By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist
... there is no I in team, but there is "ME', and that's the perfect teammate, he says, and if you disagree, oh, well.
TAMPA - At last, we know the reason Simeon Rice wraps his arms around opposing quarterbacks with such regularity.
Man, does this guy need a hug.
He is a blur of motion, too fast to block, too quick to love. He is the NFL's leading paradox, a man who feels overwhelming and undervalued, invincible yet invisible, unstoppable but unappreciated. Think of Rice as a one-man highlight show that no one bothers to watch. He does.
Yep, that's Rice. Week after week, he does some of the darndest things you've never seen.
In the world of Simeon - accent on the second syllable, of course - this is the new fuel. He wants recognition. He wants reverence. He wants, sigh, respect. Lately, Rice has used the word respect so much, you'd swear his parents are named Aretha and Rodney.
As the Bucs play their home opener today at Raymond James, then, the rest of us will join Rice in mid quest to get what he feels is his due. Odds are, Rice will spend much of the day thumping chests. Occasionally, his own.
"This is my time right now," Rice says in that sing-song cadence of his. "It's time for me to be one of the greatest who has ever played this game. It's my time to be one of the legends. It's something I crave, it's something I honor, it's something I go out and play for.
"I don't play for money. I play for history. I'm playing for tradition. I'm playing for the legends who came before me. I'm playing for all my fantasies and my dreams."
And there you go.
The I's have it.
Lately, in his attempt for attention, Rice has given off a little bit of a me-first vibe. For instance, he remains the Bucs' ringless ringleader. He still hasn't picked up his Super Bowl ring, and initially, he said it was because he hadn't received the respect he felt was due him.
The statement rubbed some fans the wrong way. Here a player was shrugging off a reward won as part of a team because he didn't think he was getting enough individual attention.
"You can look at a lot of reasons, but when you really knock it down, the reason I haven't picked up my ring is I haven't taken the time to do it," Rice said. "It's really not a big deal to me. That might offend people, but so what?"
But Simeon, you're not a "me" guy, are you?
"Yeah, I am," he said. "There is a "me' in team, you know. There might not be an "I,' but there is a "me.' Without "me,' there is no team. There's just a "t' and an "a.' I want to be the best there ever was. If people are mad at me for that, it's okay."
Ah, don't get mad. Just shake your head like everyone else employed by the Bucs and repeat: That Rice, he's a different dish on the menu.
Rice never has looked, acted or sounded like other players. Every conversation with him is like a wild ride. You never know where you're going, but you're pretty sure when you get there, you're going to be dizzy. Besides, it isn't like Rice is the first player to write sonnets to the mirror.
Then, there is this: The way Rice sees it, being a "me" guy doesn't mean he isn't a team guy.
"You can only be a team guy if you have my perspective," Rice said. "I'm there for my teammates. I don't think they know how much I appreciate playing with them. I know what it's like to lose all the time. I'm grateful to be here. I respect winning more than anything.
"There is a misconception out there. People might think it's selfish. ... Well, it is to a certain extent. But I've got to be that way. If I'm not selfish for mine, who will be?"
Yes, it would be comforting to hear Rice talk about team goals, about how the Bucs rescued him when he was lost in the desert (See: Arizona Cardinals), about how winning made up for the slights and oversights.
On the other hand, Rice is a great player, in part, because he wants so desperately to be one. What do you want? Humility or hostility?
"If I'm not a great player, there is no reason for me to play this game," Rice said. "I believe I make the engine go. That's what I do."
Still, Rice admits, there are times when he strains to see fans wearing his No.97. It isn't as prevalent as it was in, say, Arizona. Still, it's more common than Rice will allow. According to NFLShop.com, Rice had the fifth best-selling Bucs jersey (ahead of Derrick Brooks and Brad Johnson) and the 26th most popular in the league between April and August.
That's not bad for someone playing an instrument in an orchestra. When this defense is discussed, Rice is the fourth name that comes up, which is unfair when you consider how few sacks Ringo Starr had in his career.
For whatever reason, Tampa Bay fans seem to prefer their stars to be home-grown. Warren Sapp, Brooks and John Lynch have been Bucs their entire careers. Rice, on the other hand, is a gunslinger brought in from out of town. "I'm Murder for Hire," is the way Rice puts it.
Listening to calls for respect gets tiring, but grant Rice this much: He does have recognition coming.
One game into his eighth season, and Rice has put up blinding numbers. No active player can match his career average of 11.1 sacks per season. Rice has a total of 80, sixth best of all active players. Everyone ahead of him has been in the league at least two more seasons.
How good are 80 sacks? Consider:
Lee Roy Selmon, Hall of Famer, finished with 78.5 in nine seasons.
Dan Hampton, Hall of Famer, had 82 sacks in 12 seasons.
Howie Long, Hall of Famer, finished with 84 in 13 seasons.
Put it this way: With 80 sacks, Rice has more than any member of Pittsburgh's famed Steel Curtain.
Yet, few seem to realize Rice's totals have grown so quickly. It causes Rice some angst, to tell the truth.
"When I look at the Super Bowl, and I really didn't hear my name mentioned, and I know I'm dominating every week, dominating every tackle I played against, doing things that have never been done. It's like "Wow, I've done so much, and it still isn't my time? What do I have to do?'
"It was the biggest day of my career, and I couldn't even enjoy it because I didn't feel I got any respect."
Come on, Sim. You were second in the Super Bowl MVP voting, and if not for the Internet results, you would have won. Also, you made the Pro Bowl, and All-Pro and the NFL alumni named you their defensive lineman of the year. You aren't exactly invisible.
The good thing about Rice not realizing it is the way he keeps taking it out on quarterbacks. He had two sacks against the Eagles, which gives him 25.5 over his past 23 regular-season games, most in the NFL.
At 29, Rice already is 35th on the all-time sack list, and you wonder just how high he can climb. Reggie White leads at 198, and Bruce Smith, who still is playing, has 195.5. Rice would have to average 15 sacks over eight seasons to get into the hunt. Around Year 5 or 6, you have to believe people would notice.
Will Rice play that long? That's hard to imagine. You get the feeling his interest will fade before his ability. He admits the off-the-field rules of the game - curfews and traveling back from games with the team - drive him crazy.
For now, he says football is "his heartbeat." He's happy chasing quarterbacks, driving them crazy.
But, hey, would it be so hard to think of him as a terror, as a brilliant, shining ball of starlight? Is loving Rice really so hard?
After all, Rice manages.