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BOSS OF THE BUCS OUTSPOKEN TAILBACK ERRICT RHETT HAS TAMPA BAY IN THE RUNNING FOR ITS FIRST PLAYOFF BERTH SINCE 1982

Dec. 04, 1995
Dec. 04, 1995

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Dec. 4, 1995

BOSS OF THE BUCS OUTSPOKEN TAILBACK ERRICT RHETT HAS TAMPA BAY IN THE RUNNING FOR ITS FIRST PLAYOFF BERTH SINCE 1982

For the better part of two decades it has been the color of
incompetence in the NFL. On Errict Rhett, however, the orange of
the Tampa Bay Buccaneers brings to mind a promising dawn. This
season, Rhett's second in the league, it is becoming the orange
of ignition and liftoff.

This is an article from the Dec. 4, 1995 issue Original Layout

In Rhett, the Buccaneers have the NFL's Next Big Thing, a tough,
talented, loquacious tailback who intimidates opponents both
physically and verbally. "I never knew there could be such a
thing as trash-talking during a chess match," says Tampa Bay
offensive lineman Mike Sullivan, "but Errict did it to me. Took
me right out of my game."

As he outhustled his teammates during a muggy practice, winning
the wind sprints and hurling himself headfirst into defenders,
it was easy to think of Rhett as a 5'11", 211-pound jackhammer,
pulverizing the franchise's accreted layers of futility,
obliterating a culture of defeat that began with the team's
inaugural 1976 season. Despite his youth, Rhett has established
himself as a leader on a 6-6 team that is among the NFL's most
improved in '95.

Normally Rhett would be only too happy to discuss his gleaming
future. Right now, however, he has an important errand to run.
"These videos are a week late," he explains while weaving
through Tampa traffic after that humid practice.

What sort of cinematic fare does the 1994 NFC Offensive Rookie
of the Year favor? Let's see. We have Avenging Disco Godfather,
a 1976 film, and Shaft, the '71 private-eye thriller that came
out the year after Rhett was born. Asked to describe the appeal
of such flicks, an uncharacteristically brief Rhett says,
"They're kind of old. You've got to be able to relate to them."

In a way his partiality for these old movies makes perfect
sense. There is something retro, something Red Grange-like,
about Rhett's unadorned, punishing running style. (It is his
ambition, he says, to crack a defender's helmet.) And there is
something ageless about a 24-year-old who has no qualms about
getting in the faces of his veteran teammates and telling them
to get their butts in gear.

The older Bucs have come not only to tolerate Rhett but also to
respect him. "I've been in the league six years, and he's told
me I can play better," says guard Ian Beckles. "If I didn't know
he was always going at 100 percent, I'd come back at him. But he
is going full speed, all the time, so I can take it."

Indeed, Rhett's work ethic is unmatched on the team, possibly in
the league. Every time he touches the ball in practice, he
sprints at least 40 yards downfield. "Even the day before a
game," marvels guard Charles McRae. "It's kind of a nuisance
because we have to wait till he gets back. He has the ball."

It took half of the '94 season for coach Sam Wyche to name Rhett
his starting tailback; Wyche spent the second half of the season
wondering why he had waited so long. At the time of Rhett's
promotion Tampa Bay was 2-6, and the firing of Wyche, 10-22 in
his first two seasons with the Bucs, seemed inevitable. In the
final eight games Rhett rushed for 727 yards. (He finished the
season with 1,011.) Not coincidentally the Bucs won four of
their last five games, finished 6-10 and saved Wyche's job.

Selected in the second round of the 1994 draft and signed the
following August, Rhett did not arrive as a pro until Dec. 4,
1994. That was the day he ran wild against the Redskins,
finishing with 192 yards on 40 carries and establishing himself
as a candidate to someday share the orbit now occupied by the
Emmitt Smiths and Barry Sanderses of the world.

Rhett ran more than the ball that day. The Bucs were in the
thick of an 11-play, 80-yard fourth-quarter drive when center
Tony Mayberry, bent over and sucking wind during a timeout,
looked up to see the rookie merrily running his mouth. "He had
carried the ball about 35 times," says Mayberry. "The rest of us
were dog tired, but there's Errict having a conversation with
the Redskin defense. I said, 'Somebody please get Errict back to
the huddle.'"

Rhett's main target was his cousin and off-season next-door
neighbor, Redskin defensive end Sterling Palmer. "Sterling," he
said, "is everything O.K.? I mean, we're running right at you.
Do you think you might make a tackle today?" The Bucs scored on
that drive and won 26-21.

