One warm summer day in Elgin, James Reed was having a conversation with his young grandson who was spending part of his vacation from school in South Carolina.
The youngster, who was still in grammar school in his hometown of New Rochelle, N.Y., at the time, asked his grandfather to do him a favor; something which he could wear when he got back home in the fall.
“He said to me, ‘Granddad, buy me some football shoes,’” Reed said, as he recalled the story while sitting on his living room couch.
“I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Sneakers.’ I said, ‘Are you going to play football?’ He said, ‘No, I’m going to be the water boy this year. I’m going to play football next year.’”
The youngster making that request was Ray Rice, who went from water boy for a youth football team to a 26-year-old man who is one 60-minute game away from being sized for a Super Bowl ring as he and his Baltimore Ravens square off against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday in New Orleans.
Two of the 30 people on Rice’s guest list will be his paternal grandparents, James and Amelia Reed who will be in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday evening to take in the biggest game of their grandson’s career. Then, again, where else would the Reeds be, or want to be, on this occasion.
Rice has made several trips to visit his grandparents in Elgin. And, they said, when he comes to the area, the 2009 All-Pro selection can come and go as he pleases without people making a fuss over him.
“Not often,” James Reed said as to his grandson being recognized by people. “But once you introduce them to him, it brings back memories. But they’re probably looking for a bigger guy, too. He’s only about 5-8 or 5-9. But he’s stocky; he’s well built.”
“When he comes here he meets friends at the bowling alley and people there liked meeting him,” Amelia added. “It’s just lovely that he comes back here. People are always asking ‘When is he coming back? When is he coming back?’ He’s a lovely young boy.”
The Reed’s son, Calvin, was Rice’s father. Calvin Reed passed away in 1988, before Ray turned two. At the time, James and Amelia Reed were living in Mount Vernon, N.Y. James Reed worked for 30 years and eight months for General Motors, in Tarrytown, N.Y., before retiring and returning to South Carolina in 1993.
Calvin, his father said, never liked football which is why James Reed finds it ironic that Ray Rice was drawn to the sport.
“My son, his father, went out for football one day and the following day,” James said, “I was getting ready to go to work on a Friday and I asked him, ‘Are you going to play football this afternoon, Calvin?’ He said, ‘No dad, I’m not going to play football. They don’t care where they hit you. So, I’m not going to play.’
“It’s amazing that (Ray) likes to play football and get hit, but his dad didn’t like to get hit.”
A Charleston native who lived in the Palmetto State before moving to New York in his late teens, James Reed is quite familiar with the drive up I-95. He has since made many a trip along the ultra-busy interstate traveling to New York, New Jersey, Baltimore and several stops in between, most of those to follow the football fortunes of his now-famous grandson.
“I followed him when he was going to Rutgers and went to a couple of his high school games at New Rochelle High,” Reed said.
Just as he helped turn the football fortunes around at Rutgers, Rice first made his mark on the gridiron at New Rochelle High School (NRHS) in a city located “only 45 minutes from Broadway” as made famous by the George M. Cohan song of the same name.
“When Ray got to high school,” Reed said, “the seniors didn’t want him to play. But the coach put him in one time and the coach hasn’t taken him out since.”
By the time he was a junior, Rice helped lead the Huguenots to their first state championship in more than two decades after having rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scoring 21 touchdowns. As a senior, NRHS lost in the state title contest despite Rice’s rushing for 1,192 yards and 31 touchdowns en route to earning first team All-State honors.
Rice first committed to Syracuse University to play football, but when the Orangemen fired head coach Paul Pasqualoni, it left Rice to look for a new school. He found that, and a coach he trusted, in Greg Schiano, who was finishing his fourth season at Rutgers and leading a program which had endured 14 consecutive losing seasons.
In his recruiting pitch to the 5-foot-8 Rice, the Rutgers boss promised that the program was on the verge of something special. With Rice as the bell cow, he helped make a prophet out of Schiano.
As a freshman, Rice worked his way into the starting lineup and rushed for 1,120 yards and five touchdowns in helping the Scarlet Knights to a 7-4 record and a berth in the Insight Bowl in Arizona. As a sophomore, he ran for a school-record 1,794 yards while scoring 20 touchdowns as Rutgers finished with an 11-2 record and were ranked 12th in the nation in the final polls.
Rice was not done, yet. In what was his final collegiate campaign, he helped Rutgers to an 8-5 finish and a berth in the International Bowl in Toronto. On what turned out to be his final college contest, Rice ran wild, scorching the Ball State defense for 280 yards en route to being named the game’s most valuable player. In the stands that day, just as they were the previous year for the win over Kansas State in the Texas Bowl, were James and Amelia Reed. Both times, their grandson walked off with the most valuable player trophy.
After a three-year career in which he amassed school records of 4,926 yards rushing and 49 touchdowns, Ray Rice was ready to take his talents to the National Football League. “He did everything he could do at Rutgers,” James said of his grandson’s decision to come out for the NFL Draft after three years of college.
The Ravens used their first, the 18th, pick in the 2008 draft to select quarterback Joe Flacco. In the next round, they grabbed Rice, with the 55th pick, to serve as a backup to starting tailback, Willis McGahee.
