Fan experience: Ravens tailback Ray Rice

After years of overcoming adversity, Ray Rice landed a long-term deal to remain in Baltimore. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

If there were ever a feel-good story in the NFL, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice is certainly it.

The 5-foot-8 back from the New York City-area town of New Rochelle endured tragedy after tragedy growing up, before finding his way to a struggling Rutgers University football team in 2005. Rice immediately helped turn things around for the Scarlet Knights, rushing for more than 1,000 yards in his freshman year and leading the team to its first winning season in a quarter-century and only its second ever bowl game. Despite all the accolades, Rice still had to wait until the second round for the Baltimore Ravens to come knocking. Since then, he’s not only become one of the league’s leading rushers, but he also recently signed a five-year, $40 million deal to stay in Baltimore. How’s that for “feel-good”?

Rice recently sat down with us to chat about going home to New Rochelle, staying a Raven for a long time and his No. 1 fan.

What’s the craziest thing one of your fans has ever done?

There’s this one guy who actually painted himself to look like me. I don’t know how he did it, but he made his face up and everything. He really looked like me. It was pretty cool.

What’s the craziest thing you ever did as a fan growing up?

I didn’t really do anything crazy. I didn’t get a chance to see a lot of NFL, being where I grew up, but we used to just wear our jerseys of our favorite players all the time. I was that guy.

The craziest thing now, though, is that I played with Ricky Williams last year and I told him the story about how the first real jersey I bought back in high school was a Ricky Williams jersey.

Is that the person that you’ve met where you were actually a little bit starstruck when you met him?

Yeah, when he came in our locker room I was like “Oh, man.” It almost becomes a little bit surreal that you’re actually playing with a guy that you grew up idolizing. And now he’s on the same team as you. It was weird, man. He still had his youth to him. The guy just didn’t age.

Growing up in New Rochelle, it must be a little different with New York football fans. Everyone knows the fans in the South are fanatics, but how were your fans in New York?

We won a state championship so we got a pretty good reception. I’m sure it wasn’t anything like in the South, but the deeper into the playoffs we got, the better it was. North of where I’m from, when you start getting up by Syracuse and that area, the football up there is pretty good. Coming from a smaller town in New Rochelle, taking states showed people that we were for real.

What was it like being at Rutgers during the resurgence of that football program?

Ah, man. It was amazing. Going to Rutgers was the best decision of my life. One thing I said when I went there was that I wanted to go to a school where I could create my own name and reinvent the wheel again. I was a high school stud in my town, but how was I going to create that again? I didn’t want to go to a school where I would just be another guy.

I always said that when I left Rutgers, I always wanted my name to be attached with it in a good way. Right now, it feels good to know that when you mention Rutgers football, one of the first names you think about is me. It’s just a great feeling. We came from being one of the worst college football programs in America to being a respectable name.

Do you see a big difference between the New Jersey and Baltimore fans?

In a sense, they’re similar because at Rutgers we had the whole state of New Jersey rooting for Rutgers football. In Baltimore, we have the whole state of Maryland behind us. It’s similar. It’s just in a different spectrum. One’s college and one’s pros. You still have that percentage of people in New Jersey that, even though they might be Giants or Jets fans, they might also be Ray Rice fans now.

It doesn’t matter what team I’m on. Or they’re rooting for other guys that came out of Rutgers. There’s a lot of state pride. When we won at Rutgers, the state of New Jersey won. When we win at Baltimore, the city of Baltimore wins, but the state of Maryland wins, as well.

During the lockout, you went back to your high school to train with some of your former coaches. Was it just pandemonium with the students going crazy because you were there?

No, that’s the weirdest part about going home. I’m always there, so people don’t get starstruck anymore. It’s just another day in the neighborhood. I trained there every day and no one made a big deal about it. They might ask me a few questions, but I never had to sign autographs or anything. I’m just “Ray” to New Rochelle.

I’m sure in the pro game now you get a lot of hecklers. How do you deal with them and what’s the worst thing you’ve ever had yelled at you?

It’s just a short window. One thing I learned about dealing with people is that one day our time is going to be up playing the game, so you need to appreciate it while you’re still playing. Eventually the next guy is going to come up right behind you. You can’t worry about the hecklers and the haters. You just embrace the fans, embrace the opportunity and embrace everything about the NFL while you’re there. You treat people the way you want to be treated.

You just brush them off your shoulder and move on, right?

I don’t even consider them hecklers. A lot of people don’t really have bad intentions.

Do you ever get fans that come up to you and replay some of your memorable runs?

Yeah, it’s funny because I really don’t keep up with stats. I couldn’t even tell you how many rushing yards I had until today, or touchdowns or anything like that. I’ll ask the fans questions and they can answer them better than me.

Do you have a preference between meeting the crying, excited fan or calm and collected fan?

I love meeting kids. I like when a kid comes up to you and he knows everything about you. That feeling of being a kid. ... I wish I had a chance to meet a couple of NFL guys when I was growing up. I never had that chance. But it’s more fulfilling when you have a young kid coming up to you and says “Hey, Mr. Rice.” It makes you feel old, though. I’m only 25 so I try to correct them. I’ll tell them: “It’s Ray. You can call me Ray. I’m not too old.”

You just inked a brand-new deal to stay in Baltimore for a long time. How does it feel? Were the fans supportive during that whole renegotiation?

Yeah, I definitely appreciate the team giving me this deal and rewarding me for the work that I’ve already done. Baltimore’s become home for me. I spent the last going-on five years of my life here in Baltimore. I go back home a lot, and I spend the offseason home, but the majority of the year I’m here in Baltimore. It’s almost like when you’re in college and you know you have to move on to the next level and you just hope that you do your job well enough that you can find yourself in one home for the rest of your career. That’s the ultimate goal. I’m comfortable where I’m at and I’d like to be here for a long time.

I know you’ve bonded with some of the players like Ray Lewis, so it’s nice to see you be able to stay there.

The bond that I have with them is priceless. Ray’s become my big brother. It’s just great.

Growing up, I know you had a really rough life. It’s obvious that you have a really amazing mom. Would you say she’s your biggest fan?

Yeah, my mom is my biggest fan. Aug. 2 is her birthday. She just turned 49 and I’m thankful for another year of life. The biggest thing for me now is that my mom raised me well and now I get to kind of return the favor.

I’ve always helped take care of her too, and it never really had anything to do with money, but now it’s time that I can finally take a load off of her. She’s got my brothers and my sister, and all that load falls on her. I’m going to take a little bit of that off her and give her some freedom. It feels good to tell her that she can take it easy a little bit now. Especially at 49. People don’t retire at that age, but I gave her that option. She actually chose to go back to work with her special-needs children, so that shows you what kind of person you’re dealing with.

That’s pretty amazing. I hope you got her something good for her birthday.

(Laughs.) Oh, I did. She always wanted a diamond cross so I actually sent it to her in a New Era fitted hat box. At the end of the box, it was just a little charm in there. I didn’t want her to know what it was at first. She had to keep unwrapping.

Also see:

• Fan experience -- Jaguars running back Greg Jones

• Fan experience -- Bills running back Fred Jackson