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DIANE PUCIN

There's Nothing Like Family for Rices

January 22, 2003|DIANE PUCIN

SAN DIEGO — His uncle took the time Monday night to call Darius Rice and tell him, "Good job, you used that shot I taught you."

It was a joke. Jerry Rice did not teach Darius how to shoot a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to end Miami's incredible comeback victory over No. 11 Connecticut.

But it says a lot about Jerry Rice, a 40-year-old NFL icon who had barely arrived in San Diego for Super Bowl XXXVII, that he would call his nephew and give the Hurricane junior the most important thing a young man can ask for -- approval.

Darius scored 43 points Monday night. The Hurricanes had trailed by four points with eight seconds to play. Rice had stolen a Connecticut inbounds pass before turning around to make the game-winner. So his performance was worth a notice by an uncle.

And this uncle has given Darius so much in life. He has bought his nephew a car, and that's great. But more important, said Tom Rice, Darius' dad and Jerry's brother, Jerry Rice has given Darius perspective.

"Jerry has instilled in Darius pride in himself and a belief in the power of the work ethic," Tom said. "Jerry has showed Darius by his actions that by the power of hard work, you can get very far in this life. It doesn't matter what your talent is, but you must take care of that talent and use it well.

"To me, that's the most important thing a great athlete like Jerry can offer young people. Just by watching Jerry and being around Jerry, Darius is a better person."

This uncle is aiming for a fourth Super Bowl ring when his Oakland Raiders play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. Rice won his first three with the 49ers. Now, as Rice said Tuesday, "It's not so much for me. I want to win rings for some of the guys on this team who deserve them."

And the phone call from uncle to nephew is not unusual, even now, at the start of a very busy week for Jerry.

"We talk every week," Darius said. His uncle "has so much wisdom to give me. He's an athlete to admire and I'm lucky enough that I can talk to him and listen to him and learn from him."

It is the mark of the Rice family that everybody helps everybody.

To Darius, Jerry isn't some NFL superstar, a certain Pro Football Hall of Fame member, the owners of dozens of pass receiving records, or even one of the most famous athletes in America.

It was only his Uncle Jerry who was on the other end of a phone late Monday night, it was Uncle Jerry ragging on Darius, taking the credit the way 40-year-olds always do, bragging on his own contributions, the way 40-year-olds like to do.

The Rices of Mississippi are like that. They help each other. They set examples. The older Rices, all of them, help the younger Rices.

"If you want to find a role model, Uncle Jerry is one," Darius said. "His work ethic is the thing. When I was growing up, I saw it every day, the way my uncle worked. He always took it personally, to work hard to be the very best he could be. And that's what I've taken from him, even more now than ever.

"Uncle Jerry stays completely focused on what he's doing. The man is 40 years old and my friends all think that's old, but I tell them they wouldn't think that if they saw how hard my uncle can still work. He can out-work all of us, and I can still learn a lot about maturity and staying focused myself."

Darius's father, Tom, is one of Jerry's older brothers.

"There are nine siblings," Darius said, "but my dad and Jerry were always the closest. My dad is five years older than Jerry and my dad coached Jerry a lot in football. My dad is a great role model too, because he made the most of his ability and then he went into coaching."

Tom Rice, 45, was an offensive lineman at Jackson State and a high school football coach in Jackson, Miss., for 11 years until he collapsed on the sideline during a game. Tom had serious kidney disease that has caused him to lose both his kidneys and be on dialysis since 1990.

"Three times a week, for four hours and 30 minutes," Tom Rice said. Tom was at a high school basketball game watching his 5-foot-11, 14-year-old daughter Valencia play.

"I thank God every day that I'm alive and able to watch my son and daughter and brother play sports. I thank God every day I can spend another day with my wife, Brenda. We're proud of Darius and Valencia and we're proud of Jerry."

Jerry always worked hard, Tom said. "He worked hard at playing when he was 5 years old," Tom says. "He worked hard in school, he worked hard in his practices. It was in his mind all the time that to do good, you had to work hard."

Darius was going to be a football player, like his uncle and father. But then Darius grew and grew.

"He went from 6-1 to 6-10 in about a second," Tom said. "It happened just that fast. And there aren't many 6-10 wide receivers. Darius was going to be a receiver like Jerry."

But now Darius is a basketball player, not like his uncle in his choice of sport but very much like his uncle in other ways.

"Jerry cried when he had to leave Mississippi for the NFL," Tom said, "and Darius cried when we took him to Miami. We all cried. That's how this family is. We're close."

Jerry smiled and said he was happy to see Darius and his shot all over television Monday night. He was more serious in talking about Tom.

"Tom shows incredible courage in living every day," Jerry said. "I take a lot from Tom."

It's the Rice way. Set an example. Everybody follows.

*

Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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