Rice running into Heisman picture

Ray Rice was a toddler when his mother realized he was destined to be a prominent athlete.

Or maybe the next Evel Knievel.

"He told my father to take the training wheels off his bike," Janet Rice says. "So, we took the wheels off, and Ray just took off. Everyone would say, 'How could this little boy be riding a two-wheeler?' He'd roll up cardboard and use it as a ramp and roll off it. He'll try anything. He'll just go for it, as you can see on the football field."

Some of us can, anyway, but you wonder if folks around the country have opened their eyes to the fact that the Rutgers sophomore ran for 1,120 yards as a freshman last season and 499 through his first three games this season, placing him fourth in the nation in '06.

The three guys in front of him are West Virginia's Steve Slaton (503 yards), Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson (515) and Northern Illinois' Garrett Wolfe (630). Peterson and Slaton are considered Heisman Trophy candidates.

Does that make Rice one, too?

"I'll tell you, if he continues to do what he's doing, certainly," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "It's all about production, and he's producing."

It's all about winning, too, and Rutgers is 3-0 for the first time since 1981. The Scarlet Knights figure to make it four in a row Saturday at home against Division I-AA Howard University. Rice carries a streak of five consecutive 100-yard outings into the game. He isn't worried about building a Heisman résumé, though. He's focusing on his next carry, which, if it's anything like many of his previous ones, will involve some serious contact.

The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Rice plays old-school football. His favorite running back growing up was former Ohio State and Tennessee Titans bruiser Eddie George, which is why Rice wears No. 27. Back at New Rochelle (N.Y.) High School, Rice was a tailback, a defensive back, a punter and a straight-on place-kicker. Penn State wanted him as a cornerback.

Rice always has loved a good high-speed collision.

"In youth tackle football, they'd make him sit out because he was injuring the kids during practice," Janet Rice recalled. "The coach said, 'We can't have him playing, because he's hitting too hard.'"

Though he wanted no part of playing defensive back in college, Rice carries a hitter's mentality through every hole.

"I think my defensive side brings out my tenacity," he said. "When I'm running sometimes, I'm looking for contact. It's kind of weird. It brings a fire to me. When I get older, I'll probably get wiser and not do that."

It's hard to say what lit the original fire in Rice, but a significant and tragic life event occurred when he was 1 year old -- and serves as motivation to this day.

Ray's father, Calvin Reed, was killed in a drive-by shooting.

"We never knew the cause," Janet Rice said. "We were about to get married when it happened. I know he sees everything Ray is doing. That's who's shining down on Ray -- my parents and Ray's father. All that Ray does, he does it for the both of us. He's definitely an amazing child."

Rice figures his father is proud of him, not just for his football exploits but for the fact that he has become a positive role model for his three younger siblings.

"I always think about that," Rice said. "I just think he's looking down upon me. He's my guardian angel."

Was his father an athlete?

"I don't know," Rice said. "They said he was real strong and built, though."

Rice, who has a good relationship with his stepfather, Tom Porter, knows he was shaped by his father's death even if he was too young to remember it.

"I think everything happens for a reason," Rice said. "That could have been a setback in my life, but it made me a stronger man and made my mom a stronger woman. I'd be nothing without her. She's my life. I wear a tattoo that says 'Only God Understands' with her name written into it."

The mother-son relationship was one reason Rice chose Rutgers. He originally signed with Syracuse but backed out when Orange coach Paul Pasqualoni was fired after the 2004 season. Other schools started calling. Rice liked the fact that Rutgers was only an hour away from his mother's house and hadn't had a winning season since he was 5 years old. He wanted to be part of building a program, as he'd been at New Rochelle High, which he led to a state championship his senior year.

So far, so good. Rutgers played in a bowl game last season for the first time in 27 years.

Once in Piscataway, Rice found a kindred spirit in backfield mate Brian Leonard, who, like Rice, was a New York state prep star (Gouverneur High) and had a similarly adventurous childhood.

You think Rice was nuts for driving a two-wheeler over cardboard ramps? Leonard rode a bike down a slide and slid headfirst down a metal ladder when he was little. On purpose.

With plenty of encouragement from Rice, Leonard eschewed the NFL draft to return for his senior season. Rutgers touted Leonard as a Heisman Trophy candidate, even putting his highlight clips on a giant screen in Times Square. Rice, however, opened the season with a 201-yard, three-touchdown performance against North Carolina, and it soon became clear that if there was a Heisman candidate in the Rutgers backfield, it was Rice.

Leonard is OK with that. He knew his touches would decrease. He is focused on blocking, pass-catching -- and winning.

"Ray Rice is a heck of a running back," Leonard said. "Just look at the numbers he's putting up. Ray actually does have a chance [to win the Heisman] if he keeps this up -- and he's going to keep it up."

Rutgers publicist Jason Baum said the school plans to initiate a Heisman campaign for Rice, though Baum points out that Rice's best exposure will come through several ESPN national telecasts during the Big East season, beginning Sept. 29 at USF (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET).

In the meantime, Rice enjoys flying under the radar.

"I kind of like it, because when it gets out, it's out," he said, laughing. "And then it's up to you to keep it up from there."

Rice loves to dip and dart behind a huge offensive line, including 6-8 guard Mike Fladell, then shoot through openings like a bowling ball fired from a cannon. Cincinnati coach Mark Dantonio was Ohio State's defensive coordinator in the national championship season of 2002 and says Rice's running style reminds of him a certain freshman running back from that team.

"You look at [Maurice] Clarett, he's a little bit like that," Dantonio said. "He's a powerful runner. He has good vision, runs very low to the ground and can break tackles."

Schiano, former defensive coordinator at the University of Miami, sees a bit of ex-Hurricanes star Clinton Portis in Rice.

"He's got that kind of balance and vision," Schiano said. "Ray's a little squattier and maybe a little stronger but probably doesn't have the same breakaway speed."

Though Rice dreams of playing in the NFL, he doesn't dwell on the idea.

"That's every football player's dream," he said. "But I'm in college now, and it's the best experience. I'm not going to dream my life away. I'm going to enjoy my experience here, and whatever comes in the future, I'll take it and run with it."

That approach has worked wonders so far.

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.