by Tommy Hine
Paul Rice was only a freshman then, a first-year cornerback in an upperclassman’s position. Princeton quarterback Jeff Terrell was at his best that afternoon three years ago, and suddenly he started to pick apart Yale’s secondary with alarming ease.
Until then, Rice had held his own in the game, despite his age and inexperience. And then, near the end, he was beaten by Terrell on the game-winning touchdown pass.
Rice was never again the same player after Princeton’s 34-31 victory that day. Tom Mante remembers what happened next.
“Paul used that as motivation to never, ever let that happen again,” said Mante, Yale’s All-Ivy punter and place kicker. “He busted his ass in the off-season in the weight room, at every practice. As a result, that is why we have had such a good defense the last 2½ or three years. Paul used that as motivation, as a spark.”
Until beaten by Terrell with the winning pass, even Rice thought he had played well that November day in New Haven. Mante says Rice recalled that incident a few weeks ago when, as Yale captain, he talked to his teammates about commitment and accountability.
“Our defense gave up a lot of points in a short amount of time that day,” Mante said. “I didn’t think Paul played bad at all. He was just a very critical player, of himself and his performance, and he used that to his advantage. As a result, he lifted himself a notch to a higher standard. Even though we lost, it was probably one of the more defining moments of his career. It said a lot about his character and the type of man he is.”
Rice was a cornerback then and the next two years as well. At 6 feet 2 and 240 pounds, he was the biggest cornerback in the nation. This season, he made the transition to linebacker -- no easy task.
“To move from a cornerback position to inside linebacker and make it look like he’s been playing there his whole life speaks to his savvy as a football player,” said Tom Williams, Yale’s Joel E. Smilow ’54 Head Coach of football. “That’s not an easy transition. He made it seamlessly for us.
“He’s the quintessential captain. He’s a leader by example. He’s a hard worker. He is a passionate teammate. He shows the guys how to do things, leading by example. He works as hard as he does at practice as he does in football games. You couldn’t ask for a better leader than Paul Rice.”
Soon after Williams was hired last winter, he and Rice talked about Rice’s change of positions to fill the void at linebacker left by Bobby Abare’s graduation.
“It’s been challenging at times, but it’s also been a lot of fun,” Rice said. “It was something I was really looking forward to in the off-season. I think I’ve done pretty well with it so far. I also think I have a long way to go. Unfortunately, I only have one more game in my Yale career. I wish I had one more season.
“It’s definitely a lot more physical burying the ball inside than it is at corner. I like that. It’s definitely been a lot more fun for me.”
Abare’s position at inside linebacker was just one of many holes that had to be filled when Rice returned this season as a senior and Yale’s 132nd football captain. The previous two seasons, Rice had helped the Bulldogs become the top-scoring defense in the country.
“I’ve had the good fortune of being on two great defenses before this year,” Rice said. “This year, we have a lot of guys at new positions, myself included. We have a lot of young guys starting for the first time. I’ve been really proud of the way we played.
“Obviously, we haven’t played our best brand of football some games, Brown included. But when you watch the films, you see guys hitting people. You see guys running around. If you play football that way, if you play football as hard as we do, you’re going to give yourself a chance.”
Three weeks ago at Columbia, Rice was one of the few people in the stadium who gave Yale a chance when it fell two touchdowns behind in the fourth quarter.
“That game at Columbia was probably the greatest game I’ve ever played in, to be down like that and keep battling,” said Travis Henry, senior outside linebacker. “Paul was one of those guys who said the entire game, ‘We’ve got a chance,’ even when we were down and it seemed like we had no chance at coming back.
“He is very vocal on the sidelines. He always makes sure that we keep our focus and that we don’t lose track of our goals and who we are, especially defensively. Defense is what we stand for.”
In the closing minutes at Columbia, that Yale defense, led by Rice, turned a near-certain loss into a win. First, Adam Money made a game-saving tackle at the Yale 2-yard line to keep Leon Ivery out of the end zone after a 75-yard run. On the very next play, Rice forced a fumble. Yale outside linebacker Sean Williams recovered at the Yale 5, denying Columbia’s bid for a game-clinching score.
Even before that crucial play, Henry saw something in Rice that day that few other people did, except for a few teammates on the sidelines.
“This season, it’s been pretty special to see Paul battle through injuries,” Henry said. “He’s not 100 percent out there. He’s banged up, but he’s a warrior. A perfect example was the Columbia game. He was cramping up on the sidelines before he made that big play in the fourth quarter. They didn’t show it on TV, and Paul wouldn’t let you see it either.