Rhett bristles at the inevitable comparisons with Smith, who
left Florida one year before Rhett arrived, because those
comparisons tend to focus on Smith's elusiveness and Rhett's
lack of the same. "I've got some moves too," he says. "I've got
some zip and dip." He puts a hip fake on an imaginary linebacker
in the Drama aisle of the video store.

But the men who have coached Rhett over the years tend not to
mention his artistry. Florida's Steve Spurrier says Rhett "would
just as soon run over the safety as make him miss." At McArthur
High in Hollywood, Fla., coach Roger Mastrantonio had the
Gantlet, a three-on-one, no-holds-barred exercise that is
designed to breed toughness. "When Errict was a sophomore, we
made the mistake of putting him out there with his brother,
Michael [two years Errict's senior], who went on to start at
fullback for East Carolina." The ensuing brawl became part of
Mustang football legend. "It took me and all four of my
assistant coaches five minutes to pull them apart," recalls
Mastrantonio, "and I had some pretty big assistants. It was like
two wild dogs."

In the winter Errict wrestled. "Rasslin'," as he insists on
pronouncing it, nurtured both his obsession with fitness and his
mean streak. "I was the Mike Tyson of high school rasslin'," he
says. "At the end of the match, seldom did my opponent stand up,
shake my hand and walk off. Usually he would stay on the ground,
and someone would have to come out and help him. I was vicious."

Does that mean he has certain sadistic inclinations? By now
Rhett has left the video store and is dining in a crowded
Bennigans. "No," he says, spearing a shrimp, "I don't like
weaklings."

At the state regional wrestling meet in his junior year, Rhett
went up against an opponent whom he remembers as being 6'7", 220
pounds. (At the time Rhett was 175 pounds and often had to eat
mightily to make the 180-pound minimum for the 220-pound weight
class.) "I guess I was choking him," says Rhett, his tone
suggesting he has no idea how such a thing might have happened.
"His mother came down out of the stands, came right out on the
mat and started calling me all these racial names in front of,
like, 1,000 people. She's screaming at me, telling me to let her
son go."

"What do you do?" says Rhett, turning the tables on his
interviewer. "This woman is on the mat screaming at you to let
her son go. What do you do?" What did he do? "I thought she
might kick me in the face or something. I let him go."

"Craziest match I ever had," he says. "Of course, if my mother
had been there, she would have told me to let that boy go too."

It was not lack of interest that caused Naomi Rivers to miss
most of her two sons' athletic events. Rather, it was her lack
of stomach. "She can't stand to see anyone get hurt," says
Errict, adding that she has seen him play only twice.

Naomi raised Errict and Michael by herself and is the primary
reason they got college educations, according to Mastrantonio.
"She kept them in line, kept after them to go to school," he
says. "And every Sunday they put on their best clothes and went
to church." The family lived in a West Hollywood project called
Carvers Ranches. When Mastrantonio drove Errict and Michael home
from practice, they made him drop them off on the main road.
"They were afraid if I drove into the project, I'd get shot
because I'm white," he says.

Rhett says he chose Florida over Miami and Florida State for the
simple reason that the Hurricanes and the Seminoles were too
pass-happy for a star schoolboy tailback like himself. "I needed
the ball," he says. As a Gator he got it a lot, amassing 4,163
rushing yards and 34 touchdowns and breaking Smith's career
rushing record. Rhett finished his collegiate career third on
the Southeastern Conference's alltime rushing chart, behind a
guy named Bo and a guy named Herschel. NFL stardom seemed
preordained.

But at the scouting combine Rhett, who claims to have 4.5 speed
in the 40, ran a series of expensive 4.6's. On draft day, as the
first round came and went, he went for a walk. That the Bucs
snatched him with the 34th pick was little consolation. "For a
while I didn't even know who took me," he says. "I was mad at
the world."

He brought his anger to Tampa and has taken it out on teammates
and opponents ever since. He has rushed for 895 yards and scored
11 touchdowns in 1995. Only 11 players in NFL history have
rushed for 1,000 yards in each of their first two seasons. The
Bucs are fighting for their first playoff berth since 1982. So
much for the sophomore jinx.

"Sophomore jinx?" says Rhett, sounding downright surly. "I work
too hard for that."

COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [Errict Rhett]COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS Rhett is closing in on a second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season with the Buccaneers. [Errict Rhett]