Chase Rice just chasing his dream

8/21/2014 - NASCAR
Former college linebacker and NASCAR crew prospect Chase Rice has found his niche: country music. Paul A. Hebert

Sports have a distinct way of teaching important, lasting life lessons: Teamwork, selflessness in the quest for the greater good, the value of sacrifice and hard work and perseverance, triumph, failure, passion and the like. Those lessons are forever. They apply in the classroom and the in boardroom and in the living room.

I thought about this for a long time after chatting with Chase Rice. His story is a real-life "Forrest Gump" script, one born from that sports-as-life premise.

Rice is a successful country music singer. He has a song on the radio. That, in itself, means he beat overwhelming odds. For every Kenny Chesney, there are a thousand honky-tonk heroes. Rice also co-wrote one of the most successful commercial country music songs of all time, played major college football, almost won the TV reality show "Survivor" and tossed aside a potential career in NASCAR with the sport's super team because his heart was in Nashville.

He is 27 years old.

"It's always weird when people start saying that back to me -- it puts it in perspective," he said of his life's evolution. "It ain't been the most normal life. But for me it's all I've known, it's what I've done. It's what I've lived through. If you'd told me that six years ago, I'd have been like, 'What? You're insane.' But I lived it."

Each of those chapters would provide the notable highlight in most folks' lives. Rice achieved it all in six years. Each had a unique impact. But nothing had the impact that his father's death had.

"It was devastating. Still is," Rice said. "It's been six years, and there will still be moments where it hits me, where I remember the phone call from my mom. And I'm right back in that place. It's the worst feeling, the worst nightmare you've ever had, the kind you wake up from and thank God it didn't happen. But you don't wake up from that one -- it's always true that it did happen."

Rice was entering his senior season at University of North Carolina. A linebacker, he'd worked diligently to overcome a season-ending ankle injury, which he suffered during the opening game of his junior year. At the time of the injury, a torn tendon in his left ankle, Rice said he'd never been a better player.

Football was his first true passion. As a high school player in Asheville, North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer ranked him among the best 25 players in the state. And with years of pounding in the Carolina program, he'd made the dream reality. He believed he belonged on an NFL roster. Then injury thwarted it.

He'd never had to overcome much of substance. He'd always had to work a bit harder than the next guy to earn playing time, but had never been sidelined.

"I got back healthy, got my starting job back," he explained. "Going into my senior year, I'm back and ready to roll, proud of myself, overcame it. Now it's time to prove that I'm the guy. Then I get a phone call saying, 'Chase, your dad's dead.'"

Rice's father, Dan, had died of a heart attack. It would alter Chase's life forever.

"I remember that phone call very well, from my mom," he continued. "She said, 'Chase, come home, Dad died.' My world just stopped. Then she started screaming into the phone. That's a phone call you don't ever forget. I think about it a lot."

Rice wouldn't accept that his father was gone. At his funeral, Dan's best friend suggested that Chase go pay his last respects. Rice wouldn't go. He refused to believe it was his dad in that casket.

Chase Rice was lost. His father was the truest constant in his life. He never missed a game Rice played. During Chase's injury-plagued junior season, Dan, exhausted from radiation treatments while battling melanoma, drove from Asheville to Chapel Hill to watch his son run onto the field for the season finale against Duke. Dan was a good listener when his son needed to talk. He was a stern hand when his son did wrong. He was a compass for a kid chasing big dreams.

"He was the perfect example of what it's like to be an example of a great parent," Rice said. "If I'm going to be a dad, I want to do it like he did."

This was another opportunity for Rice to quit. But he wouldn't. Rice chose to honor his dad on the field. He played his senior season at Carolina, mostly in special defensive packages and on special teams, but the lingering effects of the injury hampered his performance. He is certain that, given the chance, he could have played in the NFL. But no team would take a chance on damaged goods.

"There's not a doubt in my mind I could have played [in the NFL]," Rice said. "There's players that were backing me up, that I felt like I dominated every day in practice, that are still playing in the NFL. So that gives me confidence I could have done it, especially how hard I worked in football.

"But the cool part about it -- it's cool, but not cool -- is I never got the shot. I had the best Pro day of anybody there. Me and [Indianapolis Colts wide receiver] Hakeem Nicks just dominated. A lot of my numbers were better than Hakeem's that day. But I never got the call."

