Sidney Rice remains revered at home

Sidney Rice, from Gaffney, S.C., raises his arms in victory toward the South Carolina sideline after USC defeated Houston 44-36 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29, 2006.
Sidney Rice, from Gaffney, S.C., raises his arms in victory toward the South Carolina sideline after USC defeated Houston 44-36 in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on Dec. 29, 2006.

In April 2007, Cherokee County’s heart turned purple.

When the Minnesota Vikings selected Sidney Rice with the 44th pick of the NFL draft, the nearly 13,000 residents in his hometown of Gaffney became converts.

“I’ve never seen so many Minnesota fans here,” said Tony Thompson, owner of Benna’s Sports Club in Gaffney.

The restaurant on Floyd Baker Boulevard, one of the town’s main drags, is a popular gathering spot for fans in this die-hard football town. Many of them root for the nearby Carolina Panthers.

But when the Panthers traveled to Minnesota on Sept. 21, Thompson saw where the hearts of the townsfolk really lie. Rice did not play, but Gaffney’s fans cheered for a Minnesota win anyway. It reminded Thompson of the way fans cheered for South Carolina when Rice played there in 2005 and ’06.

“He was the highlight of watching football for us on Saturdays,” Thompson said of Rice, who broke school records for single-season receiving yards (1,143 in 2005) and career touchdown receptions (23).

“Anytime he did anything, the fans here went crazy,” he added.

It has been that way in the county since Rice was decked out in black and gold, playing for the Gaffney Indians.

In a town that supports its youth, the high school and its football team are “very much the center of the community,” Gaffney High principal Marlene Davis said.

So it is no surprise that Rice, who helped the Indians to the Class 4A, Division 1 title in 2003, has been the focus of so much hometown affection.

“He was revered and looked up to while he was here, and that has not changed,” said Indians coach Phil Strickland, who took over the team for Rice’s senior season.

Rice was also the 2002-03 Class 4A basketball player of the year, helping lead Gaffney to the state championship. He averaged 18 points and seven rebounds a game for a team that finished 28-0.

Strickland and basketball coach Mark Huff, who coached Rice for four years, lauded Rice’s work ethic and humility, even while his classmates were hitting him up for autographs.

“He never had the big-man-on-campus syndrome, never acted like a star, and that’s why, in my opinion, he is where he is today,” Huff said.

“It’s a pride thing, and it makes me step back and think, I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work with, to have coached him and to know him. I’m sure it’s the same for all of our coaches and faculty.”

Rice’s homecomings, less frequent since he joined the Vikings, cause quite the commotion.

Davis said Rice draws a crowd even when he pulls into school the parking lot.

“He gets swamped when he comes to the school, with people asking for his autograph and just wanting to see him,” Strickland said.

His office is one of the first stops for Rice when he visits, and it houses a small collection of footballs and other memorabilia from fans wanting Rice’s autograph.

Rice is not the first — and likely will not be the last — Gaffney football player to reach the NFL; Dominique Stevenson and Rocky McIntosh were also drafted. But with his rise, Rice lassoed the moon and pulled the stars a little closer for the athletes who wish to follow in his footsteps.

“Cherokee County is unique in that every mother’s son thinks they belong in the NFL,” Davis said. “Sidney making it to the professional level makes those dreams seem that much more attainable to them.”

Thompson said Rice’s success shows local youths — and even some adults — that their small hometown is anything but a dead end.

“They see that you can be successful, you can make it to the top,” he said. “If you work hard and make good decisions, you can go anywhere from here.”

Reach Nelson at (803) 771-8419.