Way Down South
Most of the time, I’d run late in the afternoon. The temperature would still be over one hundred in the summertime despite the sleepy sun. Wearing my one pair of sneakers and a ragged shirt and shorts, I’d grab a small towel from my mother before heading out. Out the front door and into the country. The roads were dirt-covered, as there was no pavement where we lived. I’d run and kick dirt off my heels as I passed our neighbors’ houses and waved to passersby. Being in the sticks of Mississippi meant “neighbors” could be miles apart. As cars passed me, the tires spewed up dirt all over my face and clothes as I made my way around the seven-mile or so circular journey. With sweat running profusely down my face, the towel came in handy, but in the last mile or so, when my body was aching, I’d often throw it to the side. When I returned home to our house in the country, life—as I knew it—picked up again.
Close your eyes and imagine a small town in the Deep South. A certain picture probably pops up: dirt roads, pickup trucks, hot sweaty August days. Whether you have visited the area, or simply recall a small southern town from a movie, your image is probably close to reality. Now picture that same small town much, much smaller. That’s the best way to introduce my hometown of Crawford, Mississippi. There are no stoplights, very few street signs, a few broken-down sidewalks, and not that many people—somewhere between five hundred and a thousand back when I was growing up. But not only were we small in numbers, it seemed like we were all distant cousins. Everyone knew everyone else, and everyone old enough to be a parent was a parent to all the kids. You couldn’t get away with much.
I was the sixth of eight kids born to Joe and Eddie B. Rice, two native Mississippians. There were my older siblings, Eddie Dean, Joe, Tom, Jimmy, and James, and my younger ones, Loistine and Zebedee. We were a big family, but close. I shared a bedroom with three of my brothers, so sometimes we were too close! We lived on seven acres in a house that my father built with his own hands, about thirty minutes outside of the “town” of Crawford. So you can imagine just how far out we lived. There was thigh-high brush, swampland, wild horses, and dirt roads, not to mention the nearly triple-digit weather most days. We had a few neighbors “within calling distance,” as my mother would say, including my grandparents. I was a true southern boy from the sticks.
My father, Joe, stood six feet, and weighed maybe 280 pounds. He was the provider for the family and the rule-maker, and oh, how we all followed the rules. My father was intimidating and could be mean—very mean—but in the way he thought was right. Life was hard and he believed it was his job to prepare us for it. His intimidating scowl and raised voice would scare a common man, let alone a group of children. Occasionally, I saw a different side to my dad, a side that rarely raised its head. He loved to fish, and I would tag along on the hour-long walk to a nearby lake where he would stake his spot and search for catfish. He was relaxed on the lake and took joy in snaring a big one. But he didn’t fish that often, which meant most of the time, my “other” dad was in control.
His hands were crusty from so many days out in the Mississippi sun building homes, laying bricks, brick by brick, day after day, all year long; sometimes he’d work two or three different jobs to get money.
In the South close to thirty years ago, affection wasn’t shown much between parents and children, or even between parents. When it was time to be tough, my father could be tough. If one of us did something wrong, my father would instruct us to go into the backyard and pick a stick—a stick he would then use to beat us on our behinds and back, to teach us a lesson or two. Sometimes he pulled out a large leather belt and whipped us good. The extension cord hurt as well. He would whip me and my brothers and my sisters—no one was immune. The beatings hurt so bad that they were a good deterrent to keep us all out of trouble. I remember one evening, when I was about fourteen years old, a few of my brothers and sisters and I snuck out of the house to go to a neighbor’s to watch the Jackson Five perform on television. We didn’t have a TV but we were big Jackson Five fans. So, despite my father’s insistence that we not leave the house, we did. The beatings upon our return left a mark—literally and figuratively. But that’s how they did it where and when I grew up. I guess the fear of getting hit by the stick and the intimidating look on my father’s face kept pushing me to do the right thing. And it still does.
My mother, Eddie B., was short, a conservative woman with a grand heart who welcomed any and all into our home for lavishly cooked meals. She raised us while my father worked. But despite the economic struggles, I think it’s safe to say that my parents did a pretty good job raising all of us, treating us all as equals. On Sundays we would go to the Pinegrove Missionary Baptist Church for services as a family and in the evenings we would sit around the dinner table together. That’s just what we did.
My childhood was like that of many young boys—I played sandlot football into the night, read Sports Illustrated under the covers, and bellyached when it was time to get up and go to school. In the summertime and over the holidays, I worked with my father laying bricks for homes and businesses. Bricklaying is demanding, tough work. We would be up at five a.m. and work until sundown. My brothers and I would be the supply chain for my father, who actually laid the brick and mortar onto the structure. It was our job to make sure that the bricks were ready to be laid down and the mortar prepared to be spread. On many occasions, I was the last link between the bricks and my father. My brothers and I would bring the bricks to a worksite and pass them from one to another until handing them to my dad for placing. Often, when my father had moved on to the second floor of a structure, I would balance myself on the scaffolding two stories up and catch bricks that my brothers would throw to me from the ground. (Some like to say that’s where my great catching hands for football came from—I’m not so sure. Brick-catching requires hard hands and an aggressive approach; catching a football requires soft hands to cradle. Regardless, the hand-eye coordination had to help me down the road.)
