Errict Rhett still running hard

This Thanksgiving morning is a good time to share the story of former Tampa Bay running back Errict Rhett, who continues to do great things long after his career ended.

This weekend, The Errict Rhett Foundation will raffle off a custom-built house in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. For only $10, you can take a shot at winning a home that’s worth a tremendous amount more than that.

All the proceeds from the raffle go to Rhett’s foundation, which is designed to help inner-city children in South Florida. The foundation was formed during Rhett’s playing days with the Buccaneers, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. Since his retirement after the 2000 season, Rhett has been more involved than ever in the foundation.

“I want kids to realize their dreams and help mentor them,’’ said Rhett, now 40. “In the foundation, we try to go beyond the usual things like just telling kids to study hard. We try to mentor them in a way that helps build character and integrity that will last a lifetime.’’

To really appreciate what Rhett is saying, you need to hear his story. It’s one about building character and integrity that have served him very well for a long time.

Rhett didn’t have it easy. He was raised in Hollywood, Fla., in a neighborhood where conditions were far from ideal.

“Believe me, 4230 Southwest 18th Street was a long way from paradise,’’ Rhett said. “Our refrigerator was held up by a brick. My brother and I ate ground beef every single night for 18 years. I couldn't even afford to buy a jacket when I got to the University of Florida and it started to get a little cold that first November or December.

But that doesn’t mean Rhett didn’t have a good home. His mother, Naomi Rivers, raised Rhett and his brother by herself.

“There was a bed for me and my brother and my mom slept on the couch every night for 19 years,’’ Rhett said. “She worked two or three jobs at a time and she did everything she could for us materially. But she gave us a lot more than that. She gave us a lot of love and taught us how to pray. That’s what gave me the strength and endurance to get through football and all the challenges of life.’’

It’s funny, Rhett should use the words “strength’’ and “endurance’’ because those are two of the words I would have used to describe him back when I covered him playing for the Buccaneers in the mid-1990s.

Rhett wasn’t the fastest or flashiest running back I’ve ever covered. But I’m sure he was the toughest. In those days, the Bucs didn’t have much of a passing game. In 1994 and ’95, they gave the ball to Rhett a lot and he gave them two 1,000-yard seasons. Rhett was a bruising, physical runner, who took a beating every week and kept getting up.

In fact, the thing I remember most about Rhett was what he used to do in practice. The Bucs didn’t tackle during practices and coaches would just whistle that the play was over when it looked like defenders were in position to make a tackle.

When the whistle blew, everyone stopped. Everyone except for Rhett. On every single play, Rhett would keep running all the way to the end zone. Then, he’d run back to the huddle and do it again.

Rhett still is going the extra mile with his foundation. Rhett is very thankful he had a mother like Naomi. He built her a new house in Plantation, Fla., while he still was playing in the NFL. She still lives there and life is good for Rhett and Rivers these days.

But Rhett hasn’t forgotten where he came from.

“I’m very thankful I have a mother like her,’’ Rhett said. “She helped me climb a ladder to bigger and better things. But not everyone is fortunate enough to have a parent like that. That’s why I like to let that ladder down to try to help pull other people up.’’