All About Family |
Grieving the loss of a father who taught him so much, senior Chase Rice is working to show his teammates what the "Carolina Family" can really mean.
Inside Carolina Magazine
WORDS: Mark Simpson-Vos
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins (3), Peyton Williams, Rice Family
f you’ve participated in or ever followed one of Carolina’s athletic programs—and for that matter, even if you have only a passing knowledge of the university—you know that family means something special in Chapel Hill. It extends to practically everything that happens on campus, a concept used by chancellors, professors, coaches, and students alike to convey that things are different here. More often felt than defined, difficult to put into words but understood at the gut level, it’s a way of acknowledging that yes, winning matters. But relationships matter more.
That said, you might be excused for thinking that the notion of "family" in an athletic program sometimes feels like a corporate catchphrase. Perhaps there’s temptation to see it as a quaint concept better suited to the good old days of college athletics rather than the big-dollar realities of today. Sure, stories of lifelong relationships make for effective recruiting pitches, but what puts fans in the seats is victories on the field.
For times like those, it’s good to have a reminder from someone like Chase Rice.
What does family mean to the Carolina senior? It means unconditional support and encouragement to pull you through your toughest times. It means the kind of relationship that drives you to make the most of every last moment, no matter the odds. And it means wanting to give your all to make someone you love proud, even if he’s no longer there.
So when Chase Rice talks about the Carolina family, it’s no abstraction. And it’s not limited to football. If you want to know what it’s all about, Rice will tell you that the story begins and ends with his dad, Daniel, and the lessons he passed on to his son every day of his life. There isn’t enough space to print all the lessons here. But watch the way Rice plays this season, and pay attention to the way he talks about his priorities for his final year in Carolina blue. That will give you a glimpse.
Oddly enough, Rice’s family ties could have led him to play football a number of places other than Carolina. Father Daniel had played basketball at Central Florida. Brother Chad, meanwhile, played linebacker and defensive end for Duke under Carl Franks. Yet Rice, a top-25 in-state talent, recalls an immediate attraction when he camped at Carolina during his senior year of high school. “It just felt right,” he said. “I had a good feeling when I got on campus. I felt like something was pulling me here.”
Even with the ties to other schools, from the moment Rice told his family he wanted to commit to the Tar Heels, they were 100 percent in his corner. Looking back, Rice laughs about how quickly his parents changed their choice of blues to support their youngest son: “It’s funny looking back at how quickly it changed from Duke to Carolina. As soon as I committed it was almost immediate—everything in the house was Carolina blue.”
That enthusiasm led Rice to be the first among his recruiting class to fax in his national letter of intent to John Bunting. “When the morning came, I woke up at 6:30 or something, and I went downstairs. The lights were on in the kitchen, and the letter was right there on the table. Mom was all excited, taking pictures, and my dad was there, happy, wearing his Carolina hat. They were ready for me to do it, and there was no reason to wait around all day. It was a real family moment.”
"The next day I was running around and hitting, and I heard him say, ‘Who’s that number 44?’ That was a turning point..."
Arriving on campus, Rice accepted his coaches’ plan to redshirt, looking forward to an opportunity to ease into the college game. But the distance from home proved a challenge. “I was actually pretty homesick,” Rice admitted of those first days. “I wasn’t loving it.” Without the focus of game-day preparations, Rice said he struggled to feel at home with his teammates, disconnected from that idea of family he’d heard so much about.
Then came a blow on the home front. Daniel Rice was diagnosed with melanoma. The prognosis was uncertain. The chemo was going to be rough. The realities were frightening. And the distance between Asheville and Chapel Hill probably never seemed greater.
In calls home almost every day, Rice told his dad he was ready to call it quits. But Daniel would hear none of it. “He said, 'You're talking crazy. If you come home, you’re going to have to work with me, and all your friends are going to be in school,’” Rice recalled of his dad’s advice.
At one of the toughest times, Daniel sent his son a letter. On a single typed page, it told a story with a simple moral rooted in the messages of faith he’d taught his sons: “Pray, aim high, and stay focused,” it concludes. “Wait, be still, and stay patient…. Love, Dad.”
Rice confesses the letter didn’t immediately lift his doubts. But with his father’s health stabilizing and gently pushed through the end of first semester by his family, he stuck it out. And by the time spring arrived, Rice says his attitude had improved. In a symbolic gesture, he shed the No. 51 he’d worn since he arrived on campus and instead selected No. 44, his brother’s number at Duke and the jersey of more than a few legendary Carolina players.
Rice is convinced it helped give him another chance to get the attention of coaches who weren’t yet sold on his ability. “When I first came in, [linebacker coach Tommy Thigpen] had no idea who I was. He probably thought I was just another small white kid who was never going to see the field. But then I changed my number to 44. The next day I was running around and hitting, and I heard him say, ‘Who’s that number 44?’ That was a turning point, when he started noticing me hustling, running to the ball when other guys weren’t. That was really when I turned it on.”
