Like he did as a player, Rice still enjoys a strong connection with Baltimore and its fans.
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ROSEDALE, Md. — The Eastern Family Resource Center, an industrial-looking building run by the Baltimore County Health Department, is a matter of life and death for many of this area’s most needy children and families. It provides basic health care — check-ups, immunizations, women’s health and family planning — for a nominal fee, or for no fee at all, to the homeless and uninsured. I have lived in Baltimore all of my life and taken my daughter to drama camp and gone shopping nearby, and never knew it was there, because, frankly, I am among those lucky to have never required its services.

But late Tuesday afternoon I picked my two oldest kids up from school and headed across the Beltway to the resource center. I wanted them, particularly at this time of year, to see with their own eyes a very different after-school reality. I wanted to talk to them about charity and inequality and adversity; about forgiveness and understanding; about how one’s lowest moment does not have to define you forever; about how out of ugliness can come beauty.

I had heard that Ray Rice was back in Baltimore for a few days (this is “Smalltimore” as many here call it, a place of few secrets), and he was going to surprise a group of at-risk kids with a Christmas they otherwise would not have had. It’s the kind of thing Rice did routinely, and quietly, during his time with the Ravens, as revered for his commitment to outreach in this city as any athlete for quite some time, and it’s something he continues to do in that very same manner since his heinous act of punching his wife-to-be Janay Palmer in a casino elevator has seemingly ended his NFL playing career.

Rice has kept a decidedly low public profile in the aftermath of his crime outside of a few media interviews, but his private life is much as it was before. He has largely dedicated himself to children’s issues and charities, sharing his story of discovery and regret with NCAA conferences and individual sports teams and whomever he may come across in the street, and staying in the best shape of his life lest some general manager actually gives him a call for an NFL tryout. If the former Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion is not home in New Jersey working out, you are far more likely to find him in a community like this just outside Baltimore City and not some posh restaurant or club.

Rice was already coming in for an annual charity Toys For Tots fundraiser at Jimmy’s Famous Seafood, a restaurant owned by his close friend and confidant John Minadakis, but he and his friend would have an entire afternoon free before that fundraiser started at 7 p.m. So they got to thinking about what else they could do. Rice knows many of the area’s toughest neighborhoods from his ongoing work here — Baltimore remains very much in his heart, sporting a B-more hat on this afternoon — and they reached out to their friend, Rae Lynn Gay, mother of NBA star Rudy Gay, to help coordinate efforts.

Gay is a long-time coordinator of Head Start programs in Baltimore (Rudy Gay was a prep star here and grew up not far from the Eastern Family Resource Center) and could make sure Rice and Minadakis reached the right families. Then they called a few other friends to line up transportation from the center to a Toys “R” Us a few miles away, planning an evening that these 50 or so children, and their parents, will never forget, taking them on a shopping spree, and perhaps even more importantly, making them feel wanted and loved.

“Ray does this stuff all the time,” Minadakis told me before the presents began flying off the shelves. “This is who he is, and the people in Baltimore know it. People still love him here, and they know what kind of a person he really is. All he needs is another chance and everybody will see it.”

Fifty families who otherwise would have likely had no presents at all were startled to find a fleet of stretch limos, party buses and charter buses outside the Eastern Family Resource Center on Tuesday afternoon. Rice and Minadakis split up 25 families with children under-12, and 25 with children 12 and older. The men loaded up with huge bags of gift cards, and at 4:30 p.m., it was off in a caravan to the toy store. The parking lot was packed with parents scrambling for gifts in the after-work rush, and quickly the entire front curb was filled with the limos and buses lined up from end to end.

Limousines and charter buses lined up outside Toys ‘R’ Us.
Photo by Jason La Canfora

Most shoppers had no idea what was going on at first (“Who’s in there?” a mom in a Ravens sweatshirt asked at one point). There were no television crews or public relations people or handlers present. No press releases. Just two friends who had the time and provocation to help the less fortunate.

“We put this whole thing together in two days, believe it or not,” Minadakis said.

