"Simmy, come here!" He called his nine-year-old into the bathroom. "Simmy," Henry said. "I'm tired. I can't take it. I'm going to drown you, and then you'll be dead."
He grabbed his son's head, and brought it near the water. "I thought he snapped," Simeon says. The boy started screaming, "Dad, please don't drown me.... Please don't kill me.... I promise I won't give you more trouble...."
"If it happens again, I'm going to drown you."
It happened again—but worse. The scariest moment might have been a short time later when a light got out of hand, went from fists to one kid chasing Simeon and his friends with a pistol. Or the time Simeon took to ransacking abandoned houses with another boy, except sometimes they weren't abandoned. Standing there, Simeon had a TV in his hands when he heard a new voice from below: "There's somebody upstairs! Get my gun!" And then he was off running, jumping roofs, laughing with the thrill of getting away. Thinking back, he still can't believe it. "I used to steal," Rice says slowly, as if his mind can't quite get around the thought. "In people's houses."
Football saved him, yes. That was one constant. Even as he was flirting with one disaster or the other, Simeon would still be playing ball wherever he could get a game. And whenever the kids were done, he would make his older brother, Diallo, play for an hour more, and if Diallo was gone, then it would be Henry, pitching footballs for hours as darkness came down. All Simeon wanted was to be Walter Payton, a running back, the star. By the end of his freshman year at Mount Carmel High, a Chicago parochial school, Simeon was six feet tall and faster than most everyone. He shed his old friends, began to dedicate himself.
But Henry didn't trust it. Didn't trust that talent alone could turn Simeon. So Henry would talk. Weekend mornings he would get the boys out of bed early, work them from 8 a.m. until sundown in the basement, on paneling, carpentry. Simeon's friends would come over, and Henry would sit them down and speak of education and energy and hard work. "He's a very wise man," says Bennie Morrow, Simeon's oldest friend. "Even though we were silly and childish, he spoke to us like we were mature. He brought the men out in us. My father was there—but he wasn't. Simeon's father was there for everybody."
However, he didn't like how street bravado would seep into Simeon's football talk, how he would chatter on about winning a trophy, getting a scholarship, going to the Hall of Fame someday. Henry wouldn't hear any of it. "Football is a waste of time," he would say. "Get your education. I'm not paying for you to go to school to play football." During Rice's first two years at Mount Carmel, coach Frank Lenti put him at running back, but by the next season he was too big. Lenti wanted Simeon at tight end. But Simeon wanted to be Payton, so he would drop passes on purpose, refuse to play. Lenti benched him for most of his junior year. There was talk of transferring, but Simeon's parents wouldn't hear of it. "A coach is like a father," Henry said. "The only thing you can do to be smart is listen." And still he rode his son hard: You're not gonna do nothing. How are you gonna get a scholarship if you don't play?
Simeon couldn't be sure: Was his father crazy? Trying to push him? Who could tell? To this day his father's attitude still bothers him. "He won't say it now," Simeon says, mouth grinning but eyes flat. "He'll say he backed me. But then he was saying it for real."