Another turning point came when Rice returned to campus in the fall of 2005 and found that he had been matched as a roommate with true freshman Garrett Reynolds. At first, Rice admitted, he was insulted not to be matched with a veteran teammate in his own class. “We didn’t talk for about a week because I was so mad,” Rice said. “But one night, Garrett and I were just sitting there, and he was playing this music. I asked him who it was, and it was this guy from Young Life. Garrett and I had both done Young Life in high school. So we started talking, and the rest is history. After that we became great friends.”
In Reynolds, Rice found someone with whom he shared much in common. But most importantly, they both shared the same love of family and the deep sense of faith Rice had learned from his parents. Finding a teammate with whom he could develop a sense of family “really has changed my whole outlook,” he explained.
But Rice’s challenges were only beginning. After impressing coaches with his play as a backup during his first season on the field in 2005, Rice found himself named a starter at the opening of the 2006 campaign. But as the Tar Heels slumped through the season, Rice was benched in favor of Durell Mapp. The loss of confidence from Bunting—himself a former linebacker—stung. Then came Bunting’s firing and the loss of a coaching staff Rice had just begun to warm up to. While the arrival of Butch Davis meant one more chance to make a strong first impression, it also meant starting over in developing relationships.
His parents joined the trainers as they explained that season-ending surgery was almost surely the next step.
Yet Rice says his father’s approach to cancer gave him a powerful reminder of all he could still accomplish. The elder Rice embraced a real-life version of “The Bucket List,” embracing each day like it could be his last. “That was his favorite movie,” Rice remembered. “He was those guys. He raced cars. He scuba-dived. He flew planes. He did so much.”
So Chase took the same approach. When assistant Chuck Pagano arrived to take over Butch Davis’ defense, Rice parked himself in his office and absorbed whatever he could. Soon, the sense of family that connected players and coaches began to return. “He was a big part of my adjustment,” Rice said. “I would go up to his office every day. He loved teaching me. That’s what he loves, to coach kids. He took the time to meet with me one on one.”
“With Coach Pagano,” Rice continued, “I started understanding the defense a lot more. And I really started believing that they weren't going to keep me off the field. There were other guys running around, with 4.4 speed, flying around, more athletic. Quan Sturdivant, Bruce Carter, I love those guys. But they weren’t going to keep me off the field. It was my job.”
After a great fall camp, Rice entered the first game of his junior year back in a starter’s position. Against James Madison in the season’s first game, things could not have been off to a better start. “I had four or five tackles,” Rice recalled. “I should have had a pick—the ball hit me right in the face mask, and Deunta Williams ended up picking it off. And then…”
And then Rice collapsed to the turf, his left foot dangling as though it were broken. At first, he says, he felt panic and shock. Then the pain hit. But as his teammates and trainers helped him off the field, he said his first thought was that he needed to do whatever it took to get back on the field as quickly as possible. But then he found himself in the locker room. His parents joined the trainers as they explained that tests would need to confirm the diagnosis of torn ligaments, but season-ending surgery was almost surely the next step.
“When they said, ‘It’s the season,’ I couldn't accept it, especially at first,” Rice said. “After the surgery, I remember sitting in the locker room by myself, and a couple of the other guys came in, and I just broke down crying.”
But Rice’s family—his biological one and his Carolina family—rallied around him again. Coaches welcomed him into their homes and made him continue to feel a part of the team. Reynolds, meanwhile, had grown from the roommate Rice couldn’t stand to the indispensable friend. “Garrett definitely helped keep me up,” Rice said. “He listened whenever I needed to get some frustration out. He helped me out a lot. He really is like a brother in a lot of ways.”
Most importantly, his father continued to make the regular trek to Chapel Hill, never missing a game despite chemo, and constantly remaining upbeat in the face of his own battles. “He had cancer for years, but he never once complained,” Rice said. “I’m sitting there, I’ve got a busted ankle, but I’m missing one season of football. How can I sit here and complain when he’s going through something like he was, you know? I get another shot, but he’s battling for his life.”
Through Rice’s recovery and his father’s treatments, they continued to speak almost daily. Daniel Rice had much he wanted his son to absorb. In football, he encouraged Chase to make the most of his time on the sidelines by becoming a student of the game and working on his upper body strength. In life, he stressed the importance of not wasting a moment—a lesson Chase says was particularly powerful in light of the time he felt he wasted his first year on campus. And he kept emphasizing his belief that his son would get one more shot to become the football player he dreamed he would be when he committed to Carolina. “My dad was the person who believed that the most,” Rice said. “He believed that before I did. He would always tell me, ‘It’s your year; you’ve got to go take it.’ He wanted to see me play football again more than anything in the world.”
