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Top of the Line
S.L. Price
August 28, 1995
Linebacker Simeon Rice of Illinois is the best defensive player in the nation, thanks in large part to the tough love he got from his father, Henry
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August 28, 1995

Top Of The Line

Linebacker Simeon Rice of Illinois is the best defensive player in the nation, thanks in large part to the tough love he got from his father, Henry

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A few biographical facts about Rice: He grew up in the scrappy Roseland streets of South Side, Chicago, dodging gangs like the Gangster Disciples and the Vicelords, losing some of his childhood friends to drugs and guns. Once, after being shoved to the ground by an older boy, Simeon went home, got a carving knife and ran out of the house. His mother. Evelyn, ran him down and disarmed him. By the eighth grade he had a dossier of suspensions, fights, disruptions and vandalism as thick as a brick. "When they showed it to my father, it landed on the desk—boom!" Rice says.

Rice would, in fact, fit perfectly into that too-typical category of Troubled Urban Youth Saved by Athletic Talent but for these other facts: He turned down sure millions as a likely top-15 NFL choice, opting to return for his senior year. By December, Rice will have all but completed his degree in speech communications, finishing in 3½ years what most students do in four. His off-season workouts from four to six hours daily—are so brutal that Rice has, every summer, fallen victim to heart palpitations and shortness of breath. "We'll be out running two-a-days in August, and at the end he'll stay out and do sit-ups or run more," says Hardy. "Everyone's walking off the field tired, and you look back and, man, he's still running."

But then he has had to travel quite a distance from Simeon before to Simeon now—and the road wasn't easy. Such chaos and such discipline are unruly bedfellows, which explains how Rice, on the January day he announced he would stay in school, on this same Interstate 57 back to Champaign, suddenly decided to change his mind. Only the lack of a telephone stopped Rice from reversing his decision and turning pro that night, that and the same thing that bridged his life from delinquent to All-America. It was that familiar, raspy voice in his head, then as always, telling him: You've got to be educated. I don't care how much money you have. Money doesn't mean anything without a brain to deal with it. And Rice could no more resist that than he could decide to stop breathing.

"You'll see: My dad's one of those grumpy types of fathers, growling: Grrrrr," Rice laughs. "Doesn't have a lot of friends. You wake up in the morning: What's up, dad? Grrrrr. Go clean up your room."

Rice shoots the car toward Roseland. The plastic medallion bobbing off his key chain reads SIMEON: SUCCESSFUL AND GOOD-WILLED/THIS TRUTH IS TOLD/A STRONG PER-SON/UPRIGHT AND BOLD.

Traffic thickens, the towers of Chicago rise ahead. "Back home in Chi-Town!" he shouts at the windshield. "The Juggernaut's back, bay-beeeee!"

He is the biggest man. Doesn't matter that he stands just 5'8", with a little paunch and spindly legs. Behind his glasses, 61-year-old Henry Rice takes in the room—his room, his house—with hawk-sharp eyes. He sits in his easy chair. When Simeon comes in, taller and stronger, he shrinks himself perceptibly; he gives Henry all the space. Simeon listens to his father without saying a word. "You get so hyped," Henry says, speaking of being in a crowd of strangers, watching his son be great. "You really can't understand it, how hyped you are. Sometimes you scream and enjoy it, sometimes you sit back and watch. You feel like a millionaire, and you don't have a dime."

You don't hear much about the American dad anymore, not good anyway. The sports landscape is littered with stars whose story is oddly the same: Father broken, father dead, father left the family; mom kept the family alive. For at least 20 years now that's how it has been—the old sports father, hard-nosed and hardworking and keeping sonny straight, vanishing into some grainy vision of how it used to be. Dad doing this slow fade.

Not here, though. Not in this clean, spacious house on State Street. Henry Rice, going on 30 years on the line at Ford Motor Co., has hovered with his wife over everything his six kids have done. Simeon, the most gifted, the wildest one of all? Only one way to handle that. "You're not going to play," Henry would tell him. "You're no good." The voice gravelly and stubborn. The voice saying what every child-rearing expert says you shouldn't.

But what do the experts know about Roseland? About kids killing kids, about 12-year-old dealers and drugs and the thirst for the latest sneakers? How do you fight the easy power that comes from crooked money and the feel of a loaded gun? Simeon teetered. His parents shipped him across town to the quieter confines of George Washington Elementary, but that didn't calm him. He had a vicious temper, took swings at teachers. He was sent home over and over, and finally one afternoon Henry had had enough. He had been working the night shift at Ford, and Evelyn was teaching school, and the four girls were just squawling kids, and the call came from George Washington: Come get your boy. Second time that week. In the car home Henry wouldn't even look at Simeon. He parked, went upstairs, turned on the faucet in the tub. Watched the water rise.

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