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Beyond Mortal Limits

Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice doesn't want greatness, he craves football immortality. His torrid workouts attest to that desire. Don't believe it? Just try and keep up, silly.

By ROGER MILLS
Published July 6, 2003

photo
[Times photos: Bill Serne]
Simeon Rice ends his grueling workout day in a manner only a coach, or a sadist, could love: "The Hill is for the fourth quarter. It's when everyone else is quitting ... and I'm not."
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PHOENIX - For each foot the sun climbs into the cloudless sky, overworked thermometers leap 3, maybe 4 degrees. By midday, Phoenix's savage 110-degree heat is unrelenting and unforgiving.

It gets so hot here in the summertime, Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice said, you sometimes see car tires melted into the pitch. Stand too long in a single spot, your sneakers become one with the ground.

Rice would have it no other way. It is in these grueling conditions that the 29-year-old sack master prepares for each new season and lays the groundwork for what he hopes will be his legacy.

It is in these near inhumane situations that Rice pushes his mind beyond sanity and drives his chiseled frame - a 6-foot-5, 255-pound work of art - beyond mortal limits.

This does not surprise coach Jon Gruden.

"Sometimes I look out there and I see Jerry Rice," Gruden said. "I see Sterling Sharpe. I see a lot of the truly great players that I have had a chance to be around. Roger Craig. The guys who have had long runs and great seasons, back to back to back.

"The thing about those guys is that they are always doing something extra. Jerry Rice is going at 40. Well, there's a reason he's going at 40 and that's not just God-given talent. It's a lot of intestinal fortitude. Simeon has got that. He's got great inner drive."

If most professional athletes are driven by success, then Simeon Rice - who had four sacks, 10 tackles, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery in the Bucs' playoff run - is obsessed with greatness.

"I want to be the best they have seen and ever will see," said Rice, who has recorded 23.5 sacks in his past 22 regular-season games. "It's not enough to be the defensive player of the year, I want to be an MVP of the league. I want to be a revolutionary player. I want my play to change the game.

"People don't conceptualize that you can be an MVP as a defensive player. But I can have that. I'm playing at a top level. Look at Derrick (Brooks') touchdowns, over half of them were touchdowns that I caused. Look at the Falcon game, when I got the quarterback and he got the ball and ran into the end zone. Look at the game in Philly. I hit Donovan (McNabb) and the ball comes out and (Brooks) picks it up and runs it in. . . . All those things are direct derivatives of what I mean when I say MVP. Total impact on the game."

To some, such statements might seem the rantings of an egotistical superstar. But Rice is first to say how great Brooks is. He is first to point out how devastating his defensive line is with Warren Sapp and Anthony McFarland running amok in the middle and Greg Spires standing his ground on the opposite end.

He'll tell you that without a secondary the caliber of Tampa Bay's, sacks are a figment of the imagination.

But don't think for one minute that fresh off receiving $20-million ($12-million in 2003, $8-million in 2004) in bonus money this offseason, Rice, entering his eighth season in the league, is resting on any laurels. He said he is more determined than ever to demolish the record books as a defensive end.

"I'm keeping it real," said Rice, who was taken No. 3 overall by the Cardinals in the 1996 draft and recorded 51.5 sacks in his five seasons there. "I'm not off course. I'm on course as far as the aspirations I have for myself."

The ring

Five to six days per week during the offseason, the quest begins with the first of his four workout substations.

Like a movie set, the Rodriguez Boxing Club screams of every Hollywood image of inner city boxing. The former grocery/convenience store, converted 11 years ago into one of Phoenix's most popular boxing centers, has few bright lights and no fancy trappings.

There is one regulation-sized ring, four heavy bags, three speed bags, a bench press area and a clump of ancient weights, colored by varying degrees of rust.

Sitting on the corner of Roosevelt and Grand, the glass-walled sides of the club offer little privacy to passers by, most of whom couldn't care less about what is happening inside. The floors are red-painted concrete two years past the need of a new surface and the bathroom door doesn't appear to close all the way.

None of this matters to Rice. Here, men come to work, not to play.

