Bruce Wayne has Batman. Clark Kent has Superman. Simeon Rice has
Game. And as alter egos go, Game is quite a character. There are
times in the defensive huddle when Game, oblivious to the
multitudes in the stands and the tense moment at hand, gets
caught up in the blaring stadium music and, well, just can't
help himself. He starts to dance--and it's infectious, because
when quarterbacks see the Cardinals defensive end coming their
way, they get happy feet too.
"See my shadow? That's Game," says the not-so-mild-mannered
Rice. "When you see me on Sunday, don't say, 'Yeah, Sim, you're
doing a good job.' That's Game out there. That's not me. I'm at
home chillin'. I'm appreciating that figure too. When you see me
on Sunday getting sacks, breaking records, that ain't Sim. Oh,
no! That's Game. That's Game in his finest sense. My shadow did
it. You know his name. It's Game.
"Game is my better half. Gimme five, Game!" With that, Rice
twists his body and slaps the floor. "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!"
There was a lot to appreciate about Game last year. Despite
missing most of training camp because of a contract holdout,
Rice tied the NFL rookie record with 12 1/2 sacks and was named
the NFL's 1996 defensive rookie of the year. Could Rice be the
superhero to lead the downtrodden Cards, who haven't been to the
playoffs in a nonstrike season in 21 years, to glory? Though the
coaches believe so, there are still issues to be
settled--notably Rice's quixotic pursuit of a basketball career,
which leaves Arizona brass wondering about their budding star's
commitment to the team.
July 15, 1997
Rice spent time in February on the practice squad of the
Continental Basketball Association's Fort Wayne (Ind.) Fury,
then in the spring moved on to play with the Philadelphia Power
of the U.S. Basketball League. This moonlighting did not go over
well with his primary employers, who are, after all, investing
$9 million in Rice's pass rush, not his jump shot. Before the
USBL season began in May, Arizona told Rice the team would not
pay him for any football games missed because of a basketball
injury. He was not dissuaded. "I did what I wanted to do," says
Rice, who earned about $400 a week in the USBL. "If my career
had ended because of an injury, it would have been worth it."
While some may question Rice's judgment, no one questions his
immense talent--as a football player, that is. Rice would have
been a certain first-round pick in the 1995 draft if he had made
himself eligible, but he chose to remain at Illinois for his
senior year; he collected his degree, not to mention the
school's career sack record, with 45. Before the 1996 draft, the
Cardinals' most obvious need was for an offensive lineman, and
everyone expected new coach Vince Tobin and his staff to choose
Jonathan Ogden of UCLA with their first pick, the third overall.
But Tobin, a former defensive coordinator with the Bears and the
Colts, wanted a premium pass rusher, someone who could disrupt
an offense all by himself. Rice had done just that at Illinois,
drawing double and triple teams to free up his teammates,
weakening pass protection and making the quarterback's heart
skip a few beats on every snap. Tobin, in his first significant
move as head coach, revealed how he would build the Cards:
around defense. "An offensive lineman can only help you not lose
a game," Tobin said after the draft. "A pass rusher can win a
game for you with one play."
At 6'5" and 260 pounds, Rice is a throwback to the defensive
ends of the 1970s, before football went through the
bigger-is-better (and slower) phase. Says Arizona's All-Pro left
tackle, Lomas Brown, who faces Rice every day in practice, "He
can redefine the right end position like Lawrence Taylor
redefined the linebacker position. You'll start seeing teams
looking for longer, slim guys. Size won't be a factor. It isn't
with Simeon. A lot of people say he isn't big enough or bulky
enough to handle the run, but he does just fine."
"Ah, yes, the run," Rice says with a wry smile. "People think
the run is my kryptonite. That was pushed so much that people
didn't expect me to play it well. I didn't start every down in
the NFL without knowing how to play the run." He finished the
season with 37 tackles, including six for losses, and 27 assists.