James Reed smiled as he thought back to that day.
“We were up in New York when he got drafted,” he said. “We had a nice time and we all cried together when he got drafted. It was a very exciting moment, everybody was happy for him.”
The only better scenario, Amelia Reed said, would have been for the Carolina Panthers to have selected Rice so his grandparents would be able to see him more often, on and off the field. But Baltimore was not the worst place Rice could have ended up.
“When he first got drafted, we were hoping that he would come this way so it wouldn’t be as far,” he said. “Luckily, he didn’t go west. We enjoyed that so we could go to some of his games.”
James was fine with making the eight- to nine-hour drive to Baltimore to take in several of Rice’s games, in person, per season. And when he and his wife of more than 50 years could not go to the game, his subscribing to the NFL Ticket package was the next best thing as the Reeds never miss a Ravens’ game.
Being able to see all the games, however, does not mean that Amelia “watches” the game from kickoff to the final whistle. Sometimes, she said with a laugh, things get a little too nerve-wracking and she needs to step away from the TV set for a few minutes at a time.
“A lot of times,” she said when asked how often she gets too nervous to take in the game with her husband. “Sometimes, the games become so tense that I can’t watch it. I want to watch it, but I can’t. I walk away from the room and just hope and pray that everything works out. I know every mother is praying from their teams to win, but I’m still praying for them (the Ravens) to win.”
Listed at 5-foot-8 and 212 pounds, Rice has learned to protect himself from the big hits, many of which he inflicts himself on defenders. While his grandmother may wince when a tackler has Ray in his sights, granddad knows better.
“Everybody says that he’s going to get hurt because he’s so little,” Amelia said. “He’s the smallest one out there. But he shakes it off and walks away.”
“I know one thing,” James said, “when he see the guys coming to him, he knows how to get down and he knows how to absorb those hits. By the time those guys try to get down as low as he is, he is already underneath them and doesn’t take as great an impact as a bigger running back would.
“I’ve seen some big guys hit him and he will get up, shake it off and look at the guy. I don’t know what he’s saying to him,” James adding while laughing, “but he gets up and walks away.”
A season ago, the Reeds spent Thanksgiving with Ray and his family in Baltimore and took in that evening’s first Harbaugh Bowl with the Ravens and head coach John Harbaugh dealing the 49ers and younger brother Jim Harbaugh a 16-6 loss. While at Rice’s house, the Reeds got to meet and spend time with many of the Raven players such as Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Flacco, among others.
This season, the Reeds traveled to Baltimore for the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh games, both Raven victories, If Rice had his way, his grandparents would be in the stands for more than just two or three games a season, but the Reeds have obligations back home.
“He wanted us to come to more. Normally, he asks us to fly, but I like to drive and see the scenery on the way there,” said James, who confessed to being a New York Giants fan --- circa Lawrence Taylor era --- before switching his allegiance to the Ravens.
“We don’t like to miss too many Sundays from church. We did go there twice for two very important games this year. I wanted to see them beat Pittsburgh,” James added with a hearty laugh.
Those games helped lead to what is a three-game post-season win streak for Baltimore which topped Indianapolis in the AFC wild card game, then knocked off Peyton Manning at the Broncos in round two before thrashing the favored New England Patriots, 28-13, to punch the Ravens’ ticket to New Orleans.
That was one game in which Amelia probably did not have to leave the room for; given the way the Ravens manhandled the hosts.
“We were tense, but I enjoyed it, very much,” she said before James, with a smile, said that he would watch NFL games by himself until Ray started playing. Then, his wife became a fan.
On Tuesday, the day of media day for both Super Bowl teams, Rice called his grandparents to check on them. While some players disdain media day, James Reed said his grandson reveled in that type of setting.
“He’s outgoing. Everybody’s his friend,” James said. “He’s enjoying this. He loves the media.”
And their grandson is not the only member of the Reed family who has been busy over the course of the past two weeks. In Elgin, the phone at the Reed household has been hot with calls from well-wishers. “It’s been a very exciting week,” James said. “We’ve been getting a lot of phone calls from people congratulating us for him and stuff like that. It’s been a heck of a week; it’s been an uplifting week knowing that they are going to the Super Bowl.”
Going to the Super Bowl is in keeping with a promise which Ray Rice made to his grandparents. “He told us that if he went to the Super Bowl that he would bring us to the Super Bowl and, he’s keeping his word. We are very grateful,” James said of this opportunity.
With tickets secured and the chance to see their grandson playing in a game which will be viewed by more than 100 million people, the only thing left for Rice and company to do is win the championship. Having already seen Harbaugh Bowl I, James Reed has a feeling things could turn out the same on Sunday night in the Big Easy.
“I think the team’s motivation with Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and those guys there, they have a good possibility to win that game,” he said. “They beat San Francisco before and beat them bad, too. I’m looking for them to repeat that in the Super Bowl.”
Amelia Reed, concurs, but for a slightly different reason.
“I’m just happy for him,” she said with a smile when talking about her grandson.
“Everybody’s praying for them and, I’m praying for them, too,” she said with a smile spreading across her face. “Not only because they can get the ring, but with Ray Lewis going out, I’d like to see them get it.”