OWINGS MILLS, Md. – His name was Myshaun Rice and he loved to make music, which to a young Ray Rice(notes) made his older cousin the most important person in the world beside his mother. Myshaun was brilliant. Myshaun was talented. Everything Myshaun did was perfect. He had a record contract and a CD on the way. People were going to know him. People were going to be moved.
"He was the first male father figure in my life," Rice says.
And then he was dead.
They were having a party that day in 1998 when they found out. Word had come back to Ray and his mother, Janet, and the rest of the family in the New York suburb of New Rochelle of a car accident in California. They knew Myshaun's wife had died, they were told the driver might have been drinking but they had also been told Myshaun was going to live and because of that they were celebrating. Then an uncle appeared at the door and said: "Shaun's body was not able to hold up. There were too many complications."
"You know, I was only 11 years old," Ray Rice says in the stillness of an office at the Baltimore Ravens' headquarters. "I was only starting to understand death."
A few weeks ago, not long after Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Hines Ward(notes) was arrested on suspicion of a DUI, the Ravens' running back fell into an odd war on Twitter with Ward's teammate Ryan Clark(notes). It started with Rice, who responded to the news about Ward by tweeting: "Well it looks like Hines Ward will miss week one when the lockout ends. DUI charge not a good look." This led to brief sniping back and forth between Clark and Rice before Clark promised, "I will find you."
It came from nowhere and it was so vehement, so filled with judgment and disgust, that everyone assumed this must be more fighting between two teams that hate each other. Except it wasn't like Rice to snarl like that, even if the Pittsburgh-Baltimore rivalry is as real as any left in sports today. Something didn't make sense. And it would be weeks, until after the lockout finally ended and training camps opened, that Rice explained.
This was about Myshaun.
"There isn't a player in this league who can't afford a limo or a taxi," Rice says. "I wasn't attacking [Ward], just didn't think it was professional. I don't care if it's one beer; I would never get behind the wheel and risk it. Why do that?"
Nobody reading the Internet firefight between Clark and Rice could know how Myshaun was the one who was there for a young Ray, who answered his questions, who taught him to play sports and told him the truth when it needed to be said no matter how much the words might have hurt. Ray's father died in a shooting when the boy was 1. There was no father and a shortage of men stepping up to play one. For a time, Myshaun was.
He lived with Janet and Ray in their sixth-floor unit of a New Rochelle apartment building. He was an artist and could draw and write but his real passion was music. Janet loved the way Myshaun could walk into a birthday party, find out whose birthday it was, step outside and come back two minutes later with a rap about the person. His stage name was S.U.P.E., which he said stood for "Spiritually Uplifting People Everywhere." He moved to California and his career took off with the record deal and the promise of big things. He had seen the cover for his new album just days before the accident.
"They later said if he had survived he would be like this," Rice says, holding his arms across his body and leaning straight against the back of his chair not moving. "That's not who he was. He couldn't live that way. "
The date was March 21, 1998. Ray has had it tattooed on his arm along with the initials S.U.P.E. and a question mark for when they will meet again. Even now, 13 years later, Janet Rice knows to call her son early in the morning on March 21 because she knows Ray will be devastated all over again.
"He is shining down on you," she tells her son. "He's up there watching you. When you're running the ball he's watching you and he's with you."
In one of Myshaun's songs, there is a line that talks about those days in the apartment, about the love that stretched between family members. Ray loves this part because it's a piece of him, of their old home and the life they had together before Myshaun went out to California and a drunk driver never let him come back. It's in the rotation of songs he plays on the bus as it heads toward the stadium on game days. This is his inspiration, his power, even if all there are now are memories and words trapped in a digital file for Rice to pull out whenever he needs it.
That's all he has of his cousin now, those words swirling around him in the hours before a game. "There are so many things going through his mind when he's out there carrying the ball," Janet says.
Far away her son sits in the office at the Ravens complex, staring at the wall. This could be a big season for him coming up, maybe his best yet. That's saying a lot, because he ran for 1,220 yards in 2010 and 1,339 the year prior. But now he has a new fullback, Vonta Leach(notes), and the realization that with the defense they have, the Ravens are going to run the ball as much as they can.
But for now the biggest news he has made is about a silly battle on Twitter that ignited yet another war of words in a Ravens-Steelers rivalry that needed no more fire. He doesn't hate Hines Ward and he respects Ryan Clark for leaping to the defense of a teammate. In the end, he says, they are all in a brotherhood as NFL players. It's not even that he is mad at Ward for being arrested – he just hates the irresponsibility of it all.
Last year Donte' Stallworth(notes), who killed a man in a drunken-driving accident, joined the Ravens. Rice approached him and asked to talk. He told Stallworth about Myshaun and was touched by the way Stallworth seemed tormented by his accident and wanted his new teammates to understand the same message Rice was pushing: Don't drink and drive. It's not worth it.
Ray Rice sighs as he sits in the quiet room.
It's been 13 years since that uncle said Myshaun had died, and a part of Ray has not gotten over it.
"He's the first one who showed me how your dreams can come true," Rice says. "He showed us all."
And that's a far bigger thought than can fit in a 140-word hole on a Twitter page.
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