Sidney Rice was a two-sport star in high school in South Carolina before concentrating on football. He showed Seahawks fans what might be in store with eight catches in his debut against Arizona.
RENTON — He’s the best basketball player Seattle will never see. At least that’s the scouting report on Sidney Rice from his hometown. P “I still, to this day, believe he probably could have played basketball at South Carolina,” said Mark Huff.
Huff is the basketball coach and athletic director at Gaffney High School in South Carolina. It’s a fairly big school in a relatively small town located southwest of Charlotte in a part of the country where the drawls are as sweet as the tea.
Last week, Seattle got its first look at what the folks in South Carolina have known for a while: Rice is something special.
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“An honor and a pleasure to coach,” Huff said. “A tremendous athlete.”
Rice is 6 feet 4 with arms that go on forever and hands that seem to be equipped with a commercial-grade adhesive. The Seahawks signed him as a free agent in July and he caught eight passes in his regular-season debut last week against Arizona, becoming the one bright spot of this team’s slow start on offense.
Rice was a Pro Bowler for Minnesota in 2009, and Seattle signed him as unrestricted free agent in July, signing him to a five-year, $41 million contract. He suffered a shoulder injury in training camp that kept him out the first two regular-season games, but last week he showed why he’s a receiver that Seattle considered a No. 1 target.
“He’s the kind of guy you can throw the ball to knowing that he’s going to make something happen with it,” coach Pete Carroll said.
Folks in his hometown learned that more than a decade ago, and his ability to create isn’t confined to football.
Huff was coaching Rice in hoops when his player stepped to the free-throw line with less than 2 seconds left in a game Gaffney trailed by two. He missed the front end of a one-and-one, rebounded his own miss and laid it in while drawing the foul. His free throw won it.
At 6 feet 4, Rice stood out, but he had a shooting touch and could handle the ball so well that as Gaffney practiced its full-court press, Huff finally had to pull Rice aside during a practice and tell him he had to just stop dribbling circles around the defense.
“You’ve got to let them trap you,” Huff said. “They’re not getting any better when you go through them.”
Gaffney has about 12,000 residents, the school has 2,000 students and won state championships in both football and basketball during Rice’s senior year.
Rice was the state player of the year in basketball for his classification as a senior, and while he generated more interest as a football recruit, the only two colleges he visited as a recruit were South Carolina and Syracuse, which dangled the carrot of playing basketball, too. He signed with the Gamecocks.
Rice never played basketball after high school. He suffered a hyperextended knee as a freshman, which resulted in him redshirting, and he wasn’t healthy enough to play basketball.
The next season Steve Spurrier arrived, and after a freshman season in which he caught 70 passes for 1,143 yards, Rice followed his coach’s advice that he stick to the sport that looked like it would pay his bills.
He caught 72 passes as a sophomore and entered the draft after scoring a school-record 23 touchdowns in just two seasons and was drafted in the second round.
“One of the most talented guys I ever coached,” said Steve Spurrier Jr., the head coach’s son who coaches receivers. “Sidney was just big. I always defined him as a guy that just had amazing range.”
That’s not just going up and over opponents, but reaching up, back and around.
“Pure range,” Spurrier said. “When the ball is in the air, he has very good balance and the way he leverages for the defender. You can’t teach that.”
Seattle spent four years and millions of dollars trying to acquire this kind of receiving talent on the open market. The Seahawks signed Nate Burleson as a free agent, traded a first-round pick to New England for the privilege of paying Deion Branch millions and paid about $14 million for what turned out to be one season’s worth of T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
All told, those three receivers played 113 games and were paid in the neighborhood of $50 million. And for all that dough, you know how many times one of those three receivers finished a game with more than the eight receptions that Rice had last week? Twice. Burleson caught nine passes vs. Chicago on Sept. 27, 2009, and Houshmandzadeh caught nine passes in Arizona later that season.
That was a different front office, a different team and Rice gave a glimpse on Sunday against Arizona that at the age of 25, he may be a very different player.
Back home in Gaffney, his high-school basketball coach was thinking of his former student. He hoped the game would be on, too, but instead wound up watching Atlanta, which was broadcast regionally.
“I guess I’m going to have to go with the DirecTV or something,” Huff said.
If Rice’s Seahawks debut was any indication, his time in Seattle will be must-see TV.
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