By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
It’s a story as old as high school sports: A young teenage boy with size and power has all kinds of promise on the football field, thinks everything is going to come easily to him, slips up in the classroom and never sees his career as a gridiron star materialize, and blames everybody but himself. The teachers had it in for him; heck with that coach, he doesn’t know a good thing when he sees it. There are plenty of 40-year-old guys out there who will tell you how good they could have been in high school if not for factors beyond their control.
Ocean City’s Jimmy Rice seemed to be next in that lineage when he failed to make the grades and missed his entire junior year. He could have been the classic big, strong defensive linemen who never had a high school career. But once football was taken away from him last fall, Rice smartened up real quick and got his priorities in order. He rededicated himself to the classroom and let that fire of missing out on a varsity season burn in his belly all offseason. He’s come out breathing fire this fall — his last as a high school football player — and has turned himself into one of the more fearsome defensive linemen in the West Jersey Football League.
He’s spent the first month or so of the season absolutely wrecking plays in the backfield and putting big hits on running backs, tight ends, quarterbacks — basically anybody who wasn’t wearing a red-and-white jersey.
“A lot of things happened, grades, some idiotic things I did. Missing my junior year really opened my eyes to what I missed. Football, I’ve been playing since I can remember, and being without it, I didn’t feel like me. I eat, sleep and breathe football,” said Rice, a 6-foot-3, 250-pounder. “Not everything is handed to you. You have to work hard to get what you want. I had no expectations coming into this season. I knew that to even play and step on this field I would have to go 100 percent — even more than that. I had to push myself past my limits. I have been doing that, and you can see the results.”
“He’s grown up a lot. He realizes that it’s now or never. He’s given a lot of thought to his future and he understands that football can open up a lot of doors for him, and he wants to take advantage of that,” said Red Raiders coach Kevin Smith. “He just had to make a decision about whose terms he was going to do it on. He wasn’t going to do it on his own terms, he had to do it on our terms and commit to what we were asking him to do, and if he couldn’t make that commitment he couldn’t be with us. Like he said, I think it was a maturity issue. Having football taken away from him last year made him realize what a priority it was in his life.”
Smith said it wasn’t easy to let Rice know that he wasn’t part of the 2016 Ocean City football team’s plans.
“It’s not easy to close a door on a kid. You don’t do that with any sense of pride, but sometimes that’s what a kid needs, more than being handed something. They need to see what life is like without that thing they love,” Smith said. “The thing I’m most proud of him about is that he has completely changed his approach toward education. His grades have been excellent. He went and took the SATs on a Saturday morning after a tough Friday night game, and he was excited about it because he wants to do well and go to college.”
“The only way to get back in the good graces of the coaching staff was to go out there, work hard and perform how they wanted me to perform. I knew the offseason weight lifting program and based everything I did off that, and more,” Rice added.
Through the first four games of this season, Ocean City’s defense allowed more than two scores just once, in a 22-13 loss to Cedar Creek, and in two of their three other games the Red Raiders allowed just six points in total. A lot of that has to do with Rice and the defensive front’s ability to stop the run. Rice’s motor when he’s on the field is non-stop, and he says that’s because missing a year of football caused a lot of pent-up energy.
“It’s the energy my teammates and coaches provide, and it’s a lot from missing my junior year. I knew what it was like to be without football and I never want to go back to that, so I try to bring as much energy out here as I can. I don’t think I’ve peaked yet. There’s a lot I need to improve on and there’s a lot of room to grow. I’m just trying to make myself as good as I can be right now and hope I can play at the next level one day,” he said. “I fully believe we could be a 4-0 team and one of the top-ranked teams right now. Nobody expected us to come out of the gate the way we did, and we use that as fuel, to fuel the fire. We’ve been coming out here and working our tails off. We’re going to make Ocean City a football town again. This is the season. You look in the stands and you see more and more people. The more people who come, that just brings more energy.”
As much as Rice has transformed the Ocean City defense, his transformation off the field has been even more impressive.
“I just want to see him keep getting better and keep progressing, because he hasn’t played a lot of football,” Smith said. “You look at a kid like Art Spackman, and Art has started every single game since his sophomore year. Jimmy has started four varsity football games. He needs to just keep learning and getting better and he could be a heck of a football player in November, and that’s when we’ll need him to be.”
“It’s day and night, completely. I was childish last year; I thought I was all that and that things were just going to be handed to me. But it’s a real quick realization when something you love gets taken away. That saying about you don’t know how much you love something until it’s gone, that’s a true saying. That is something you want to take seriously,” Rice said. “I’ve buckled down. As much as I work on this field, I work in the classroom. You’re a student-athlete, and the student part comes first. One of my favorite teachers told me that I was a boy then, and I’m a man now.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays