Commentary

Sidney Rice's magical hands

Receiver's ability to snag footballs transformed him from small-town hero to rising star

Updated: October 18, 2011, 4:30 PM ET
By Justin Heckert | ESPN The Magazine

Peter Hapak for ESPN The MagazineThe Seahawks deemed Sidney Rice and his hands worthy of a five-year, $41 million deal this summer.

It's really weird to stare at someone's hands. To sit there and study how he holds the steering wheel, to consider how his fingers scratch the hair beneath his chin. To try and notice if there's anything misshapen about his fingers, his knuckles, then to try and qualify just how hairy those knuckles actually are. You notice things about a person by watching his hands, like how he waves at somebody from the car, fumbles with the diamond in his earlobe, drops change into a homeless person's plastic cup or circles his fingers through the air to emphasize a point.

Few of us pay much attention to our hands. Because, well, what's to see? They're hands.

But what would you learn if you paid close attention to someone who's known for having gifted, preternatural hands? A wide receiver in the National Football League, for instance. And not just any receiver. A guy right on the cusp of becoming a star. A guy averaging 15.1 yards per catch this season, his first year with the Seattle Seahawks.

A guy named Sidney Rice.

What if you stared at his hands?


They sweat a lot. He doesn't know why, but he constantly rubs them together to keep them dry. Maybe it's an inherited thing -- everyone in the Rice family has sweaty hands. Or maybe it's because he gets nervous, like when Brett Favre first showed up on the Vikings' practice field in 2009. "I was a little scared," Sidney says. "Because he's my favorite quarterback of all-time." Or maybe it's merely a physiological quirk, with no explanation at all.

He has pronounced knuckles because his fingers are thin and long. He has 27 tattoos but none encroaching on his hands. His cuticles are perfect because he gets manicures. He uses lotion every day but "not the kind for girls, the kind that smells."

His hands are his livelihood, but he says he isn't conscious of them. That is, he doesn't protect them, consider them immensely valuable or avoid cutting a steak with a sharp knife. The same fingers that get paid to catch a football curl around a PlayStation 3 controller when Sidney's playing Madden 12 or NBA 2K with buddy and Seahawks QB Tarvaris Jackson.

His hands can make any catch, Jackson says.

On the first day of practice this preseason, Jackson threw Sidney a pass, and it was way too high. "I let one rip, but he exploded to it," Jackson says. "I couldn't believe he came down with it. That was all his hands."

"I couldn't believe he came down with it. That was all his hands."

-- Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle Seahawks quarterback

Like any great receiver's, his hands have their share of wounds. There's a round white scar at the base of his right thumb from arthroscopic surgery during his first season at South Carolina. His left pinky is permanently bent at an unnatural angle, another courtesy of college football. Fortuitously, the finger is bent exactly as though it were clutching a ball. Sometimes people ask if that's advantageous. "I have no idea," he says. "But it doesn't cause any pain."

Sidney demonstrates how he stretches his hands by pressing his palms together, pushing his right index finger back with his left index finger, repeating the action in the opposite direction, and then progressing to his middle fingers.

He has a hell of a handshake -- he reaches out his right hand, opens his fingers, closes them, squeezes. And there's a pop. But he doesn't shake too hard, doesn't totally crush the smaller hand in his grip.

When he texts, Sidney's hands and fingers move as fast as a teenager's. When he yawns, he raises a hand in front of his mouth as a courtesy. When he finishes his lunch, he dumps the contents of his plastic lunch tray into the trash, just like a person with regular hands would.


Of course, he doesn't have regular hands. Regular hands would not have signed a free-agent contract for five years and $41 million in July. The Seahawks saw and snagged a No. 1-receiver whose hands should lead him to another Pro Bowl season -- if he's healthy.

Sidney injured his right hip in the 2009 playoffs and, last year, waited to have surgery until right before the season started.

This decision foreshadowed what would become a disastrous year for the Vikings. After Rice's surgery, the team waited on Favre to make up his mind. Percy Harvin was racked with migraines. Randy Moss, acquired to replace Rice, turned out to be a terrible distraction -- saying himself he should be fired -- and then got waived. Favre was a broken replica of the man who had led the team to the NFC Championship. The roof of the Metrodome collapsed, under the unbearable weight of either the expectations or the snow.

Sidney missed 10 games and stood on the sideline with his million-dollar hands in his pockets. The Vikings won six games.

Peter Hapak for ESPN The MagazineRice grew up in Gaffney, S.C., and his hands are the stuff of legends there.

But in week 13 against the Bills, Sidney's third game back, he had five catches for 105 yards and two TDs. After Favre left the game injured in the first quarter, Tarvaris Jackson came in. From the Bills' 31-yard line, he dropped back and threw a post to the right side of the end zone, and Sidney jumped over CB Leodis McKelvin, elongated his body and snagged the ball. The two players crashed into SS Donte Whitner, who was running in from the opposite side, and Sidney held onto the ball, even as McKelvin tried to wrest it away.

The next quarter, from the Buffalo 6-yard line, Jackson took the snap and rolled to his right, then lobbed a pass to Sidney, who dove as far as he could, with his arms outstretched beyond the reach of CB Drayton Florence, caught the ball with his fingertips and pulled it into his body as he fell in the corner of the end zone.

Regular hands would not have made two of the best touchdown catches of the year in the same game.

"He's a star right now," says Seahawks WR coach Kippy Brown. "He's a great hands guy. He works hard on his hand positioning, never lets the ball get past his eyes. Wherever the QB's eyes are, he's always with them.

"I think he loves to catch the football."


People remember his hands.

In Gaffney, S.C., where Sidney grew up playing football and basketball, he's a hero, and it seems like an insult to whittle him down to his appendages. But it turns out people remember Sidney's hands as much as anything else about him. His hands are special, legendary, almost divine.

Inside the offices of WZZQ, the radio home of the Gaffney High School Indians, Dennis Fowler and Fabian Fuentes, when asked about Sidney's hands, look at each other as if they can't talk about something they've never fully understood. Both men have done play-by-play for 20 years, and both remember "The Play." Down 16-13 in overtime against Summerville High School and John McKissick, the winningest head coach in high school football history, the Indians needed a touchdown to reach the state championship game. Gaffney's then-coach, Phil Strickland, remembers telling his offensive coordinator, "Throw the ball to Sidney, or you're fired." Sidney ran a fade to the right corner of the end zone, out-jumped the two players McKissick had draped on him and caught the winning touchdown.

The Indians went on to win the state championship.

Sidney's high school basketball coach, Mark Huff, remembers Sidney's hands securing rebounds by the dozen and making highlight-reel dunks every night. "He had this unbelievable desire to win," Huff says. "It was like he wanted us to be down in the last few seconds, just so he could take the ball and win the game." The best high school player in the state, Sidney led the Indians to back-to-back state basketball titles his junior and senior years.

The Indians' receiver coach, Cameron Brooks, remembers Sidney putting one hand behind his back and catching passes with the other -- left hand, then right. "In practice, I'd throw it sideways to him, or I'd throw a knuckleball to him."

He caught everything. In a picture in Sidney's senior yearbook, he's palming a basketball with one hand and cradling a football with the other. Not surprisingly, his class voted him "Most Athletic."

"It was like he wanted us to be down in the last few seconds, just so he could take the ball and win the game."

-- Mark Huff, former Gaffney High School basketball coach

Today Sidney is the most famous person Gaffney can claim, and people take pride in his coming home. He returned to be the grand marshal of the Peach Parade, riding down Limestone Street -- past the bank and the church and the glass storefront windows -- in a convertible next to his mama and waving to the crowd. This past summer, during the lockout, he went home and rode around with his best friend, a guy nicknamed "Snake," shot hoops in the Gaffney High gym and signed autographs for the students.

At a tiny place called Webster's Fresh Seafood Market, a dry-erase board offers "The Sidney Rice Catch of the Day." Glenn Webster, who owns the place, remembers Sidney using his hands to pull two tables together and eat all the fried fish they had.

Hands, hands, hands, hands, hands -- a thousand times, the people in the town are asked. They all have something they remember about his hands.

They remember those hands taking him 100 miles southeast to Columbia, where he played for Steve Spurrier and broke every school receiving record in two years. "I tell our receivers now, when Sidney was here, if we threw it and it went eight yards out of bounds, he went and caught it eight yards out of bounds," Spurrier says. "He just caught everything. I can't remember a pure drop he ever had."

They remember when the Vikings drafted him and his hands 44th overall in the second round of the 2007 NFL draft.

And they remember his hands having a house built for his mother -- a house with two rocking chairs out front and a nice porch out back. Which is exactly what he told her he'd do and the main reason he left college to turn pro when he was just 19 years old.


Last Thanksgiving, Sidney helped Tarvaris Jackson deep-fry a turkey. Sidney used his hands to help lift the turkey out of the fryer, and then he cut it up and shoveled it onto his plate. "He likes that lemon-pepper seasoning," Jackson says. "He sprinkles it on everything." They also made smothered potatoes, dirty rice, and mac and cheese.

Both men are from the South, and neither had any family in Minneapolis, so they often spent time together at Jackson's place, even before they both wound up as free agents and on the Seahawks. "I remember watching him in college," Jackson says. "I saw he was raw, but he always had good hands."

Sidney says Jackson throws just as hard as Favre used to in Minnesota, and the two Seahawks are capable of conjuring a similar on-field magic -- one they've already honed through playing Madden and cooking chicken together. And he says that the first pass he caught from Jackson, the high rocket he managed to snare, had a familiar Favre-like feel.

Stare at Sidney's hands long enough, and you might learn something. Not that he knows what, though.

"I don't know if my hands are special or not," he says. "But when the ball is coming my way, I know I can catch it."

He buys bottled water from the convenience store and leaves the pennies behind, just like you or me. He places his Seahawks cap, bill straight, barely on the tip of his head, so as not to disturb his hair. He uses his hands to put on his white Seahawks practice jersey, to lift a half-empty bottle of Gatorade up to his lips. He scratches his nose, rubs his eye, taps a text message on his phone.

He stares down at his fingers. To Sidney, the ways in which his hands seem exceptional are normal -- his normal.

"They're just my hands, man."

Justin Heckert is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.