- The Washington Times - Friday, October 21, 2005

They are brothers who are about to use their arms against each other.

For J.D. Ricca and his little brother, Keith, today’s football game at Catholic University won’t be much different from the fiery competitions in just about anything in the back yard of their Gaithersburg home. They would create their own epic Wiffle ball/baseball games and play friendly-turned-physical one-on-one basketball contests. The family was so competitive that father John Ricca said they would “fight over card games.”

The boyhood battles also would include accuracy challenges on throwing footballs at a soda can or an unfortunate plant. Their tossing competition will move from the tranquil suburbs to a raucous stadium for today’s 1 p.m. game. J.D. is a record-setting senior at Hampden-Sydney (Va.) College, while Keith is already a passing success as a freshman at Catholic.

“I have never beat him in anything in my life, backyard basketball or anything,” said Keith, who relatives suggest might be being polite instead of accurate on that statement. “He has always got the best of me. Hopefully that won’t happen Saturday. If it does, I will hear about it for a while,” Keith said.

Keith threw for a Catholic single-game record 488 yards — breaking a mark held by his oldest brother, Kevin — and five touchdowns in last week’s win over La Salle. Keith and J.D., an All-America candidate, lead the top two passing attacks in Division III.

“I never even let him beat me — even when my Mom asked me to,” said J.D., which stands for John David. “I couldn’t do it. Even though he is bigger than me and probably stronger than me, older brothers don’t like to lose to their little brothers. I remind him of that. He just laughs.”

It is not surprising the brothers are football standouts. Their grandfather, Jim, played center and nose tackle for the Washington Redskins during most of his 1951-56 NFL career. John was an All-ACC defensive end at Duke in 1973 before playing three professional seasons in the defunct World Football League and the Canadian Football League.

“There is a real pedigree,” said Catholic coach Tom Clark, whose team has a 3-3 record. “What is interesting is all the boys chose Division III, because truthfully all their talents are higher.”

Kevin started what has become a quarterback tradition for the Riccas. In 1997, he was a second-team Division III All-American while leading the Cardinals to an undefeated regular season and the NCAA playoffs for the first time.

Kevin would be so keyed up for games that coaches allowed him to stay loose by playing catch with his two younger brothers on the sideline.

“We would pretend we were Kevin,” said J.D., whose team has a 4-2 record. “We thought he was the coolest guy in the world. We wanted to do what he did.”

The two oldest boys played high school football for their father at St. John’s in Northwest before John started the program at St. John’s at Prospect Hall in Frederick, Md., four years ago.

Of the brothers, Keith took the longest to develop as a quarterback.

“I told Joe Patterson, who is now the head coach at St. John’s but was the freshmen coach then, ‘He wants to play quarterback, but he’s tall and skinny and kind of slow.’” said the 6-foot-6 John, who was close to 300 pounds when he played pro football. “I said, ‘I think he is probably, like me, a tight end/defensive end.’ I said, ‘Give him a little chance, then move him.’”

Keith, who is now 6-foot-4, proved to be the team’s best passer. The next year John went to Prospect Hall and his son came with him. Keith went on to set 13 Maryland state passing records while throwing for 9,090 yards with 113 touchdowns and 30 interceptions in his three varsity seasons.

“Keith is the one with the real strong arm,” said Hampden-Sydney coach Marty Favret, who was Clark’s offensive coordinator at Catholic when Kevin played. “He’s got a ways to go as far as learning all the nuances of the college game, but he is certainly learning pretty quickly.”

J.D. might have followed in Kevin’s footsteps to Catholic had then-coach Clark not left after the 2000 season to become defensive coordinator at William & Mary. Clark strongly recommended that the Tribe recruit J.D., but now he faces the Ricca that got away.

“I think J.D. is the premier college quarterback in the country in Division III,” Clark said. “He’s like [pro quarterback] Brett Favre with some of his athleticism.”

Some 200 friends and family members, including 78-year-old Jim and the quarterbacks’ brother and three sisters, will travel from across the country.

“It is something you look forward to and you just kind of which it would never come, because once it does it is going to be over in heartbeat,” said their mother, Therese.

The parents won’t cheer for either team, but instead for both pass-happy offenses.

“I just hope they both play like they are capable of,” said John, who expects to stand behind one goal post and pace nervously.

The brothers speak on the phone nearly every day and exchange scouting reports on upcoming opponents, but have had limited conversation this week for fear of inadvertently giving away a piece of strategy.

“The first drive when I see him out there I am going to be rooting as much as I can for him to throw an interception,” Keith said. “In all honesty, I do hope he has a good game — I just hope we win.”

The sibling rivalry will end with a hearty hug. And soon they will cherish their backyard battle on a college gridiron.

“How many people in the country can say they played college quarterback against their brother?” J.D. said. “It blows my mind that Keith is playing as a freshman at the college level against me. He is my little brother. It hasn’t hit me yet.”

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