was too good. Simeon hears that now, and he
doesn't buy a word. "He'll say he did it to motivate me, but I
know better," Simeon says, shaking his head at the memory. "How
are you going to be motivated, if you can't even get to practice?"
At the end of Rice's junior year in exile, Lenti told him he
would be playing defensive tackle. There was no argument. A
coach is like a father. "I don't care," Rice replied, "I just
want to play."
The next season Rice flourished. Recruiters began to sniff
around. Henry wouldn't let up: You're not getting a scholarship.
You're no good. Prove it to me. So in the state-championship
game, Simeon did. Big hits, big plays: Simeon forced the
fourth-quarter fumble that turned the game; commentators praised
him. Suddenly, everything changed. When he came home, Simeon was
greeted like never before. "Damn, I didn't know you were that
good!" Henry said. "You won the game for them; I can't believe
it!" It's strange, but Simeon couldn't get angry. He didn't
want to scream, What took you so long? The words of approval
showered down like gold.
"That was the happiest time of my life, right there," Simeon
says. "My father was proud of me."
There was a better moment. Last December when the Illini
returned to Champaign after their 30-0 win in the Liberty Bowl
over East Carolina, Simeon didn't go to sleep. He climbed into
the car and drove the early morning hours to Chicago. He didn't
go home first, though. He drove through the icy night to the
Ford plant, where Henry was working the 2 a.m. shift. His father
was down on the line somewhere, piecing together wheel
assemblies, so Simeon simply left some things for him: An
Illinois jacket, a cap, souvenirs. Later, Simeon was thrilled to
see Henry's eyes fire up talking about the other workers and how
that morning they made him feel like a celebrity.
"It means everything," Rice says reflectively. "Making my father
happy, that's my biggest joy. I let him down so many times. Now
he's saying, 'You're my boy, you're my guy.' That feeling can't
be replaced--not by my mom, my grandmother--nobody but my old man.
A lot of things I do, I do for me, but when it pays off, I like
to see my father. He says I'm a part of him. It's his name."
The Mercury is rolling through Champaign now, Tupac Shakur on
the tape deck rapping about guns and death and the ways a city
can crack apart. Simeon mouths the words to himself. He begins
telling of the moment he knew he had to get out, the summer
night when he and Bennie were 16 and trying to sleep, and they
heard a voice behind the house: "Die you dumbass hook!" And then
four gunshots, echoing off the pavement, the houses and every
memory of the trouble he used to find.
"I'd hear the guns going off all night," Rice says. "Bang! Bang!
Bang! Killing each other and not even caring."
He will wake up tomorrow and be healthy. That's a dead issue.
That is how Dad wins.