The families hovered around Rice near the customer service desk at the front of the store once inside. The diminutive former star running back was unable to be seen from the back of the mass of people. Cell phones flashed, everyone wanted a hug, and Rice made a quick address before the party began.

“I just want to tell ya’ll that I miss you,” Rice said, eliciting a loud cheer and cries of “We miss you too!” Rice quickly gathered himself. “Now let’s go get it! Let’s enjoy it! Let’s have some fun!”

Many of the parents were beaming the brightest, even more than their children, as Gay began calling out the first group of names of those about to get their cards. You could see tears in some eyes and outward pride, knowing their children would not be going without. As Gay kept the kids lined up, “All the big kids over to this side, please,” most people still gathered around Rice. It wasn’t long before shoppers who had nothing to do with the event gleaned that Rice was there, and the reactions were unanimous.

“You got the picture, but I got the hug,” one elderly woman shopping for her grand-kids gushed to her friend. “I got both,” another woman replied. An elementary school girl who was a part of Rice’s trip came running down one aisle. “Where is Ray Rice?”

Rice is surrounded by lots of smiling faces inside the store.
Photo by Jason La Canfora

And two teens, also not associated with Rice’s group, were astonished that Rice was in the store. “I was just wearing his jersey yesterday,” one said to the other as they angled to get close enough to take a picture. One of the store managers could be overheard talking on his cell phone, “No one will believe I am here with Ray Rice.” The store likely ran out of footballs, as hundreds ended up in Rice’s hand at one point or another for an autograph.

Rice greeted everyone in his path, with the broad smile and charm that makes him so endeared here to this day, but you could tell he was anxious to catch up with the kids he brought. Very much a kid still himself in many ways, Rice wanted to see what they were picking out and share the moment with them. “John, you want to walk around?” he asked to Minadakis a few times. “I’m ready whenever you are.”

By then the youngest kids, who headed down the aisles first, had shopping carts overflowing with Barbie houses and remote control trucks and Lego sets. Kids who might not know where their next meal is coming from scooted around on mini bikes, making motorcycle sounds as they went by. Rice walked over to a girl clutching a small baking set and joked about getting her a job at Minadakis’s restaurant (“We’ll have to put you to work if you’re cooking.”).

A developmentally disabled child in a stroller — Rice worked exhaustively with such families during his time in Baltimore — caught Rice’s eye next. His mother explained he might not immediately react to Rice, as the youngster clung tightly to a toy truck in his hands. Rice scrunched down to the child’s level and posed as if taking the mannequin challenge, then began gently interacting with him.

“He said ‘thank you,'” Rice said to the mom as the child pounded his fists playfully on the cup holders before he wheeled off. “He just did it in his own way.”

The photo of Rice surrounded by these families, taken just before everyone headed back to the limos and buses, is a brief snapshot of joy and hope amid the fear and uncertainty of their daily lives.

Regardless of whether Rice gets another chance to play football, whether or not some NFL owner ever grants him that opportunity for redemption, in the eyes of these people he is already redeemed. The sincere reactions he drew from everyone in that store, across age and racial and class boundaries, weren’t driven by fandom or any hope or desire that he’ll ever score a touchdown for the Ravens again. It wasn’t about sports or wins or losses. It was a recognition of the person Rice aims to continue to be, and of his genuine connection to this city.

Janay Palmer and Ray Rice.
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He’s paid a steep price for his horrible act already, and it’s a mistake he will carry with him as long as he is alive. He’ll have to continue to explain it to his growing family as his children get older. The videotape of his crime will never go away. But Rice isn’t going away, either. And he still dreams of a day when he can take his entire NFL paycheck and donate it to the domestic violence charities that have become a part of his vocation.

The league office would be smart to employ him in a prominent player development role one day if no team will allow him to carry a football again; his powerful story and his words and deeds since that night in the casino could educate and help young NFL players. And in this holiday season of reflection and contrition and forgiveness — when we all could probably do a little bit more for those who are truly without — there is still much to be thankful for in Ray Rice’s life, and much good he continues to share with the world.

Some see Rice possibly working for the NFL to help educate players if he never plays again.
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