"I love boxing," Rice said. "It's about agility. It's about hand-eye coordination. You know, when you're on the line, those linemen want to get their hands on you and they are big boys and you have to get their hands off of you. If you don't, then it's over. It's all about leverage. That was all the Raiders game. In that game, they couldn't get their hands on me."

For the past few seasons, Rice has taken up boxing as an integral part of his offseason regimen. Now, he is perfecting it with the kind of tactical concentration and physical ferocity that makes observers at the club think about another possible career should this football thing come to a premature end.

The man largely responsible for Rice's impressive ring performance this offseason is Earl Butler, a former WBL super middleweight contender who has been pounding bags and bodies for about 15 years.

Butler, who once was in the ring with Thomas Hearns and still spars with Phoenix-based professionals, stares with straight eyes and talks with a blunt voice. He has little conscience and no mercy.

At around 11:45 every morning, he wraps Rice's wrists securely, ties on the 12-ounce sparring gloves, cranks up the volume on his JEB Boxercise tape and gets busy.

"In order to win something, anything, and keep it, you have to be in great physical and mental shape," Butler said. "Nothing gets you in shape like boxing. People say you can get in shape to box. I say you box to get in shape."

The hourlong routine starts with simple dancing, feeling the rhythm of the ring, getting the bounce in the legs. Rice, whose dance steps on the field are legendary, quickly picks up the beat. Minutes go by and already sweat is pouring off the men.

They move on to the task of throwing crisp punches into the air, then mastering the combination counts, then ducking in and out, up and around a rope strung diagonally across the ring.

Then come the heavy bags, which send a rattling echo through the club with every landed punch. Rice is dripping sweat as he flails away. Butler calls the shots, shouting out combination sequences like calls at the line of scrimmage, and Rice seems to know them all. On this Tuesday morning in late May, Rice lands a straight right that unhinges the bag, forcing the boxers to move to another station.

The workout ends on a high note: sparring in the ring (although Butler doesn't really punch back).

"What it does is it gives you more than just cardio, it works your hand-eye coordination and gives you balance," Butler said. "I think when you saw a better defensive end, you saw a guy with better balance - and that's reflexes, foot speed, hand speed, change of direction and recovery. This is all boxing. He was able to do things in the fourth quarter that other guys aren't able to do."

Rice said boxing has made a huge difference.

"I can command my hands better," he said. "I have much better body control. And then there's the mental toughness. Your thought process has to be tops. Boxing is a grind and you're working and banging in a tight box. Well, although football is an open field, for me, there's still a tight box, and so it's become natural for me to move in tight spots."

The court

It is shortly before 1 p.m. and, without formal warning, those on the newly surfaced basketball court at one of Phoenix's many LA Fitness Centers follow the drill. It is a routine, happening almost by instinct, if not by necessity.

Steadily, good players, weekend warriors and couch potatoes make their way to the sidelines or, in some cases, to the lockers. Their run is over because The Run is about to start.

A who's who of the area's basketball giants begin congregating in the quaint, well-lighted court. Eyes follow the procession of tall men and recognizable faces as they make their way toward the back of the facility where, for the next three hours or so, one of the city's most prestigious pick up games is set to tip off.

No scrubs are allowed. The lineup is full of former NCAA Division I stars, CBA players and many just returning from professional stints in Europe and Asia. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, a hoops legend of his own and a close friend of Rice, is a frequent flyer on this court.

"The game is serious here," said Brad Dedrick, a 6-4 guard/forward who is close friends with Rice. "Step on, or stay out."

Still soaked from his session with Butler, Rice hurriedly leaves his Range Rover in an unofficial parking spot and scampers into the gym. The 10-minute ride from the boxing club has done nothing to slow his pace. In seconds, his cross trainers are thrown to the side and he pulls on a fairly new pair of basketball shoes.

Under the coaching/supervision of former NBA great Sedale Threatt, this unofficial clinic gets underway. There are dunks and three-pointers. No-look passes and alley-oops. Hard fouls and harder fouls. Threatt is recommending points of attack.

Rice, a Chicago native who played basketball at Mount Carmel High School, is in the thick of things.

