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COLLEGE FOOTBALL ’95 : A Hero, Not by Choice : Illini’s Rice Wanted to Go Pro but Was Too Late

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This will be news to the editorial writers of the Chicago Tribune, but All-American linebacker Simeon Rice of Illinois isn’t quite the hero they thought he was. But he’s close.

Back in January, when Rice announced he would return to Illinois for his senior season rather than join the NFL, the Tribune found room on its stately editorial page to praise the Chicago-born star for staying in school. About the only things missing were orange and blue pompons.

“Every now and then,” the editorial read, “a story jumps out that confirms there still are young athletes with their heads on straight and their priorities right.

“One such nugget is football player Simeon Rice.”

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What no one knew--and what Rice didn’t say--until now--is that the nugget really wanted to turn pro. Even on the day he made the announcement, Rice kept changing his mind. An NFL advisory panel had told his Illinois coaches that he probably would go somewhere between 10th and 20th in the draft. Rice said he could wait another year.

But on a whim, Rice said, he called a member of the panel and asked if it was true: Was he a mid-first-rounder? According to Rice, the NFL adviser suggested he might go higher than first thought.

“Straight?” Rice asked.

It could happen, the NFL guy said.

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Rice considered his options. He could become either a millionaire or a senior. He could buy either a Mercedes or new wiper blades for his Mercury Topaz. He could live large or in his once-robbed, $325-a-month, one-bedroom apartment.

Rice chose living large. But he had to alert someone at the NFL offices in New York about his change of heart.

He missed the deadline. By an hour.

“I would have faxed it in,” he said. “I would have phoned it. Anything.”

Too late. Like it or not, Rice was a draft day no-show. He watched the draft with a few friends and a few mixed emotions. The Tribune wrote its editorial and thanked him for having “taken a stand.” If only the writer had known the only stand he wanted to take was on the stage for a photo op with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Then he thought about it again. There are worse things than a college degree, than a family proud of its son, than a coach who says he could challenge for a Heisman Trophy, than a team that admires him, than a set of recently published scouting ratings that had him the No. 1 NFL prospect in 1996. Suddenly the money didn’t seem so important.

“I’m happy I did miss that hour,” Rice said. “Now I can fulfill my destiny.”

Better yet, nobody has to ask the Tribune for a retraction.

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*

They weren’t close friends, but Rice knew them. He saw them on the street corners, in the shadows of Rosedale on Chicago’s south side. Some belonged to the Vicelords. Others to the Latin Kings. The Counts. The Gangster Disciples.

“The list goes on and on,” he said. “Chicago, that’s the home of gangs.”

He saw the gunfights. He heard the news.

“It was, ‘What’s-his-face died yesterday,’ ” he said. “After a while, it was just a fact of life. Those were things that hardened my heart.”

Rice was no saint, but he also wasn’t a gang-banger. He had some juvenile delinquency in him (mostly a budding career as a vandal), but he stayed clear of the drug deals and the handguns. In Rosedale, that was no small achievement.

Ask him to list the number of dead friends and he runs out of fingers. There is little emotion. He quit trying to understand the reasons for their deaths long ago.

“A lot of guys I know are still living under the gun,” he said. “I was never at that level. But if my brother and sister would have gotten hurt, it would have forced me to get into it, to get my revenge.”

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It never came to that. Rice’s parents, Henry and Evelyn, wanted him out of the public school system, so they sent him to Chicago Mt. Carmel, a Catholic high school about a 75-minute bus ride from Rosedale. “And we’re not even Catholic,” he said.

It didn’t matter. The farther away from Rosedale, the better. Of course, the bus rides had their moments. Once, some gang-bangers stopped the bus by wielding golf clubs at the driver. They tried to take Rice’s book bag, but got nowhere. They settled on grabbing a hat from Rice’s friend.

By the end of his senior season at Mt. Carmel, Rice had played fullback, tight end and, finally, defensive tackle. Mt. Carmel had won four consecutive state championships and gone 26-2 during Rice’s last two years.

Rice was considered one of the top 100 high school players in Illinois, but that was about it. He had played three positions, but mastered none, which explains why he wasn’t heavily recruited. At one point during his junior season, Rice thought he might have to go to junior college, or skip college altogether. The NFL? “I didn’t see a future in the NFL,” he said.

Then Boston College made a serious run and later, on a tip, so did Illinois. Mt. Carmel Coach Frank Lenti, who at one time had nine of his players on the Illinois roster, called Illini Coach Lou Tepper. He told Tepper how Rice had outgrown the running back position, but how he might have potential as a linebacker.

“When Frank tells me he has a prospect, I have a hard time not offering [a scholarship] to him,” Tepper said.

