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Rice's star shines in return to Carolinas

What a perfect time for a holiday homecoming as one of the greatest athletes ever to emerge from the Upstate readies to play his first professional game close to home.

Vikings receiver Sidney Rice will play a football game in the Carolinas for the first time in over three years, giving the homefolks a chance to witness his rapid ascension into NFL stardom as the Panthers host Minnesota.

The last time the former Gaffney star played in the Carolinas was Nov. 25, 2006 at Clemson, when his eight catches for 103 yards helped lead South Carolina to a 31-28 victory in his second to last collegiate game.

The now 23-year-old receiver will lead the Vikings (11-2) against the Panthers in a prime-time NBC telecast that likely won't garner big ratings in Gaffney - too many residents will be at the game.

Rice had to scrounge upwards of 70 tickets to accommodate family and friends who want to see one of this season's breakout NFL performers as he continues catching passes from legendary quarterback Brett Favre.

"It's going to be very exciting coming back home," said Rice, who missed some recent practice time with an illness but is expected to play. "There's definitely going to be a lot of people there for me, and hopefully we'll have a great game."

The odds of that happening increased greatly this season as Rice has turned instant chemistry with Favre (in the veteran's first season in Minnesota) into a star-making campaign.

Rice is fifth in the NFL and tops in the NFC with 1,075 receiving yards while his 67 catches ranks 16th overall and sixth in the NFC. If he can continue his current pace for three more games, it appears inevitable the 6-foot-4, 202-pounder is headed for his first Pro-Bowl.

"I've always expected this of myself and always knew what I was capable of doing," Rice said. "But I've learned what it takes to be successful in this league and you can't just be satisfied with being one of the top guys, you've got to keep pushing."

Rice was getting pushed around more than pushing forward his first two years in the NFL after leaving USC early. He totaled 46 catches for 537 yards combined as questions about his speed and ability began to earn him the underachiever label. Of course he was still one of the youngest guys in the league and didn't have Favre firing him the ball.

When Favre decided late last summer to reverse his latest attempt to retire and take his arm and experience to Minnesota, Rice was taken aback.

"I just started hearing all the stories of how hard he throws the ball and how many (receivers') fingers he's broken, things like that" Rice said. "I was kind of intimidated, but now I feel very comfortable catching the types of passes he throws."

And the intimidation factor morphed into more of a reality check.

"There's been a couple of times throughout the season where I found myself in the huddle just looking across at him and thinking, wow, I'm in the huddle with Brett Favre. That's huge."

Rice quickly rose to the occasion. Despite the presence of speedy free agent Bernard Berrian and former Florida playmaker Percy Harvin, the kid from Gaffney has been Favre's go-to guy.

"He sure is difficult to cover," said Favre, who is 17 years older than Rice. "He just makes great catches - in traffic, coming back underneath, you name it. He offers a different dimension, and as far as deep threats are concerned, Sidney's right up there with the best."

Since high school, Rice has possessed the ability to outmaneuver defenders with the ball in the air and come down with catches in tight coverage. That meshes nicely with Favre's gambler's mentality - he never has been shy forcing throws to receivers who aren't fully open. When Rice started coming away with the ball more often than not, an instant bond was born.

"I told Sidney before I even threw him a pass, just watching him from the sideline, that when you look at him physically, he just looks the part," Favre said. "And a lot of guys look the part but don't play to their size, and he does. I just told him, 'I'll throw it up and you bail me out' and he has many times.' "

Vikings coach Brad Childress said Favre "just has great confidence in (Rice), so in one-on-one situations, he's going to give him opportunities, and Sidney hasn't let him down."

Rice laughs when asked about his chemistry with Favre, saying, "When you get a guy like him that's been in this league 19 seasons, has won a Super Bowl and league MVP and is arguably one of the greatest of all time, it's not really going to be all that hard.

"He's had a lot to do with my success. He's got trust in me and gives me chances to make plays on the ball and when those things happen with a quarterback of his stature, it's going to make any receiver better. Listening to Brett and playing with him has given me so much more confidence."

Playing with Favre on a team that is a Super Bowl favorite has not only increased Rice's game, but his fame as well.

He's become one of the team's most requested interviews each week and routinely pops up on numerous national sports shows. Rice is now one of Minnesota's more recognizable sports figures, and any trip outside is accompanied by autograph seekers and strangers who simply want to congratulate and wish him well.

"It all comes with being successful, and that's always good," Rice said. "It's been fun, but at the same time, if you let a lot of that stuff get in the way of what you're trying to do, it could be a burden. But I don't let it get to me in that way. I still know what I have to do and the things I need to focus on."