"We treat him like he's one of (us). Nothing more, nothing less," said Alex Scales, a 24-year-old guard who starred at the University of Oregon and is now playing with Grand Rapids of the CBA. "It's great to have a celebrity in here playing so competitively with us. But once he steps on the court, he's just another ballplayer. He's a baller though. There are only ballers out here and if he wasn't a baller he wouldn't be here."

By the third game (first team to 21 wins), Rice has proven himself. He has hit three three-pointers, all from the top of the key. He has grabbed nine rebounds, all with bruising authority. He has sent home three breakaway dunks, all leaving the rim in a state of shock.

"Damn it, don't let him get off on you like that," someone shouts from within the scrimmage. "He's a football player."

Rice sees it differently. For three hours almost every day, he's a semi-pro basketball player eager not to be embarrassed by anyone on the court.

"This is real hoop," Rice said. "Here is where I get the aerobics, the lateral movement, all that. Your eyes, your hands, your feet. Always working."

Scales said a lot of Rice's ability to move on the football field is nurtured by the necessity to move on the basketball court.

"You can see it in him," he said. "You can see that the stop and go situation is a lot like in football. When somebody cuts you have to be able to slide with him and get over and stop and go. You have to react quickly. So it helps his footwork."

The weight room

Shortly after 4 p.m. it's time to eat, and Rice stops at a nearby Applebee's. In no time, he devours the zesty chicken sandwich, chicken salad and apple pie/ice cream three-courser the same way he did the chump reporter who challenged him to a one-on-one game at the end of the basketball scrimmage.

He washes down everything with water. He is always drinking water.

There is another 10-minute drive to a different LA Fitness Center, only this one has proper machines and the proper feel.

Rice insists on the proper feel.

"I just prefer this one," Rice said. "Here, they have the hammer machines and I just feel better here."

Rice walks through the weight room and seems oblivious to the scores of bodybuilders and the few onlookers who recognize him.

He begins with the bench press, and it is obvious that maxing out is less important than using manageable weight to push the muscle to complete exhaustion.

Rep after rep. Set after set.

The bench press, the flat row, the standing shoulder press, the front lat pull-down. Rice barely stops to breathe, barely notices a soul.

He works and works and works. His rhythm, he said after the break for lunch, is the rhythm of the third quarter when it's time to make an impact.

"The joy of being great, to me, is bigger than anything. That's what I work hard for," said Rice, smashing his fourth bench set at 275 pounds. "I just want to make it happen. That's how I see myself in Tampa. I make it happen. I'm unquestionably the best player down there, and I don't need to be heralded to know that. I don't need people to adore me, or write that about me to feel like that. I know it. My coaches know it. The people around the league know it."

Just then, a patron walks by with muscles protruding from areas commonly associated with soft tissue. Rice snickers to himself.

"Look at that," he says. "Who wants to be that way, no fluid movement, stiff and bulky."

Through two hours in the weight room, Rice is everything but stiff and bulky. Though he commonly weighs about 270 pounds during the season, Rice's physique has virtually no body fat. This summer, determined to enter camp in the best shape of his life, Rice is down to 253 pounds.

"Hopefully, they have a concept of what I am when I go to work," Rice said. "When I go to work, I try to be the hardest worker in the business. . . . Money is fantastic. I can fly anywhere I want to go. I can go buy things I want. But really, other than that, I don't need money to motivate me. My biggest motivation comes from the result of doing something well. Better than well."

The hill

It is dusk in the Southwest and still the temperature is well above 80 degrees. Rice gobbles down a bottle of Gatorade, slips in a Sade CD and begins the 15-minute drive to his final destination of the day, an upscale neighborhood on the southwestern tip of the city.

It is an area known as The Foothills, for its proximity to the Ahwatukee Mountains and its scattering of rolling hills. And here, just as the sun runs out of fuel, Rice summons secret reserves of energy.

He'll need them all, because before him stands the day's most daunting challenge, a water tower outcrop about 500 meters high and about 600 meters long. To Phoenix's elite athletes who dare to face it, it is known simply as The Hill.

