Former Ravens running back Ray Rice said Wednesday that the 2014 domestic-violence incident that cost him his NFL career "uncovered the brutal truth" of his life: that he had sacrificed his duties as a partner, father and Christian to become a better football player.
Speaking in Lynchburg, Va., at Liberty University's convocation, in one of his most public conversations about his experiences in the years since the release of footage showing him punching his then-fiancee in an Atlantic City, N.J., casino elevator, Rice opened up about his lifelong encounters with violence and his reckoning with them.
"I had it all wrong," Rice said of his priorities. "I had football, family, then God. Reverse that order. It's supposed to be God, family and then whatever comes after."
Rice, 30, said his childhood did not excuse his misdeeds, but that it "definitely played a part" in who he became. His father was killed in a drive-by shooting when he was 1, and his mother's subsequent marriage was marred by verbal abuse, he said.
"I remember my mom basically becoming something that she wasn't," Rice said. So, sports became his "blanket," hiding him from problems at home and leading him to football stardom and a college scholarship at Rutgers.
Still, he now says he considers his childhood "lost."
" 'Man up' is a very cliche term," he said. "How can you be a man, and you never knew what it meant to be a boy?"
When Rice declared early for the NFL draft after his junior season with the Scarlet Knights, everything about his life changed. He recalled going back to New Rochelle, N.Y., during college and finding a home with no bed he could sleep in. When he turned pro, he said he had a balance of minus-$600 in his bank account.
But after signing with the Ravens, he had a six-figure bank account. Whenever he felt down, he thought retail therapy would help ease the pain. Even his girlfriend at the time, Janay Palmer, now his wife, whom he had known since high school, was moved to "the back-burner of things in my life," he said. "I'm just not proud of that, because she's the one who stuck with me through thick and thin."
Rice went on to play six seasons with the Ravens, making the Pro Bowl three times and winning Super Bowl XLVII in 2013. But he acknowledged that he spent more time "trying to be the man" and not enough trying to be "a man." Sports stars are too often mistaken for "godly figures," he said, and the deterioration of his public image after his Atlantic City incident forced him to realize that he wasn't "perfect."
"I believe you can live your dream," he said. "But one or two bad decisions, your dream can become a nightmare."
Rice quit drinking soon after he made headlines, and he entered into faith-based counseling. The goal, he said, was to rid himself of "his old self." He recalled his clinical counselor, Dr. Paul R. Ball Jr., the founder and director of Christian Counseling Services of Clarksville, telling him: "We've got to get rid of Ray Rice, and we have to get Raymell Rice back," referring to Rice's birth name. "Ray Rice is the football player. That's who you were. We have to create a new identity for you."
For the first time, Rice said, he could read the Bible and grasp its lessons. Buoyed by his renewed faith, he said he no longer felt "alone" or embarrassed by his vulnerability.
"I didn't know what help looked like," he said. "I didn't even know what help felt like."
Now working as a motivational speaker across the country and volunteer assistant coach on his alma mater's football team, Rice is more focused on fatherhood. He and Janay have two young children, and he said he's preparing for the day when his 5-year-old daughter, Rayven, asks him about his public transgressions.
"I want to be open and transparent with my daughter. ... I want to be able to at least have the respectful conversation, so she understands what it's supposed to look like," Rice said. "That's something I think about all the time."
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