The eyes of New Rochelle's Ray Rice partisans were riveted to the TV screens at an Applebee's on Sunday evening as the Baltimore Ravens running back bounded onto the biggest stage in the world of sports -- the Super Bowl.
"It feels great just knowing that -- wow -- he made it," said Nas Sinkfield, a 17-year-old quarterback on the New Rochelle High School team that Rice once led. "It shows us that anything is possible, no matter where you're from, if you put your mind to it."
Super Bowl widget
The affection comes not just from the reflected glory -- though there is some of that -- but from Rice's close relationship with the high school, where he still works out and attends summer football camps.
"He has been amazing to our community," said Tajmir Anderson, a 17-year-old cornerback on the team. "He shows the love. He comes to our practices and our games. He's one of us. For a person who came from nothing, and now to see him in the Super Bowl, it means a lot to me. He has been in my shoes."
If Ray Rice remembers New Rochelle, New Rochelle adores him right back.
At the Applebee's was New Rochelle Mayor Noam Bramson; City Councilwoman Shari Rackman; Steve Horton, director of municipal housing; and a chunk of Ray's family: two uncles, two aunts and a cousin.
Rice's uncle, Robert Rice Sr., called the scene "surreal" and "a dream come true to have a local hero."
Most of the Applebee's at the New Roc City shopping and entertainment complex was reserved by Jared Rice, a New Rochelle City council member, with support from New Rochelle Municipal Housing and Kensworth Consulting. Jared Rice invited all the residents of Bracey Apartments, where Ray Rice was reared.
"The thing about Ray that is so special is his ability to inspire everyone in all walks of life," said Jared Rice, no relation to Ray.
Going into Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans -- which pits the San Francisco 49ers against Ray Rice's Baltimore Ravens -- the running back sounded determined to exploit the advantages that made him a star first in New Rochelle, then at Rutgers and now with the Ravens. Rice is not very big, by the standards of professional football, but is so strong and elusive he gives defenders fits.
He doubts the 49ers linebackers can keep up with him.
"Linebackers are built a different way. They're built to tackle. They're not built to cover, so when I've got them man to man, I'm going to win my fair share. Let's pad up. We've got to pad up to see."
That's one facet of Ray Rice's personality. He is a fierce competitor. He's also quite the jokester.
When he was a freshman at New Rochelle, Ray Rice wore nothing but a diaper in a talent show for football players. And don't fall asleep before him -- even his mother was fair game during a family trip to the Bahamas last year, when he slathered powder all over her face in the middle of the night.
After the Ravens pulled out an astonishing, come-from-behind win against the Denver Broncos in the National Football League playoffs Jan. 12, Ray Rice stood in the doorway of Baltimore's locker room as reporters shuffled in and shouted to them, "We welcome you all who doubted us!"
The 26-year-old hopes he and his Ravens teammates will get the last laugh in New Orleans. But you can expect Ray Rice to be dead serious on the field.
"You wouldn't know that a guy with that kind of personality could compete so hard on the field, but that switch went off when he stepped on to the field," said Lou DiRienzo, who coached Ray Rice at New Rochelle High. "And that affable kid turned into a guy who wanted to compete and wanted to win."
Ray Rice's path to the Super Bowl was not an easy one. His father, Calvin Reed, was killed during a drive-by shooting in Mount Vernon when Ray Rice was a year old. About a decade later, his cousin, Myshaun Rice, an up-and-coming rapper whom Ray Rice regarded as a father figure, was killed in a car accident. Ray Rice's family struggled financially while living in the Main Street housing projects in New Rochelle.
But there have been good times, too. Ray Rice propelled New Rochelle High to a state championship in 2003. He then became the face of a resurgent Rutgers football program before being selected in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft. In July, he signed a five-year, $40 million contract.
"I've been through enough in my life that I just have to smile," Ray Rice said during the Super Bowl's media day Tuesday. "There are people out there who are really hurting, fighting cancer and all kinds of sicknesses, and here I am playing in the Super Bowl. What do I have to complain about?
"Am I satisfied now? Absolutely not. I'm blessed and humbled by the achievements, but I'm not to the point where I'm satisfied by my legacy."
Ray Rice's freakish athletic skills and love of football were obvious at a young age, said his mother Janet. At 6 years old, he would sneak off to the youth tackle fields in New Rochelle and serve as a water boy for the older kids. When he was old enough to play, he would hit the other children so hard the coaches would take him out of games.
"He was always smaller than everybody else, but he was much stronger than everyone else," Janet Rice said. "He had little biceps and triceps at the age of 5."
When Ray Rice arrived at New Rochelle High, DiRienzo said he instantly recognized that Ray Rice was a special talent.
"Ray is a powerful back," DiRienzo said. "He has tremendous vision, which makes him deceptive in the open field. And he was, at times, a man amongst boys in high school."
But even DiRienzo is surprised at where Ray Rice is today.
"Did I know he was going to become an NFL, three-time Pro Bowler within the first five years? If I said that to you, I'd be lying," he said. "If I had that kind of foresight, I would have hit Mega Millions a long time ago."
A STAR RISES
After playing sparingly as a rookie, Ray Rice cracked the Ravens' starting lineup in 2009 and has been one of the NFL's top running backs ever since. He just might be paving a path to the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
At 5-foot-8, 212 pounds, Ray Rice has amassed 5,520 rushing yards, 2,713 receiving yards and 39 touchdowns in his five-year career. In 2011, he led the league in yards from scrimmage with 2,068. Even 49ers running back Frank Gore admitted he is in awe of his Sunday counterpart's skills.
"He does it all. I love to watch him," Gore said during a news conference last week. "He doesn't have to hesitate to make moves, to make people miss. He can cut and go, cut and go. If you can cut and go, you can be pretty good in this league."
Although Rice's numbers dipped a bit this season, he did enjoy the biggest highlight reel moment of his career thus far. Facing a fourth down, with 29 yards to go and the Ravens trailing by three points, late in a November game against San Diego, Rice caught a short pass from quarterback Joe Flacco, cut across the field and raced past several Chargers defenders en route to a first down. The Ravens kicked a field goal to force overtime and eventually won the game.
People close to him say Ray Rice has been determined to use his stardom to help others. In taking on community projects, he has let his own life experiences inspire him.
He has handed out stocked backpacks to kids at the beginning of the school year and groceries to families at Thanksgiving. He has held toy drives around Christmas. Because his mother has worked as a teacher's aide to special ed students, Ray Rice often visits special ed classes. When he came home during the Ravens' bye week in 2012 to discover that his 12-year-old half sister's eye had been injured by a student who threw a rock at her, Rice began preaching against bullying to children.
"A lot of guys do their thing and disappear," DiRienzo said. "Ray truly cares that these kids get his message. If he can be an inspiration for a kid to do better in school or to attend college or to chase their dream, it really means something to him if he reaches those kids."
Ray Rice returns to New Rochelle High every offseason to host a free football camp and works out regularly with the school's current players, who won their own state championship in November.
DiRienzo said, win or lose Sunday, he is proud of Ray Rice.
"What's important to me is that nobody has a bad thing to say about Ray Rice," he said. "I win the Super Bowl every time Ray opens his mouth because he's such a quality kid, and to think I might have had something to do with that, that's special to me."
Alyssa Sunkin contributed to this story.