Dozens of high school seniors have participated in college commitment ceremonies this past school year, as student-athletes from all four county high schools have signed to continue their careers as far away as Nebraska, and for Virginia stalwarts like the University of Richmond and James Madison University.
But unique among the signings is that of Lee-Davis football player Austin Rice, not so much about where he is going, but what he was willing to do, and learn, in order to get there.
With summer vacation underway, Rice, his family and friends, and two of his Lee-Davis coaches gathered at the school this past week to celebrate his commitment to Ferrum College, where he will suit up for the Panthers in the USA South Conference. The roots of this day go back a decade, literally into his own backyard.
“I picked up a football at age 6,” Rice remembered. “My dad played, and he was my first coach, in youth football. He was also my toughest coach.”
Dad’s influence remained all the way through his senior season, returning him to the backyard to go over nuances of the game, giving him advice after Friday night games. It was to Rice’s advantage to have a coaching father once the meat of his Lee-Davis career began.
Many high school football players are “two-way” players, meaning they are on the field for both the offensive and defensive units, as opposed to playing just one position for one unit at the collegiate or professional level. What Rice was asked to do as a Confederate, though, expanded upon that definition, to Rice’s benefit, and to the team’s success.
“Austin has not only the size, the ability, the measurables, but he gets, he understands football,” said former Lee-Davis head coach Zac Hayden. “We asked him to play many positions, and he ‘got’ it wherever he was placed, whether at linebacker, quarterback. He wasn’t vocal, because that’s not his personality, so I worried about the snap count, but he got it.”
Hayden noted Rice is among the best players he has coached in his 15-year career on the high school sidelines.
Rice played on the defensive line, both at inside and outside linebacker; on offense he could be seen at tight end, wide receiver, and H-Back to go with his time as quarterback in
the Wildcat offense. Then, to top it off, he specializes as a long snapper for special teams.
In the American workplace today, people are wise to learn and become skilled in as many specialties as possible to create an aura of indispensability about them. Rice did it on the football field by simply saying, “Yes, sir.”
“What sets him apart is his ability to adapt,” Hayden explained. “You’re lucky to have one player on your team with the ability to play so many positions. Imagine if you have a team full of them!”
For the soft-spoken Rice, it all doesn’t seem so unique, it’s just what he has known to be the high school football experience.
“I played middle school football at Stonewall Jackson and would go to Lee-Davis games and just thought what it would be like to play in front of those big crowds,” Rice explained.
It happened, as Rice helped the Confederates earn two playoff berths in his three varsity seasons. He also earned a connection with the Panthers in Southwest Virginia.
“The coaches at Ferrum called me, we set up a visit, and I loved it. Coach Hayden told me most of their coaching staff comes from Division I programs, so they know what they’re doing,” Rice noted, adding, “They feed you well, too.”
Rice will take all the lessons he’s learned, from his backyard all the way to the football stadium at his high school alma mater, to help him succeed both on the Ferrum field and in the classroom, where he hopes to focus on criminal justice studies. And as time goes on, he also hopes to impart a simple, quiet lesson he’s learned about leadership to others.
“I think the best leadership is leading by example,” Rice opined. “You can always talk, but setting an example is just the better way for players coming behind me.”
Being a leader, and sacrificing the personal for the good of the team, has been key to Rice’s success thus far. Those abilities, and his adaptability, should serve him well as his Panther career begins late this summer.