“He’d just come to the sideline, he’d get a quick stretch, and he’d be right out there on the next play. That’s the kind of player he is. That wasn’t going to hold him back. Along with Money, Paul won the game for us, or he at least he gave us a chance. That’s what Paul is. Paul expects to make those kinds of plays.”
No one knows Rice better than John Sheffield. He has been watching Rice make plays like that for four years.
“I’ve lived with Paul this year in the same house. Last year, we were roommates,” said Sheffield, a senior receiver. “I’ve gotten to know who Paul is on and off the field. As a captain, he’s done an awesome job. Part of the role of a captain is leading by what you say and what you do.
“At Columbia, Paul played awesome the whole game, but when we were down, we needed that big play. They had that big long run, and it looked like they were about to score and put the game out of reach. Paul said, ‘No. That’s not going to happen.’ He stepped up and made a huge play when we needed it most. That speaks to the kind of player he is.”
Being a kicker, Mante saw the comeback unfold from the sidelines. He could barely believe what he saw.
“Honestly, it was crazy,” he said. “I’ve never been part of a game that came down to the wire as that one did. It wasn’t a back-and-forth game in which they were scoring and then we were scoring. It was one of those games where they scored in chunks and we scored in chunks. The intensity and the atmosphere on the sideline was the best I’ve ever seen.
“Being down a couple of touchdowns, we never got down on ourselves. That’s a true testament to Paul and his ability to lead us, especially causing that big fumble. Because of him, there was no doubt that we were going to come back and at least make a game of it.”
In Mante’s eyes, the mold that would eventually form Yale’s captain began to take shape in Rice’s first year at Yale.
“You only have to think back to our freshman year,” Mante said. “He was one of the few guys who made an immediate impact. You can’t really say that about a lot of guys, especially starting out as a freshman at corner. You would have thought a lot of offenses would have picked on him, being the new face on the team. He handled that extremely well.
“He is a hell of a player, especially playing at his size as the biggest cornerback in the country. I think he came in here physically and mentally prepared for that role as a freshman. He fit right into our system.”
Rice started off his Yale career extremely well, and his accomplishments and playing time were unusual for a freshman player.
In his first year with the Bulldogs, he received the Charley Loftus Award as Yale’s most valuable freshman player, and he was named the New Haven Gridiron Club Rookie of the Year. Rice played in all 10 games as a freshman, starting six at cornerback. He was named defensive MVP in the Harvard game.
Rice received All-Ivy honorable mention after his sophomore and junior seasons, when he started 19 of the 20 games at cornerback. As a sophomore, he was fourth on the team in tackles with 49, making eight stops in the season opener at Georgetown and seven at Princeton. He also forced and recovered a key fumble at the goal line against Princeton, making a 55-yard return, and he ran 34 yards off a fake punt at Holy Cross.
In his junior year, Rice had 38 tackles and four interceptions in nine games. This season, through nine games, he has 63 tackles, 43 of them solo -- both team highs – 8 ½ tackles for losses and that crucial forced fumble in the Columbia game. Rice had 14 tackles in that one game alone.
There was never much doubt in the Rice household in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where he would attend college. Louis and Jana Rice knew their son was headed to New Haven as early as his junior year in high school, even though his Dad was a two-year letterman as a defensive back at Harvard.
“I hadn’t really considered the Ivy League until I was being recruited,” Rice said. “Yale was actually the first school to ever call me. They called me spring of my junior year. Harvard didn’t call until halfway through my senior season, so I was pretty set with Yale. I wasn’t even sure Harvard wanted to recruit me.
“Yale was obviously the place for me.”
Rice made an immediate impact. “Coming out of high school, he was a running back and a linebacker,” Mante said. “For him to make the transition at corner was just remarkable, and then to play the position so well. I was very pleasantly surprised that he played that way his freshman year and that it continued as a sophomore and junior, making big hits and interceptions. It’s just remarkable how this season, he has gone back to being a great middle linebacker. He hasn’t missed a beat.
“As a freshman, he got the leadership from the seniors ahead of him, and he incorporated that, trying to bring the team together. Even though he wasn’t a captain his sophomore and junior years, he was very vocal, leading by example, always playing well. That translated into him being elected captain.”
As a captain, Rice hasn’t had to change the way he plays football. That has always been constant. But he has had to adapt this season to his new role as an emotional and spiritual leader.