"For me it was an O.K. year," says Rice, who was named a Pro
Bowl alternate. "I made noise. I brought some funk. Not even
close to what my expectancy is. Last year was a learning
experience. Now I've got a foundation under me, and I can start
building a house."
A defensive foundation is exactly what the Cards envision in
Rice, but they know the structure is a long way from being
complete. "I don't want to put undue pressure on him and say
he's the savior, even though he is very, very capable of doing
that," says Arizona defensive line coach Joe Greene. "He's just
a babe. When he starts to understand all of this--the league,
players, offensive situations--the sky's the limit. He can be as
good as there is."
With his tremendous pass-rushing skills, the Cards' budding
superhero has been called the next LT and a future Bruce Smith.
He has otherworldly speed ("He can outrun half of the running
backs in the league," says Arizona linebacker Eric Hill), an
amazing ability to change direction and exceptionally long arms.
All that's missing is the X-ray vision, the cape and a little
more experience. "There is no doubt in my mind that he can be
the next great defensive end in the NFL," says Cardinals
defensive tackle Eric Swann.
The NFL is full of players who undergo a personality
transformation on Sundays. Tossing ballcarriers around like he's
possessed, Reggie White is the last guy you'd peg as an ordained
minister. On the football field Deion Sanders is all swagger;
off the field he likes to find a quiet fishing hole. Every
other day of the week, according to Rice's roommate, defensive
back Tommy Bennett, Rice is, well, a couch potato. "We're
boring. We just watch TV and play video games," says Bennett.
But on Sundays, Rice lets the superkinetic Game take over.
"Simeon's the most confident young person I've ever met," says
Hill. "At first you might mistake it for arrogance, but it's
not. He doesn't believe anyone can stop him. He'll basically
tell you in a heartbeat that he'll get two sacks per game. He's
an original personality. A little bit different."
During a timeout in a game against Tampa Bay last season, Rice
started grooving to the beat of the stadium dance music. In the
huddle. With the Cardinals backed deep in their own territory.
Needless to say, Tobin didn't see that moment as an appropriate
time for personal expression. "Football is football," says the
coach. "Dancing is dancing. And never the two shall meet."
"That's how I relax," explains Rice. He feels his looseness
serves a purpose. During pressure-packed moments, he urges his
teammates to chill out. "Hey, guys, this is what we get paid to
do for a living! To sack and cause some havoc! Let's have fun!"
Rice tells them.
"I approach football like a street-ball game, like I'm playing
with the fellas in the yard," he says. "I can't play like it's
my first recital. A lot of guys see the complexity of the game;
I see the simplicity. It's just getting by your man and tackling
the person with the ball. I don't make football much more than
what it is."
Rice is considered the best-conditioned player on the team. He
does push-ups during lulls in practice and runs countless
sprints on his own afterward. "I've seen only a few young guys
come in with his type of work ethic," says veteran cornerback
But as a rookie, Rice ran the other way from classroom work.
Several times last year he fell asleep during team meetings, and
he rarely studied game films. "They're so boring," he says. "But
I will watch them this year because I listen to Joe Greene. He's
Greene's credentials--four Super Bowl rings from his days with
the Steelers, another ring from his induction into the Hall of
Fame--make him just the man to keep the highly charged Rice
firmly grounded. When Rice walks into the locker room wearing
some variation of his usual look--baggy shorts, T-shirt with
PHAT FARM printed across the front, baseball cap pulled low,
headphones blaring Biggie Smalls--Greene will shake his head
disapprovingly. "'Sim,'" Rice says, lowering his voice to
impersonate Greene, "'being cool is foolish. Back in my day, I
had this big 'fro, a pimp outfit, a big car. I looked like a
fool. It was a fad that was stupid, like what you're wearing.'"
Rice pauses and says, "He doesn't think I understand that, but I
Rice also understands that there is plenty he can learn from
Greene, who knew when to sublimate his Mean Joe alter ego and
when to set it loose. Greene helped pull Rice out of a midseason
slump, which the coach attributed to "paralysis by analysis. He
was playing slow and unsure because he was trying to do what I
was asking him to do. He lost his spontaneity." After Rice was
manhandled in an overtime win against Washington on Nov. 10,
Greene and Rice bivouacked in the coach's office to watch Rice's
Illinois highlight tape. It was a revelation.