Then on the day freshmen reported to camp, Tepper did a double take. Rice, about 225 pounds and all arms and legs at the time, ran the 40-yard dash and Illini coaches stared at their stopwatches in disbelief.

“You knew immediately that you had something special,” Tepper said.

Later, when Rice was nearly lapping the other linebackers and linemen during conditioning drills, Tepper pulled him from that group and stuck him in with the wide receivers and defensive backs.

*

Illinois probably doesn’t want to hear this, but Rice wanted out after his freshman season. He was named Big Ten freshman of the year, was the only true freshman to play for the Illini that season, was the team leader in sacks . . . and was miserable.

After four state championships, Rice wasn’t ready for a 6-5-1 season, which included a Holiday Bowl loss to Hawaii. He considered transferring to Florida State or Florida, but never made a call.

He gained about 15 pounds as a sophomore, made first-team All-Big Ten, but didn’t come into his own until last season. He recorded a league-leading 16 sacks and conference coaches selected him defensive lineman of the year.

“As a run [defense] player, he’s not as dominant,” Tepper said. “But he’s a 10 as a pass rusher, maybe an 11.”

Rice isn’t exactly a liability against the run. In last year’s Liberty Bowl, East Carolina tried running the option to his side. Rice read the play, forced a fumble, Illinois recovered “and we never saw the option again,” said Tepper, whose team won, 30-0.

Double-teams are a given with Rice. He started seeing them as a sophomore and last year couldn’t make a move without two players trying to block him. Desperate to neutralize Rice, opposing quarterbacks started taking three-step drops. The sprint bootleg became a favorite play. Sometimes the entire offensive line would slide Rice’s way. And still he couldn’t be stopped.

Denny Marcin is the Illini’s defensive coordinator. Before coming to Champaign, he spent 10 seasons at North Carolina, where he coached Hall of Famer-to-be, Lawrence Taylor. Marcin compares Rice to Taylor all the time, so much so that Rice drove to a local video store one day and rented a highlight tape of the former Tar Heel and New York Giant star.

“I wasn’t impressed,” Rice said. “But I’m not impressed by myself, either.”

Rice is four short of becoming the Big Ten’s career leader in sacks. Together with Kevin Hardy, Tepper said, Illinois has “the finest pair of outside linebackers I’ve ever seen.” How that translates into victories, who knows, but the Illini are good enough to challenge for a trip to the Rose Bowl.

In Rice’s three seasons at Champaign, Illinois has done no better than fourth place in the Big Ten. This being his last and probably best chance of winning a league title, Rice has gone out of his way to be a team leader. His six-hour workouts are legendary, but this summer he added a twist. He recruited sophomore defensive back Trevor Starghill, freshman wide receiver George McDonald (who played at Buena Park), freshman running back Wilbert Smith (who played at Montclair Prep), freshman linebacker Famous Hulbert and freshman defensive lineman Ola Allibalogun.

“It was like a little boot camp,” Rice said.

They started at 2 p.m. and quit at 8 . . . if Rice was in a good mood. They lifted weights six days a week and ran seven days a week. They’d do 20 100-yard sprints, with no rest. They’d do three 400-yard dashes. And then another. And another after that.

“Damn, when you gonna stop, Sim?” one of them would ask. Rice would smile and add another 400.

Once, after driving nearly four hours from Chicago to Champaign, Rice knocked on the dorm room door of his recruits at 3 a.m. They started talking about girls and then football. Rice had an idea.

“Hey, fellas, you know what?” he said. “We should go run around campus.”

And so they did.

“Around the whole campus,” he said. “I had zero sleep. Halfway around and I’m thinking, ‘Man, I shouldn’t be doing this.’ ”

But the recruits helped him make it.

“And to think, at the beginning of summer they couldn’t even hang,” Rice said.

*

No defensive player has won the Heisman. Pittsburgh’s Hugh Green finished second in 1980, Florida State’s Marvin Jones was fourth in 1992. Legendary Illinois linebacker Dick Butkus finished third in 1964.

But this year is a little different. With the exception of Nebraska quarterback Tommie Frazier and running back Lawrence Phillips, USC wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, Auburn running back Stephen Davis and Notre Dame quarterback Ron Powlus, the list of candidates is slim. Plus, Illinois has a solid schedule, its share of TV time, a chance at a Big Ten championship and a sports information department poised to saturate voters with Rice’s stats.

Rice wouldn’t mind becoming part of college football history, but he isn’t clearing space in his apartment for the statuette.

Nor is he second-guessing himself any longer about an NFL draft day gone by. There will be another one next spring and Rice plans to be No. 1 on the selection list.

“Hey, living in college is like a fantasy world,” he said. “I would like to leave behind a legacy.”

No need to worry about that. Ask Tepper. Ask Rice’s recruits. Ask the editorial writer of your choice.


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