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At 43, Geneva freshman proving inspirational

| Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013, 9:50 p.m.
Christopher Horner
Freshman Brian Rice (center) locks arms with his Geneva College teammates on the bench in the final seconds of an 87-86 overtime victory over Thiel Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013 in Beaver Falls. Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Geneva basketball player Brian Rice, who is 43 years old and playing for the team as a freshman. (submitted art)

At first glance, Brian Rice doesn't look much different than his Geneva teammates warming up before a basketball game at Metheny Fieldhouse.

His head is shaved nearly bald, so there is no gray to betray his age. He wears knee braces, though he isn't the only one.

But then look at his face, at the lines and folds that appear as his expressions change. His eyes belong to a man who has seen far more than the typical freshman: Marriage. Children. Twenty-five years in the Navy.

At age 43, Rice doesn't play much for the Golden Tornadoes, averaging about 6 12 minutes and two points per game, but head coach Jeff Santarsiero said Rice's roster spot is no gift. He's earned it.

And although Rice's college career might not last past this season, the man they call “Chief" said he already feels as though he has accomplished what he set out to do.

“Out the gate it was to challenge myself while motivating others,” said Rice, the nickname a nod to his rank of chief petty officer. “I'm still human, so there are times when I get frustrated. The sacrifices get weighty and overwhelming, and I start asking myself, ‘Was it worth it?'

“But as soon as I get that thought, I'll run across someone who says, ‘Man, I love what you're doing. You've just encouraged me to go back to school,' or ‘You've encouraged me to pursue this or that.' So, yes, I think for what I set out to do, I would be very content (if this were my only year). Very content.”

‘Do you really think you can do this?'

New Castle boys basketball coach Ralph Blundo was in junior high when Rice played at New Castle High School in the 1980s. Blundo said he believes Rice could have played after he graduated in 1987. But Rice said he didn't believe he was ready for college and instead opted for the military.

After Rice retired last January from a Naval career in information technology and computers, he and Blundo reconnected. Rice started coming around the team and spending time with the players, especially those who “need to hear a different voice about what's good,” Blundo said.

Blundo knew Rice partly regretted never pursuing college basketball. Still, he said he had doubts the first time Rice expressed interest in walking on at Geneva while pursuing a degree in community ministry.

“You're retired from the NBA for seven years already at 43,” Blundo said. “But Brian's not your normal guy. He's a man of faith, strong will. He's a hard worker.

“So I said to him, ‘Do you really think you can do this?' and his answer was so confident and such a resounding, ‘Yes,' that it was an easy call to make to Geneva.”

Santarsiero wasn't surprised Blundo called to say he had a player Santarsiero might be interested in. The surprise came when Blundo told him the player graduated high school about the time Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall.

“(Blundo) said, ‘I have to tell you, he's not your ordinary student.' I said ... ‘OK,' ” Santarsiero said. “He said, ‘He's a former military guy, and he's 43 years old,' and I said … ‘OK.' ”

What's the old guy doing here?

Division III has no age limits, so the only issue was whether Rice, a 6-foot-2 guard, could keep up with players half his age.

Senior guard D.J. Damazo had an image in mind of what a 43-year-old player looked like and never thought it would work.

“But the first day of pickup we had a bunch of players on both courts playing, and his team was winning every time,” Damazo said. “It was the beginning of the season, and everyone was out of shape but Brian. Everyone was putting their hands on their knees, holding their jerseys, and Brian's the only one standing up.”

Jordan Harbison, a senior guard/forward, thought it was a joke when he learned a 43-year-old was trying out.

“I thought, ‘What's the old guy doing here?' ” he said. “As soon as he started playing, everyone opened their eyes real wide. He's quick. You can't push him around because he's banging and playing hard. He ran us off the court the first day.”

Rice earned a roster spot — and respect.

“Is he an elite college player?” said Santarsiero, who at 53 is closer in age to Rice than Rice's teammates. “When he came out of high school, he probably was. But he's very much a fundamental college player, which is important. And when he gets his opportunity, he works his tail off.”

Do you call him grandpa?

It hasn't been a good year for Geneva. The Golden Tornadoes are 2-16. They snapped a seven-game losing streak against Thiel on Jan. 19 but had to score with six seconds remaining to force overtime before eking out the win.

Rice has played in 16 games. Santarsiero would like to get him more playing time, but it's difficult.

Rice's impact, however, isn't measured only in numbers. He also serves as a role model and mentor.

“At our game against Westminster, one of his old teammates from high school was there, and he was like, ‘Do you call him grandpa?' ” Damazo said. “I laughed, but I thought about it when I went home, and it's funny because he is like a grandpa, just talking to him and absorbing his knowledge. He's the first one you can talk to when you need anything.”

Damazo hopes to coach basketball after his playing career is over, and Rice has given him pointers and helped him make connections.

Rice's hustle, tenacity and fight — he dives after balls in practice — are inspiring, Harbison said.

“He's the guy pushing everyone trying to get the best out of them,” Harbison said. “And if someone's down, he'll be behind him slapping him on the back.”

Never too late

Rice is on track to graduate in August from the adult degree program. He plans to go to seminary for his master's.

Despite having three years of eligibility remaining, Rice hasn't decided whether he will use them.

He and his wife have two daughters — 13 and 22, the eldest a recent college graduate. Family and community outreach are vital to him, and the 45-minute commute from Beaver Falls to his home in Boardman, Ohio, plus games and practice, cut into that.

It's a sacrifice Rice isn't sure he wants to make after this season. Even if he doesn't play, he hopes his story will resonate.

“I just want the story to be motivation and encouragement for people. ... It's never too late,” Rice said. “Sometimes we have to put our dreams and desires on hold. Life happens. But it doesn't mean it's the end. It just means let me shelve this for a little while, and prayerfully I'll get an opportunity to come back and pick it up.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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