"The Hill is for the fourth quarter," Rice said. "It's when everyone else is quitting . . . and I'm not."

Former sprinter Maurice Streety, now a local track coach who also prepares Air Force pilots for extreme survival training, keeps a watchful eye on his prized pupil. Streety, who has run with the likes of Carl Lewis, trains a number of professional athletes who live in or around Phoenix. His client base includes Cardinals tight end Mike Banks, Rams cornerback Aeneas Williams, Diamondbacks infielder Tony Womack and Nets forward Richard Jefferson.

"Nobody is quite like Simeon," Streety said. "Even the guys I thought were in his class need more recovery time. There are very few people who have that ability to fight off lactic acid buildup. It's all about being ready for the last two minutes of the game or being ready to respond, any time, anywhere, any place. He doesn't beg to quit, he wants more."

Stepping under a railing designed to keep out teenagers and their cars, Rice and Streety stand at the bottom of the steep hill and make notice of the markings on the road. Painted there by Streety a year before, the five markers signify a series of intervals 75 to 100 meters apart, all the way to the top.

Up a near 40-degree incline, the goal is to run a 600-meter sprint, then a 500 meter, then 400 meter and so on, up to the top. The drill is called the ladder.

"I've had them all up here," Streety said. "And Simeon is the only one to do the double-ladder. That's back-to-back ladders. No one else (has done it). The only guy who comes close to him is Aeneas, but he didn't do it. . . . Of course, once he reads this, he'll be on The Hill the next day."

Rice said The Hill's steep incline forces him to learn how to run forward, with his head down and his body letting gravity offer help. It increases speed when tired, something essential when chasing quarterbacks late in the game.

"It's giving him remarkable endurance," Streety said. "He's one of the few athletes, that looks to perfect a certain phase of his game every week. He trains all day. He can't be still. Only about three percent of professional athletes are like this."

Gruden said that amazing speed and lasting stamina shows up on Sundays.

"The flash athletic ability that he has for a right defensive end is remarkable," Gruden said. "His retrace. His diagnosis of a play and then his recovery, it's special. He's a very unforgiving football player. You might outflank him, you might get outside, but he's going to chase you down, in a hurry. Those are the plays that most amaze me about him."

Those who know Rice know at times he lives in a different universe, the ultimate free spirit. Rice drives an expensive car, but seldom bothers to detail it. He flies into town for his team's ring ceremony but leaves before getting the ring. He blew off the final five organized team practices to work out on his own and plan his trip to Spain.

Asked on a nationally syndicated radio talk show what he thought about Cardinals safety Pat Tillman's decision to leave the game and become an Army Ranger, Rice replied that Tillman wasn't that good, anyway.

So far, he has written a screen play, helped invent a form of thermal athletic wear and cut ties with power agents Roosevelt Barnes and Tom Condon, in that order.

"What do you need an agent for?" said Rice, who currently has no agent. "They really only work one time for you - and that's contract time, and then they want to sit on your money. That's not cool."

In the past, Rice said, his uninhibited attitude was perceived as a lack of caring. It led in part, he said, to a bad reputation with the Cardinals and impeded his ability to sign a blockbuster deal when he became a free agent in 2001.

The Bucs won out over the Giants but signed Rice to a curious five-year, $34-million deal. The deal came with no signing bonus and a first-year base salary of $1-million. The Bucs then had the right to pick up the option in the second year for $8-million and pay out the remaining $25-million over the final three years. So unusual was the contract that the NFL's Management Council (the league's salary cap police) had to look into it before it was approved.

"Not too many cats in the NFL would put their whole career on one season," he said. "To me, it was about pride. They were saying they didn't know about me, they weren't sure about me. All the things I did in this league and they weren't sure? They were doubting my ability?"

Rice said he has proved his doubters wrong and believes the work he does in the offseason and during the fall have earned him certain rights.

"I don't feel like anyone has an authority on me," he said. "You don't have to surrender authority to someone. I submit myself to no man. I listen to Gruden and my position coach and I respect them as learned and experienced men. But I don't feel scared to speak my mind and tell them how I feel."

[Last modified July 6, 2003, 05:13:35]

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