- The Washington Times - Friday, December 18, 2009

OWINGS MILLS, Md. | Ray Rice has elevated himself to elite status during his second pro season, rushing for more than 1,000 yards and leading all NFL running backs with 68 receptions.

Off the field, his mom says he hasn’t changed a bit.

The 5-foot-8 Baltimore Ravens star stays in close contact with his former coaches at New Rochelle (N.Y.) High, remains a fixture at charity events and, most important, talks to his mother every day.

“When you grow up and your mom is all you have, you never forget that,” Rice said Wednesday. “Yes, I do make a phone call at about 7:15 every morning to my mother. It’s usually all jokes just to get our day started. If I do go a day without calling her, she calls me about 25 times and tells me how I neglected her.”

Rice’s father, Calvin Reed, was killed in a drive-by shooting when Rice was 1. Janet Rice, who took on the challenge of raising her four children alone, still has plenty of love left to foist upon the oldest of the bunch.

“I was Ray’s biggest fan when he was born, and I still am,” Janet Rice said. “It makes me excited to see him establish himself in the NFL. The progress he’s made is awesome, but he’s still the same person. Nothing changes except he’s more mature.”

Rice was a star at Rutgers before being drafted by the Ravens in the second round of the 2008 draft. As a rookie last year, sharing time in the backfield with Willis McGahee and Le’Ron McClain, he finished with 454 rushing yards and had 33 catches for 273 yards.

This year, Rice has 1,041 rushing yards and 652 more through the air. His 1,693 yards from scrimmage are third most in Ravens history and rank second in the league behind Tennessee’s Chris Johnson.

“I always told myself I wanted to make plays in the NFL. That was one of my dreams,” Rice said. “To be able to do what I’m doing, I’ve got to thank God. I’m self-motivated, but obviously you can’t do everything on your own.”

The 22-year-old received help this summer from Rich Tassello, a longtime assistant coach at New Rochelle High. They met early in the morning and went through a rigorous training session so Rice would be fully prepared to enter his second NFL training camp.

“He won’t let me give him the credit, but I’m giving him the credit,” Rice said. “He pushed me to the max. I’m a great work-ethic kind of guy, but when I see a guy like him work that hard and he doesn’t even have to play the game, it makes me work even harder.”

It didn’t take long for Tassello to realize what everyone would find out much later: Ray Rice was ready for a breakout season.

“I saw that determination, the focus, and knew that if he stayed healthy he was going to have an exceptional year,” Tassello said. “He’s the same person he always was, but has definitely become more mature. He’s now a man.”

Janet Rice usually attends her son’s games, but last weekend she gave Tassello her tickets for Baltimore’s matchup with Detroit. Playing in a driving rain, Rice set a career mark with 166 rushing yards and had 204 yards from scrimmage before halftime - the fourth-best half in the NFL since 1991.

Janet watched the game in a restaurant in New Rochelle with friends and had a grand time.

“Seeing him happy makes me happy,” she said of her son.

Rice’s teammates take delight in seeing him run into the end zone.

“He’s getting better and better each day, and he’s going to continue to get better,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “I saw it last summer. You knew Ray was going to be good. It was just a matter of getting him in the offense, getting him comfortable with what we’re doing and making sure he’s going out there playing confidently.”

After watching Rice peel off runs of 52 and 59 yards in a 48-3 win over the Lions, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis compared Rice to former NFL greats Barry Sanders and Eric Metcalf. Lewis reiterated that assessment Wednesday.

“The way he makes plays, spins out of tackles and splits people, Barry has done a lot of that. And he’s like Metcalf with his straight quickness,” Lewis said. “If you look at Ray, his game is very similar to those guys. He has a long way to go to catch up to Barry Sanders, of course, but talentwise it’s very close.”

In the hours after his stellar performance against the Lions, Rice didn’t celebrate at a nightclub. Instead, he entertained the coaches from New Rochelle who came to see him perform.

“I just think it’s special - they get to see a guy they almost raised,” Rice said. “Every time I get a chance to go back, it’s special. And they get to see a guy they worked with all the time and see him playing in the NFL and doing a good job.”

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