He has no regrets about football. The North Carolina pro day performance gives him solace he couldn't have offered a better audition.

"I can't sit here and think, 'What the hell did I do wrong?'" he continued. "I didn't do anything wrong. It just didn't happen."

Rice admits he's fortunate. He's had success beyond football. Were it not for that, it would have been much harder to let the game go. Granted, he loves football more than he loves music. Music was the 9-to-5 job. Football was the lottery ticket.

Or, depending on perspective, maybe vice versa.

"Playing football, you know somebody always wants your job," Rice said. "If you don't work and you don't bust your ass, you ain't going to play. That taught me a lot. When I moved to [Nashville], nobody wanted anything to do with me.

"Labels said I wasn't good enough. Everybody said I was writing the wrong stuff. And that sports mindset kept me going, like, screw all that. If that's what y'all think, I'll do it on my own, then. I'll do it by working harder."

These days, Rice is on tour with Dierks Bentley. That's notable not only because Bentley is a superstar who chose a project, but also because Rice is an anomaly.

"I had Chase come out on the road because I really like what he's doing musically," Bentley said. "He's got an underground thing going on. He's made fans by playing shows. He put the cart before the horse, so to speak, and he can actually pull it."

Bentley said a representative from Live Nation kept telling him about this kid who was selling out multiple House of Blues locations with no radio singles. So Bentley started to pay attention. Once they hung out, he realized Rice was a hard worker who had passion for making music. And above that, he was genuine.

"That can be rare in this business," Bentley said. "You've got a bunch of alpha people, all trying to get something. And usually that means you find people who are only concerned about themselves, and only care about other people when it benefits them.

"And here's this guy who's living the dream and recognizes it. He's trying to make great music, and it hasn't overtaken who he is as a person. I mean, his mom [Connie] is still out on the road with him sometimes."

Bentley and Rice bonded over much deeper topics, too. Oftentimes you learn more about a man when he loses than when he wins.

"We've talked and toasted about losing dads, and what it's like," Bentley said. "All the sudden you go from being the co-pilot, flying the plane but having someone ready to show you how to do things when you screw up, to all the sudden you're all alone there in the cockpit.

"But you're not alone. It happens to everybody. If you're lucky, your dad goes first, and not the other way around. It's a quick bond between people, though, that are still relatively young and have lost their pops. It's another level of being a man. It's pretty lonesome, as you try to step up and be the man he was for you."

Rice produces and releases commercial music without the assistance of a record label. His new album, "Ignite The Night," debuted this week. He said critics originally told him his method couldn't be done. But now, he said, they tell him they want to do it his way.

"Guys like Eric Church and Brantley Gilbert have proven you can do it," Rice said. "Myself, hopefully I'm included in that. I think people just aren't willing to put in the work and take the risk of turning labels down and building it on your own. I was. I'm proud of how we've done it."

Thousands of fans sing his songs back to him every night.

"That's the most fulfilling, satisfying thing I've ever experienced," he said. "It's up there with beating the University of Miami [in football] back in the day. Opinions have clearly changed over the past couple of years. But it's the best feeling in the world, knowing I didn't sell out and listen to these people tell me I was doing it wrong. That mindset was built on sports."

When football ended, NASCAR arrived. Chris Burkey, a defensive graduate assistant on the UNC staff, had moved on to Hendrick Motorsports as part of its pit crew development program. Hendrick is the most dominant organization in NASCAR over the past three decades, with 11 Sprint Cup championships -- all since 1995 -- and 227 total Cup wins by the likes of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Terry Labonte, Mark Martin, Kasey Kahne and Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip.

Burkey liked Rice's fire and invited him to come try out for a position as pit crew member. Hendrick was in the midst of rewriting pit road methodology. No longer was it shop guys changing tires; it involved recruiting former all-everything athletes who just missed the professional cut in other sports.

Suddenly, pitting a race car for four tires, 36 gallons of gasoline and a handling adjustment had become a sport in and of itself. Rice had potential. But he had no desire.

"That was the first time in my life that I didn't fit in," Rice explained. "All those pit crew guys, when I came in, we didn't click. Now they're some of my best friends. But it was the first time in my life I felt alone."

He was living in the extended-stay hotel in Concord, North Carolina. Alone. He learned he could be mediocre when he wasn't invested.

