Rhett ran more than the ball that day. The Bucs were in the thick of an 11-play, 80-yard fourth-quarter drive when center Tony Mayberry, bent over and sucking wind during a timeout, looked up to see the rookie merrily running his mouth. "He had carried the ball about 35 times," says Mayberry. "The rest of us were dog tired, but there's Errict having a conversation with the Redskin defense. I said, 'Somebody please get Errict back to the huddle.' "
Rhett's main target was his cousin and off-season next-door neighbor, Redskin defensive end Sterling Palmer. "Sterling," he said, "is everything O.K.? I mean, we're running right at you. Do you think you might make a tackle today?" The Bucs scored on that drive and won 26-21.
Rhett bristles at the inevitable comparisons with Smith, who left Florida one year before Rhett arrived, because those comparisons tend to focus on Smith's elusiveness and Rhett's lack of the same. "I've got some moves too," he says. "I've got some zip and dip." He puts a hip fake on an imaginary linebacker in the Drama aisle of the video store.
But the men who have coached Rhett over the years tend not to mention his artistry. Florida's Steve Spurrier says Rhett "would just as soon run over the safety as make him miss." At McArthur High in Hollywood, Fla., coach Roger Mastrantonio had the Gantlet, a three-on-one, no-holds-barred exercise that is designed to breed toughness. "When Errict was a sophomore, we made the mistake of putting him out there with his brother, Michael [two years Errict's senior], who went on to start at fullback for East Carolina." The ensuing brawl became part of Mustang football legend. "It took me and all four of my assistant coaches five minutes to pull them apart," recalls Mastrantonio, "and I had some pretty big assistants. It was like two wild dogs."
In the winter Errict wrestled. "Rasslin'," as he insists on pronouncing it, nurtured both his obsession with fitness and his mean streak. "I was the Mike Tyson of high school rasslin'," he says. "At the end of the match, seldom did my opponent stand up, shake my hand and walk off. Usually he would stay on the ground, and someone would have to come out and help him. I was vicious."
Does that mean he has certain sadistic inclinations? By now Rhett has left the video store and is dining in a crowded Bennigans. "No," he says, spearing a shrimp, "I don't like weaklings."
At the state regional wrestling meet in his junior year, Rhett went up against an opponent whom he remembers as being 6'7", 220 pounds. (At the time Rhett was 175 pounds and often had to eat mightily to make the 180-pound minimum for the 220-pound weight class.) "I guess I was choking him," says Rhett, his tone suggesting he has no idea how such a thing might have happened. "His mother came down out of the stands, came right out on the mat and started calling me all these racial names in front of, like, 1,000 people. She's screaming at me, telling me to let her son go."
"What do you do?" says Rhett, turning the tables on his interviewer. "This woman is on the mat screaming at you to let her son go. What do you do?" What did he do? "I thought she might kick me in the face or something. I let him go."
"Craziest match I ever had," he says. "Of course, if my mother had been there, she would have told me to let that boy go too."
It was not lack of interest that caused Naomi Rivers to miss most of her two sons' athletic events. Rather, it was her lack of stomach. "She can't stand to see anyone get hurt," says Errict, adding that she has seen him play only twice.