"I lost Game!" says Rice with a smile. "I had to call upon Game
by watching the tapes, like a seance." Against the Giants the
next week, Rice had two sacks and four solo tackles.
There's obvious mutual respect and goodwill in this mentor-tutor
relationship. Rice feels he can say anything to Greene without
fear of, say, dismemberment. "I love talking crazy to him," says
Rice, his big brown eyes twinkling. He likes to tell his coach,
"Joe, if I was on the Steel Curtain defense, you wouldn't have
Greene, says Rice, responds simply, "You are a young fool." "He
likes to tell me that I know nothing, which is cool," says Rice.
"He's trying to pull the best out of me, pull Game out of me. I
look at Joe kinda like I look at my pops."
As a kid growing up on the rough-and-tumble South Side of
Chicago, Simeon was the wildest of Henry and Evelyn Rice's six
children. He got into his fair share of trouble, but firm
guidance from his father, who recently retired after 30 years on
the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company, kept Simeon
straight. Now Greene and the rest of the coaches are working to
make sure Rice and his energetic personality stay on the course
the Cardinals have charted for him.
"I live my life with no boundaries," Rice says. "If you
visualize a stumbling block, that's where you'll fall. The truly
great ones--Michael Jordan, Walter Payton--have a stronger mind
frame, a stronger confidence. They are a little more carefree,
willing to take a little more risk. With risk comes failure, but
if you never risk, you'll never know what's behind that door."
For Rice, who unlike us seems ungoverned by the laws of gravity,
life is one giant hot-air balloon, sandbags not included. Why
not go for a ride? Why not give basketball a shot? So what if he
never even played high school hoops? The NBA is his dream.
And so Rice spent his summer vacation traveling with the Power
on the USBL circuit to exotic locales like White Plains, N.Y.;
Milford, Conn.; and Salem, N.H. "It's been a different twist,"
he says, "staying in little bunk-ass hotels with roaches. I'm
coming from the MGM and going to the Motel 6-type places--$12.95
with HBO, double-X movies, $3 more. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!" While
Rice may have looked a lot like any other $400-a-week dreamer on
the Power, two telltale signs gave away his station in life:
one, the blinding diamonds in his ears, which may have cost more
than a USBL franchise; two, the limos that pulled up to those
little bunk-ass hotels. Ever diligent about his football
workouts, Rice hired limos to take him to the nearest gym when
the Power was on the road. Otherwise, Sim was just one of the
While Rice toiled in the USBL, though, Game was on vacation,
most likely sipping margaritas poolside or playing 18 on some
lush Scottsdale golf course. And without Game, Rice was
ordinary. After his first month with the Power he was averaging
just 2.5 points in 11.6 minutes per game. According to Jerry
Holloway, a scout for the Milwaukee Bucks, he should stick to
his day job: "He wants to play in the NBA? Yeah, and I want to
be Robert Redford. He has no shot at the NBA. He's not even
starting in the USBL!"
"It humbled me," Rice says of his basketball stint. Gravity can
be a downer. Still, he hasn't given up his hoop dreams just yet.
He wants to play in the league next year.
Although the experience was a blow to his ego--and his alter
ego--the old bravado returns when Rice talks about the
Cardinals' season. "We are on top of our functions," he says.
"No doubt. The sky is the limit. Game is expecting an army to be
against him, double and triple teams, but Game always rises to
the top. Game doesn't have blood. Game has cream. And cream
always rises to the top. Ha, ha, ha! I've got a million of 'em!"
Can this free spirit fulfill his potential in the most
regimented of sports? Will a guy who dances to his own drummer
become the steady leader the Cardinals sorely need?
Not to worry, says Rice. Game will be back in uniform. "I'll be
wearing my cape," he says.