“I’ve always had a huge passion for football. That part of it hasn’t changed,” Rice said. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have to think about a lot more things this season than I did last year, things like team chemistry, how it was working, especially with the new coaching staff coming in. There has been a lot more stuff I had to deal with. Not that it’s been a bad thing. I’ve had a great time doing it. It’s been an awesome, rewarding experience, although it’s been difficult at times as well. I couldn’t be happier being captain of this team. It makes very proud to say that I am.
“I talk when I need to talk. I like the fact that we have other seniors who are also vocal and really have stepped into leadership positions this year, guys like Sheffield and Travis and A.J. (Haase). That has certainly helped me as well. If I need to be vocal, I can be vocal. But I’ve always been a lead-by-example guy. First and foremost, I lead by example.”
Rice’s teammates see him as anything but a stereotype captain.
“He’s between a rah-rah type of guy and a silent captain,” said Sheffield, one of Rice’s best friends off the field. “Last year, Bobby Abare was a rah-rah, intense, in-your-face kind of captain. Paul is more laid back, maybe, and he talks about commitment to the team and accountability to one another. He’ll get in your face if need be, but he also is very supportive as well.”
It is the leading-by-example quality that impressed Mante and some of his teammates.
“People look up to him,” Mante said. “His bruising hits really get the team excited, really get it going. Besides that, Paul is very personable. You can go up to him and talk about anything you want, whether it be about the game, different teams, about school. Anything you want. He actually reminds me a lot of Chandler Henley, the captain our freshman year. He knew everybody on the team by first name. You could talk to him about anything you wanted. And in addition, he was a hell of a player.
“To have all those attributes, it makes a great captain. Any guy, any position, anyone on the team can talk to Paul. He seeks you out to make sure you’re doing OK mentally and physically. He takes a great interest in the team.”
Travis Henry has probably the best perspective of Rice’s leadership on the field. They both start at linebacker.
“First and foremast, Paul is a person who walks his talk,” Henry said. “The things he says we should do on a game day or on the practice field, he does on a daily basis. He’s a hard worker. He plays through injuries. He’s a warrior. He’s one of the toughest, one of the most competitive, one of the best men I’ve known in my life. He’s an inspiration to people. He leads through his actions. He’s not a big rah-rah, in-your-face kind of guy. He sets the tone the way he practices.
“The way Bobby Abare was and Paul is now, you can almost see them make the same kind of plays day to day. They play the same position, and I don’t think there was a drop-off at all when we lost Bobby and Paul stepped in. He has done a great job at linebacker. He makes play after play. He was a linebacker in high school, so he has some natural instincts for plugging holes and filling gaps and seeing plays develop. That’s how Paul plays the game.”
As Rice’s career nears an end, he found himself reflecting about his four years at Yale. There have been some tremendous highs, but also some disappointments that will eventually fade from memory.
“There are certain games that stick out as disappointments,” Rice said. “The Princeton game my freshman year. Losses to Penn this year and last year were really tough. Those two games were heartbreaking. The Harvard game my sophomore year, when we had a chance to win the title outright and go undefeated for the first time in 40 years. It was a pretty disappointing Thanksgiving after that game.
“Those are all certain games that were disappointments. I have not once been disappointed with the people in this program or what is expected of us in this program. My disappointments have been on the field and obviously, that’s going to happen in football. You’re not going to win every game. It’s somewhat comforting to say that.”
Even before the game at Princeton last week, Rice had begun to think about what he would say in his final speech to his teammates after Friday’s last practice in preparation for the game with Harvard today.
“I’ve started to formulate things in my mind, but I definitely don’t have a speech quite ready yet,” Rice said last week. “It will be a mixed bag of emotions. I’m sure when I do address the team, it will be a very emotional, heartfelt speech because I’ve been playing football here for four years. It’s been one of the greatest accomplishments of my life.”
In collecting his thoughts for his final speech, Rice will have remembered guys like Sheffield, Henry, Haase and Mante.
“I’ll think about playing even with some of the younger guys and some of the guys older than me when I was a freshman,” Rice said. “It’s funny. I was talking to my dad after the Brown loss, talking about my career here and the game of football at Yale. He said, ‘You know, 30 years out, you’re not going to remember most of these games. You’re just going to remember the Yale-Harvard games and the Princeton games, the big games where you played well, and the games you came from behind and won. But more important, you’re going to remember the relationships you’ve made.’
“As hard as it is for me to think like that right now, I’m sure it’s probably true. I’ve been lucky enough to make some of the best friends in the world here. I consider myself an incredibly lucky human being just for that.”