"The reason I was being average at that job was because I wanted to be in music," he admitted. "My heart wasn't in that job. I wanted to move to Nashville and do music. Looking back now, I wasn't giving 100 percent to the NASCAR pit crew thing. That showed me that if I want to be average, I can do that. But it's not going to be a fun road. If your heart's not in it, you can't be great."

He wanted to be great. Racing was in his blood. His father had been a racer, once winning his class in what is now the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Rice said. His dad loved Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jr. and Tony Stewart.

He even looked like Big E. Rice tells a story of his youth, when he and his father were in a Daytona Beach McDonald's. His dad was wearing an Earnhardt Goodwrench hat, and a fellow patron, thinking he was Big E, walked over and asked for an autograph.

"I think he actually signed it," Chase laughs now. "It would've blown his mind that I was working in NASCAR. I remember having a conversation with him about Junior going to Hendrick Motorsports. It was like, 'Man, Junior has a dad again, in Rick [Hendrick].' I remember that conversation. He was so pumped to see that. He wanted to see Dale Jr. do really well."

No matter how badly he wished NASCAR would have worked out, it really never had a chance.

"He always wanted to chase the music dream," said Burkey, who is now the head pit coach for Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne. "He came back from 'Survivor,' and he had the opportunity to chase music, and I knew if anybody could make it, it was him. It's hard to make it in country music, and I told him if that's your dream, you need to chase it now while you're young."

He'd have made a fine rear tire carrier.

"He'd have been really, really good on pit road," Burkey said. "He's smart, athletic, strong with really long arms, dedicated. There's no doubt he'd be on one of our four Cup teams right now."

Rice left NASCAR to audition for "Survivor: Nicaragua." He was selected, and he ultimately finished second to Judson Birza by one vote.

After "Survivor," Rice set sail for Nashville. It was 2010, and from the time he arrived, it was one hell of a party. He'd known Brian Kelley from Florida Georgia Line since they were kicking soccer balls around the playground as kids. Kelley, too, was chasing the dream. Rice moved in with him, and as much as they were partying, nobody thought they'd amount to much.

They starting writing songs together often, and 18 months later, they felt they'd made substantial progress as writers. Then the big break happened.

They'd been working on a slower song along with Jesse Rice called "When God Runs Outta Rain," when Kelley started picking out a random riff he'd been working on. Forty-five minutes later, "Cruise" was written. It would strap a rocket to their backs. They're still riding. No song in country music history spent more time at No. 1 than "Cruise."

"That song was the best mistake that's ever happened to us," Rice said. "That song was a gift from the songwriting gods. And almost bigger than the writing, Joey Moi produced it. He's [the Florida Georgia Line] producer now, and he produced the hell out of that song. The sound of it is just monstrous.

"It's obviously changed their lives, and it's changed mine. That gives you the confidence that, damn, man, we can actually have an impact in this genre."

Rice is a rarity. It is difficult to fathom his story. His odds are impossible. Think about this:

How many high school football players have the opportunity to play in college at all, much less in a Big Five power conference? And how many of them actually get playing time? And how many of them actually start? And how many of them participate in a pro day?

Not many.

How many people send a tape to CBS praying just to sniff "Survivor"? And how many contestants' audition tapes actually make it to producer Mark Burnett's television? And how many who are actually chosen to participate on the show actually reach the final vote?

Not many.

How many aspiring writers show up in Nashville wishing on the last star in the galaxy just to get a publishing deal, and then to write enough songs to keep food on the table? And how many of those actually keep food on the table? And how many of those actually write a song or two that are cut by other artists for placement on a record? And how many write a song that charts? And how many of those write a Top 10 hit? And how many of those write a complete monster smash that lives at No. 1 for weeks?

Not many.

And how many aspiring artists show up in Nashville bangin' strings in dusty bars for years and years and years and years, yearning just to slap a demo in a record executive's hands, yearning just to shake a record executive's hands? And how many of those actually get a meeting to sell themselves? And how many actually get a record deal? And how many make it to radio? And tour nationally? And open for superstars? And release new records on their own label?

The odds are ridiculous. The mere notion is ridiculous.

But Rice has done it all. Every bit.

He is 27 years old.

"His story is just unbelievable. Truly, it is," Bentley said. "The guy played middle linebacker for UNC. That's enough for most people for their whole lives. I laugh with my guys about him, like, 'What else has he done that we don't know about?' You're right, by the way. He is the Forrest Gump of country music. That's a great byline."