The picture someone snapped of that moment has become one of Rice’s most prized possessions.
Late last fall, Rice was cleared by team doctors to resume running on a limited basis. He celebrated by joining his teammates as they ran out of the tunnel in their last game of the year against Duke. And when he reached the end, there waiting for him by the hedges was his dad, beaming from ear to ear. The picture someone snapped of that moment has become one of Rice’s most prized possessions. “It was awesome,” Rice recalled of the moment. “It was so amazing, having him be there and be so happy, just for me. I didn’t even play a game. I just ran out of the tunnel.”
It was the last time Daniel Rice would see his son on the turf of Kenan Stadium.
Ironically, while his struggles with melanoma continued, it wasn’t the cancer that took his life. “He always said cancer wasn’t going to beat him,” his son stressed, “and it didn’t.” Instead, it was a fatal heart attack that took him away on May 18, 2008, at the age of 57. The younger Rice chokes up as he remembers their final conversation, focused on a day beyond football and graduation, when Chase would impart his own lessons from father to son. “He told me I’d be a great father,” Rice remembered. “It just meant so much to me. I think he was really ready to go, and he wanted to be sure I heard that.”
Given all he’s been through, it would be easy to forgive Rice if football had lost some meaning. But while the loss has been devastating, Rice insists it’s given him a new sense of purpose. “I’m playing this year for my dad,” Rice explained. “And since he died, I’ve been telling my teammates what I went through, and what I’m going through now. One big message I give them is that your career is going to fly by, so you’ve got to live each day like it’s your last day. In my career, I’ve experienced it when my season was ended. But with my dad, I’ve experienced so much more. That’s a huge thing I take from him—live each day, because you never know when your time will come, whether it’s an injury or something more. I want the young guys to hear it now so they don’t waste a year like I did.”
While Rice still harbors dreams of helping to lead the Tar Heels to a conference title, now his top goal for his final season is to pass on the lessons about football and life that he learned from his father. “Aim high, stay focused, and pray—that was his message to me, and that’s what I’m focused on now,” he said. “I know what my goals are, and I know I can achieve those goals. And on the team, we all have the same goal.”
To get the lessons across, Rice is recognizing it really does come down to relationships. “I just want to be more personal,” Rice said. “I’m inspired to do better because my dad was so good at it, making people feel like they were the main person in the conversation, making people feel good. I could not have asked for a better father. I got more out of him in 22 years than most people get out of their parents in a lifetime. I can’t explain how thankful I am for that."
Rice has also encouraged his teammates to work on their family bonds by following the lesson that some things really are best when spoken. "Dad told all of us he loved us every chance he got," Rice said. "He told us he was proud of us. He was always interested in what I had to say. He always had time to listen to my problems." So this summer, he's encouraged his fellow linebackers to write their own parents and explain what their relationships have meant, something he did last year before his dad died. "I know how much that meant to him," Rice recalled. "So I'm sharing that with the guys."
"I’m playing this year for my dad. And since he died, I’ve been telling my teammates … your career is going to fly by, so you’ve got to live each day like it’s your last day."
Building relationships in football isn’t easy, Rice admits. “You can’t just come in and think ‘we’re on the same team, so we’re a family,’” he says. “There are 130 guys, so you do have to take time out to work on it. You have to take a lot of time, eat with each other, hang out, see movies, whatever. But it’s a big part of being here. You start with your position guys, and then you work from there to your defensive unit, and little by little, you get tighter. That’s how you become a team, little by little.”
Like all his teammates, Rice hopes fans will remember the season because of the success the team has on the field. But for him, the true measure of success will come off the field, in the quality of the program he leaves behind.
“That’s what I talk to the guys about,” he explained. “I was talking to Garrett Reynolds about it actually—the Carolina feeling. When I leave here, I’ll always be able to say I went to the University of North Carolina. That’s a big deal. It’s really awesome, the family we have, and the feeling you get because you went to the University of North Carolina. It really is hard to describe, but everywhere I go, I feel like I’m here. It’s just a cool feeling that you’re part of such a big family. I’m going to be gone after this year, but I really want to be sure Carolina football keeps going so I’m going to bring that to them as much as I can.”
And as he gives his all for the Carolina family, Rice knows his biological family will be there every step of the way, including his father. “This year is a lot more emotional for me, because he never missed a game,” he said. “My dad was my biggest fan. But it’s fun playing this year for him. When I get tired, it’s very easy to think about what my dad went through. And I know he’s at every single game. He’s watching from the best seat in the house.”
Mark Simpson-Vos authors the cover story each month for the Inside Carolina Magazine. An editor at UNC Press, he can be reached at email@example.com.