COMMENTARY | Look around M&T Bank Stadium on gamedays, and Ray Rice's No. 27 jersey will be everywhere. Baltimore Ravens fans love their running back -- his grin that never fades away, his fiery on-field demeanor, his contributions to the community and, most importantly, his play. What's not to love?
Rice has been a great story from the day the Ravens picked him in the second round, and his star in Baltimore has only grown.
Here's a look at why Baltimore loves Rice so much:
1) Rice was a draft-day steal
Maybe one current Raven is more beloved in Baltimore than Ray Rice, and that's general manager Ozzie Newsome. "In Ozzie we trust" is a common refrain among Baltimore fans, and guys like Rice are the reason why.
A second-round pick, Rice was immediately hailed as an excellent draft pick who would have a bright future in Baltimore. In 2008, the Ravens were focused on overhauling their offense, which they did in drafting Joe Flacco and then Rice.
Ravens fans still speak fondly of the 1996 draft class that brought in John Ogden and Ray Lewis. The 2008 class is now in the same conversation, and Rice is a big reason why.
In a city that admires the team's front office so much, draft-day steals regularly become beloved contributors (think Marshal Yanda, Lardarius Webb and Dennis Pitta for more examples). Rice may be the Ravens' greatest draft steal, and that alone is enough to make him a beloved figure in Baltimore.
2) Rice gives back to the community
Many Ravens are well-known for the solid work off the field, but few can match Rice's commitment to the community.
Following Rice on social media guarantees a constant stream of invitations to help with his latest exploit in the community. He collects school supplies for needy children, he hosts anti-bullying events and, like many pros, he also hosts football camps.
What sets Rice apart is the personal way he connects with the community. Rice went out of his way to help a family with an ailing little boy. The Dean family is currently fighting to save their little boy Ashton, who has a rare disorder that causes him to struggle with strokes and circulation in his brain. Rice, touched by the family, has befriended Ashton and worked to help the family.
His work with the Dean family is a microcosm of what makes Rice so special. Lots of players have a foundation or a pet project, but Rice takes his service to a personal level. NFL players are granted a rare level of money and influence, and few use it better than Rice.
3) Rice takes pride in doing the little things well
The Ravens have been among the more inconsistent teams in the NFL in recent years, but don't blame Rice, whose fundamentals and commitment to excellence are unparalleled.
Aspiring running backs should pop in a bit of Rice's tape to learn the nuances of the position. Running backs need to hold on to the football; Rice has only lost six fumbles in his five NFL seasons thanks to his excellent fundamentals. Running backs need to be able to function in the passing game; Rice is among the NFL's best at catching the football and providing assistance in pass blocking.
Critics will say that Rice fumbled too much in the playoffs this season, and that's true. His fumbles became blown out of proportion, though, because they were so atypical of the fundamentally sound Rice.
Rice is the rare three-down running back, and his fundamentals are the reason why. In a town that values hard work, Rice's commitment to the basics had made him a fan favorite.
4) Rice is a leader
As small as Rice is, being generously listed at 5 feet 8 inches, he has a huge presence in the locker room. Rice learned from the team's bigger and more famous Ray, watching how Lewis inspired teammates and connected to them on and off the field.
Rice already has proved to be a good student, becoming a catalyst for the offense and a calming, yet inspirational presence in the locker room. His practical jokes keep the team loose, but he can up the intensity in the most important situations. That kind of personality has made Rice a valued teammate and a valued community leader.
And despite being a team leader and a genuine star, Rice never puts himself above the team. Facing the prospect of losing carries to Bernard Pierce, Rice isn't offended. Instead, he loves the element that Pierce brings to the team and looks forward to working together with the young runner. That kind of humility and commitment to the team is rare among NFL players, proving again why Rice is a valued leader and a beloved star.
5) Rice has produced in the biggest situations
Just think about how different the Ravens' season would have been in 2012 if Rice hadn't converted the now famous 4th-and-29 in the waning seconds of the Ravens' win over the San Diego Chargers. That play is just one of many game-breaking moments from Rice in huge situations.
All the furor over Rice's playoff fumbles has overshadowed the 131-yard gem of a game Rice put out against the Denver Broncos. Joe Flacco rightly gets a lot of praise for his excellent game, but the downfield opportunities would not have been there without Rice's tough running bringing the defense closer to the line of scrimmage.
Looking back even further, Rice was the catalyst for a 2011, Week 17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals that sealed a first-round bye and the AFC North title for the Ravens. It was a crucial game against a talented team, but Rice dominated to the tune of 191 yards and two touchdowns. His strong effort was the difference in a team-defining moment.
Rice has a career filled with highlights during big moments, and more are sure to come. With the fans cheering for No. 27, he will continue to be a star on and off the field.
Shawn Brubaker is a graduate of the Catholic University of America. He has been a Baltimore Ravens featured columnist for Bleacher Report for two years and is currently a co-host of Ravens Central Radio.
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