Bricklaying wasn’t fun work, but it earned us money, some of which I turned over to my parents to help pay for clothes and groceries. I do remember how anxious I was to make sure there was always a brick and mortar for my father. I didn’t want to let him down. Time is money in the bricklaying business, so any slowdown in supply cost my father money. That’s a lot of pressure on a teenager. I was afraid to fail. But you know what? Fear of failure isn’t always a bad thing. It helped keep me focused on the task. And a fear of failure has carried me through my life.
It’s probably a big surprise to many of you that I am so insecure about success. In fact, it took me years to admit that fear is at the root of my performance. It goes against much of what the literature and “gurus” out there insist, that you have to let go of your fear to ever be successful; that you can’t be afraid to fail. I don’t think that’s an absolute. My fear of failing as a child carried over onto the football field in high school and then college. I was so concerned about not being successful that it pushed me to be successful. All of those extra hours in the gym or on the track or on the practice fields were more than just about hard work; they were about avoiding failure. Before every game of my NFL career I was scared—scared to drop the big pass, scared I’d let my teammates down. And now I realize it all goes back to not wanting to disappoint my father.
My parents’ parenting proved that hard work and shared responsibility works. There were no slackers among us, as everyone had to pull their weight. Mom and Dad taught us that money is not everything. Mom insisted that love was the only thing we all needed. We went without on many occasions, meaning we didn’t have many pairs of pants or shoes. Even a hearty meal at dinnertime was a luxury on many nights.
There were other ways to make money besides bricklaying when I was growing up in Mississippi, and one of those jobs may surprise you. A big revenue stream for business owners down south was agriculture, particularly cotton and corn. To get the goods to the market, the products first had to be picked from the ground. I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t picking cotton something slaves did? Yes. But I didn’t think of it that way. I saw it as a way to buy groceries for my family and some clothes for myself. My siblings worked alongside me in humid heat, picking the corn stalks, baling hay, and yes, picking cotton. I was certainly aware that many blacks in the south had been forced to pick cotton for centuries but that didn’t stop me from earning a day’s wage. Some of our black friends and neighbors refused to work in the fields and questioned why we were willing to. But to me, it was about earning money, and since we were being paid, I never thought of it as trampling on the memory of our forefathers and mothers and I still don’t.
Sure, there was racism in Mississippi. We’re talking about the 1960s and 1970s, a time when the civil rights movement was under way but slow to reach parts of America. Yet growing up, I never once experienced racism firsthand. No one called me the N word, no one painted racist slogans on our home or burned a cross on our lawn; we were lucky. But from what family and friends told me, I also knew I probably would get dirty stares if I walked into certain parts of the county that were predominantly white. Maybe it was because of my skin color, maybe because I couldn’t afford many of the goods on store shelves in those areas. I did have a few white friends, a few white classmates, but for the most part, blacks surrounded me. There was an area down Route 12 we called the Crossroads, where blacks and whites hung out, but never together, and I did go down there on occasion, but always stayed with the blacks. (Years later, after I made it in the NFL, the whites didn’t give me nasty stares when I hung out in “their” area, probably because I wasn’t just some black guy from the country.)
One of the more unusual aspects of living out in the country lands of Mississippi was the thrilling and exhausting practice of riding wild horses. But this isn’t a Seabiscuit story where you would wake up early morning, walk out to the stable, pat your horse down, and hop on for a dawn ride. No, just getting on the horse was a challenge. You see, the horses ran wild over the countryside, so if you wanted to go for a quick jaunt on top of the animal, you first had to chase it down. And that takes a lot of work and patience. On a good day, it would take me forty-five minutes to an hour to chase down a horse. With no fences and no boundaries, just imagine the size of the pasture we were dealing with. (And when I went riding with friends, we had to chase down the first horse, tie him up or use him to chase down the others, before we actually got to have fun riding!)
My favorite horse I called Pete. Boy, was he fast. He could make quick turns (like a good wide receiver) and his black mane made him easily identifiable. As time went on, I got faster chasing down Pete and the other horses. You would be amazed at what experience teaches you. I realized that it wasn’t about being in the spot the horse was; it was about being in the spot the horse was going to be. I began to think one step ahead and it actually slowed down the chase for me.
I loved to play sandlot football or shoot hoops outside on the farm but I was never in love with any one sport and certainly never thought one would be part of my destiny. I remember Fourth of July cookouts and baseball games and I remember the Christmas days when I was given a new football. I never asked for one, I just got them. I’d go outside and toss the ball around with my brothers, but never put much thought into playing the game for real. I did read about and watch guys like the Dallas Cowboys’ Drew Pearson and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Lynn Swann. I appreciated how they dominated the game—but I never wanted to be them. I watched our high school team play and was impressed by our quarterback, little man Kent Thomas, who was just five foot eight, but who took command of the huddle and the field, wore his uniform crisp and clean, and earned the respect of his teammates.
My older brothers were my playmates and teammates in our mock games of football or basketball or even the simplest games of skill. Tom and James were tremendous athletes. James could catch, shoot, and hit better than just about anyone I knew—and he was born deaf. To compensate for his handicap, James used his intelligence. Boy, was he smart. But while we did all we could to help him be social, it wasn’t enough. So, when I was just ten and James sixteen, we drove up to Jackson, Mississippi, to a school for the deaf and settled James into his new home. We were devastated to leave him behind. But the school turned out to be a great thing, and James soon learned sign language and made all kinds of friends. He would return to Crawford to work with my father in the bricklaying business. Despite not being able to hear or speak, James was a legitimate bricklayer, earning the real money, while most of us—his siblings—were merely helpers.From the Hardcover edition.