SOMEDAY WHEN HE IS OLD AND GRAY, WHEN HIS STEP HAS SLOWED AND HIS GAIT HAS BECOME UNSTEADY, RAY RICE WILL WATCH THE HIGHLIGHT of himself catching a dump pass from Joe Flacco in the fourth quarter against the Chargers in November and shake his head. "Can you believe I moved like that," he'll shout in a deep baritone, flashing his same old, toothy grin. Ever since the elusive back was finally wrangled to the turf at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, that has been a question Chargers fans have tried to reconcile—some, surely, with the help of a therapist.
The situation was dire for the Ravens, who were facing fourth-and-29, trailing by three with 1:59 to play. Four receivers ran uninspired vertical routes into the blanket coverage of seven defenders; the pocket slowly collapsed. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four.
No other option available, Flacco lobbed a pass to his safety valve just over the line of scrimmage. Backpedaling as he snagged the ball, which came in high and to his left, Rice tucked it away and pirouetted upfield in one fluid motion. What happened next is the stuff of video games, with cheat codes enabled.
Taking off from the Ravens' 37-yard line, he reached full speed by the time he was finally confronted at the Chargers' 48. He didn't face one defender, he faced three. Quick as a hiccup, Rice juked right to left without being touched, toppling Demorrio Williams, Takeo Spikes and Greg Gatson like dominos. Three strides later he blew past safety Corey Lynch, then found more daylight when Ravens' wideout Anquan Boldin crushed safety Eric Weddle with a blindside block.
Closing in on the Chargers' 34-yard line, Rice desperately lunged forward as two defensive backs clamped down upon him. The chains were brought on for a measurement, adding gravitas to the moment as, by the length of a football, Baltimore pulled off an improbable first down. Six plays later Justin Tucker kicked a game-tying 38-yard field goal. In overtime he hit another from the same distance for a 16--13 victory. But it was Rice who was the star. Later asked what the play call had been on fourth down, he beamed that trademark smile and quipped, "Check Down, Hey Diddle Diddle, Ray Rice up the middle."
RICE'S LEGS HAVE BEEN CHURNING LONGER THAN even he can remember. "During my pregnancy," his mother, Janet, 49, says, "Ray would kick so hard I didn't get any sleep at night."
Born six weeks prematurely at Sound Shore Medical Center in New Rochelle, N.Y., during a blizzard in January 1987, Rice has always been an undersized powder keg of energy hell-bent on proving himself. At two years old he was riding a bike without training wheels; at five he was doing push-ups and pull-ups with older cousins; at six he was a water boy for a Pop Warner team, still too young to play tackle football; by seven he was too much to handle—coaches had to pull him from some games because he was (legally) laying kids out left and right.
"I don't understand it, Mom, this is football," Rice would say through tears. "I'm just playing the game."
He knew only one way to play it. His younger brother Markell, now a 23-year-old defensive back at American International College, still has teeth marks on his head from playing pickup football with Ray outside The Hollows housing project in New Rochelle, a city of 77,606 just north of New York City.