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It's just a friendly matchup

The Bucs' Simeon Rice and Eagles QB Donovan McNabb have know each other since high school.

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 11, 2002

TAMPA -- The way Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice had it figured, it was only going to last a season or two. He had become friends with Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb when they were teammates on the Mount Carmel High football team in suburban Chicago. But Rice was certain they would go separate ways after graduation: Rice to college football and then the NFL; McNabb to college basketball and then the NBA.

[Times photo: Jim Damaske]
Simeon Rice, right, didn't have the chance to stop Donovan McNabb, above, from beating the Bucs last season.

"I never thought he'd play football. I thought he was going to play hoops. Nobody could check him on the court. He could've played in the league," Rice said. "Everybody thought that. I mean, Donovan had crazy game."

Despite getting recruited to play basketball at prestigious schools such as North Carolina, McNabb stuck with football, playing both sports at Syracuse before joining the Eagles. And, in the process, the relationship that blossomed all those years ago grew as taut as the ties between brothers.

Saturday's Bucs-Eagles NFC wild-card game in Philadelphia won't be the first time Rice and McNabb face each other in the NFL, but it will be the most significant.

"We're very close. I'd do anything for him," Rice said. "He also knows I know how he plays, and he knows how I play. Of all the defensive players he probably ever played, I was always one who could always go get him. It's going to be exciting."

Although they are two years apart, Rice, 27, is a mentor to McNabb, 25, who was a backup quarterback in high school when Rice was the standout. Rice chose to look out for McNabb, to make sure all of his talent and exuberance stayed focused.

"He was silly," Rice said, "Never serious. Always smiling, keeping it moving, keeping it real lively just like the rest of the guys at that age. Just young and impressionable. So, when it was game time, I used to get serious and I think that's what I brought to Donovan."

Even now, McNabb plays the role of little brother to Rice, although they are certainly on equal footing; Rice one of the premier pass rushers in the league and McNabb one of the most promising young quarterbacks.

They act more like best friends than anything else. They spend much of their offseasons together, usually in Arizona, where Rice still has a home, or in Chicago. They do everything together, playing basketball, working out, etc. Everything, that is, except talk about football.

"When we talk, it's about how things are going (outside of football). Just friendly conversation," McNabb said. "We'll pick up the phone and check on one another, make sure the focus is still there because we want to try to push each other to get better and make sure we're in the right position."

This season they have found each other in the same position, budding stars who've had to battle overinflated expectations.

McNabb, in only his second season as a starter, showed slight improvement over last season, throwing four more touchdowns (25) and one fewer interception (12) than last season for a passer rating of 84.3, which topped last season's 77.8.

Yet, he was criticized at times throughout the season by fans and media who thought he should have done more.

Similarly, Rice, who was named Decemeber defensive player of the month, got off to a slow start with the Bucs. But he finished the season strong, becoming the team leader in sacks (11) and the top tackler among defensive linemen (64).

Naturally, each defends the other.

Said McNabb: "It's good to see that he's out there playing well, because a lot of people talked down on him. To see what he's doing now really shows his character."

Said Rice: "They ask me how is he in the pocket? Look at his record at Syracuse. He had one of the best quarterback accuracy rates. You get him out of the pocket, he's accurate as well. He's not the old cat that's going to stay in the pocket and get his back blown out."

Come Saturday, of course, things will be different. Friendship will give way to competition and brothers will become adversaries.

They've talked about it already, but all in good fun. McNabb isn't much a trash-talker, but that hasn't stopped Rice, who used Sunday's regular-season finale to get in some early jabs.

"I told him after our game last week, "You know we're going to kick your (tail),' " Rice said. "Then we started laughing."

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