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Ray Rice had just finished playing a basketball game for New Rochelle (N.Y.) High School when he got the call. Long-time Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni, he was told, had just been fired.

“I still remember when it happened,” Rice says. “I wasn’t shocked because I’d been hearing things, but I was surprised. And I was definitely disappointed.”

For Rutgers football fans, two dates in the program’s lengthy history stand out above all the others.

One is Nov. 6, 1869. That’s the day Rutgers and Princeton met in the sport’s first game.

The other is Dec. 29, 2004 — the day Pasqualoni was fired.

An explanation is probably in order for the latter.

The simple one is this: Rice might now be finding his place alongside past Syracuse greats Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Floyd Little, Larry Csonka and Joe Morris in the Orange’s storied running back history if the school hadn’t fired Pasqualoni. Rice had already committed to Syracuse well before the dismissal was announced. So had another New Rochelle High star, safety Courtney Greene

Instead, Rice is a Heisman Trophy candidate at Rutgers now, and arguably the biggest reason that one of the nation’s perennial losers has a BCS berth in its sights for the second straight year.

“The next day after (Pasqualoni was fired) I met with my high school coach (Lou DiRienzo). That’s when we had the talk,” says Rice. “He asked me what I wanted to do, if I wanted to start looking at other options. I told him ‘Open (the recruiting process) up. Let’s see what’s out there.’ That’s when Rutgers came in.”

If any school was due for a little football serendipity, it was Rutgers.

“I got the sense something might be going on (at Syracuse) right around their bowl game,” says Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. “I said (to my assistants) ‘If it happens we’ve got to make a run at Ray.’ As soon as it happened I called him personally because we felt we missed the opportunity (recruiting him) the first time because he’d committed so early.”

It helped that Rutgers happened to be at New Rochelle High recruiting yet another player — backup safety Glen Lee — on the Knights’ current roster. But Rice also lent a willing ear, as did Greene.

“I think I was more loyal to Coach Pasqualoni than I was to Syracuse University,” Rice says. “I thought they were going to give him another year to change things. It bothered me when he was fired.”

Rice hasn’t looked back since. Neither has Rutgers.

Before Rice (and Greene) arrived in 2005, Rutgers hadn’t posted a winning record since 1992.

The Knights finished 7–5 in ’05 as Rice set a school freshman rushing record with 1,120 yards and Greene earned freshman All-America honors by leading the team in tackles.

Rutgers hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1978, but the Knights ended that streak as well in 2005, losing a shootout to Arizona State in the Insight Bowl. But last year is when the rest of the country really took notice of Rice, a power back despite his compact 5'9", 200-pound frame. He set a single-season school rushing record with 1,794 yards and scored 20 touchdowns as Rutgers went 11–2 and finished No. 12 in the final AP poll. Rutgers missed out on a BCS bid and its first Big East title due to a triple-overtime loss at West Virginia in the regular-season finale.

Along the way, as Rutgers opened 9–0, Rice had a streak of seven straight games of 100 yards or more, tying the school record. He enters his junior year only 201 yards shy of the school’s career rushing mark.

“What Ray is doing at Rutgers … it’s not that I didn’t expect it. I knew he was going to be a good college football player,” says DiRienzo. “But the heights that he is achieving are off the charts. He was a tremendous high school player, but he is better now than he ever was in high school.”

Which is saying something considering that Rice was the New York state Player of the Year after leading New Rochelle to the state title as a junior.

Now there’s even talk of a 2,000-yard season this year.

“Obviously, you want to set your goals high, and 2,000 yards is as high as it gets for a running back,” says Rice, who rarely pays attention to his rushing numbers. “But it has to come naturally, the way 1,000 yards has for me.”

Rice capped last season by earning Most Outstanding Player honors in Rutgers’ Texas Bowl rout of Kansas State — the first bowl victory in school history. He rushed for 170 yards and one touchdown in the game, marking the 15th time in 25 career games that he has topped 100 yards. He also has four 200-yard games in his career. There have only been 10 in school history.

“Nothing he does surprises me any more,” says All-Big East offensive tackle Jeremy Zuttah.

What impresses so many others about Rice is his humility and maturity. The latter, he says, is the result of a difficult childhood. His father, Calvin Reed, was killed in a drive-by shooting when Rice was a year old. His uncle and surrogate father, Myshawn Rice-Nichols, was killed in a car accident in 1998.

“I was forced to grow up quicker than most,” he says. “I was forced to be a young man at a young age.”

It may also explain why he was so quick to re-open his recruiting when Pasqualoni, yet another strong male influence in his life, was suddenly taken away from him.

“Things work out for a reason,” he says. “Being at Rutgers is the best thing that could have happened to me.”

Rice doesn’t have sprinter’s speed, but he is quick and powerful. And try to find a more durable back in the country. Rice carried a school-record 335 times last season and still averaged 5.4 yards per carry.

“To me, that’s the most impressive thing about the season he had,” Schiano says. “To average more than five yards a carry with more than 300 carries is special.”

Rice mostly does it without the benefit of long, stat-padding runs. He had only two carries of more than 50 yards last year, although one was as big a play as the Knights had all season. They were clinging to a three-point lead at Pittsburgh in the fourth quarter when Rice exploded on a career-long 63-yard dash. He scored shortly thereafter to give Rutgers the cushion it needed in a 20–10 victory. Rice finished the day with 225 yards on 39 carries.

And there is no doubt he gets better as the game goes on. Rice rushed for 487 yards on 82 carries (a 5.9-yard average) in the fourth quarter and overtime of games last season.

“I have a working man’s mentality,” says Rice, who says he never carried more than 120 times in any high school season. “I come to work and do my job.”

Despite the workload, Rice has managed to avoid serious injury. He credits his time as a defensive back in high school — he also punted and was a straight-on placekicker for New Rochelle — for his physical running style.

“I think my defensive side brings out my tenacity,” says Rice, who wears No. 27 because his favorite running back was Eddie George. “When I’m running I’m looking for contact. It’s kind of weird. It brings a fire to me. When I get older I’ll probably get wise and not do that.”

Schiano credits Rice’s low center of gravity for much of his success. “All along I’ve said he’s a special back,” Schiano says. “Ray’s three best traits are his vision, patience and balance. He’s fast and strong, but there are a lot of fast, strong guys out there. He has a way of waiting until something opens up and then accelerating immediately.”

Rice was so good last year that Rutgers had to switch the focus of its first official Heisman campaign from fullback Brian Leonard to its sophomore tailback. The numbers and Rutgers’ success — the Knights started 9–0 and cracked the top 10 in the polls for the first time in school history — demanded it.

This time around, the focus is squarely where it should be — on Rice.

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