Brian Rice had a dream.
That dream was conceived 25 years ago, when Rice was a star shooting guard at Newcastle Area High School. Like every basketball-crazed teen, he craved to play at the next level.
Today, at the age of 43, Rice is living his dream as a member of the NCAA Division III Geneva College Golden Tornadoes.
His story—what happened between then and now—is a testament to the fact that dreams may age, but they don’t deteriorate.
At Newcastle, Rice impressed enough to attract basketball recruiters, but the timing wasn’t right for him to attend college.
“I knew coming out of high school I wasn’t ready for that commitment,” he said. Instead of accepting a scholarship to play basketball, he joined the Navy. But Rice admitted that his Navy career lasted longer than he originally expected. “I figured I’d do four years, get some discipline and mature a little bit more. That four turned into 24.5.”
Throughout that near quarter-century, Rice travelled the globe as an IT guy. When he wasn’t working with classified information and protecting the U.S., he played basketball. And not against Joe Shmoes one would find at the local YMCA either.
From competing against the likes of David Thompson, Tiny Archibald, Artis Gilmore, James McAdoo and Kyle Macy in Spain, to Philippine and Saudi Arabian semi-pro teams in Bahrain, Rice’s competition was never lacking—in quantity or in quality.
Naturally, after being attached to the game that much for that long, he had no urge to leave it following his departure from the Navy. Sure, playing overseas was fulfilling—whether schooling younger sailors with his fellow Chiefs or winning three-on-three tournaments on aircraft carriers. But he still had yet to achieve his dream of playing in college.
And that’s exactly what he set out to do.
“I got a call from the Newcastle Coach Ralph Blundo,” Geneva Head Coach Jeff Santarsiero explained as he told the story of Rice’s recruitment. “(Blundo) said, ‘Hey I have this guy, he contacted me and asked if I would call on his behalf. He wants to talk to you about trying out for the team,’ and then he said, ‘Oh by the way, he’s 43, but he’s in really good shape, you wouldn’t know he’s a 43-year-old.’”
Santarsiero agreed to talk with Rice but asked the veteran, “Are you sure you want to do this? College basketball is a commitment. It’s a lot different than high school.”
Rice was confident, but at the same time realistic.
"I knew that I could compete because of the level of competition I consistently played with and against," he said before asking, “But at what level? And how would I be able to sustain that competitive edge?”
In Geneva’s one month of open gyms prior to the season, Rice aced those tests with flying colors. He earned a roster spot, but not without facing more doubters.
His future teammates, men as much as 25 years younger than him, were skeptical when he first showed up to practice.
Senior forward Keynon Jackson said that the players were given a heads up about Rice, but he admitted, “I actually was shocked that he’d even (shown up).”
Their bafflement was justified, though. Rice’s story is so unique that he’s been sought after for interviews by CNN, sports talk shows from Mississippi to Canada and Santarsiero has even been contacted by a screen writer in Los Angeles.
His story may even inspire others who are young-at-heart to return to interscholastic competition.
“I don’t know if this is going to open the door,” said Santarsiero. “But I also referee in the area and everybody that works with me comes in and says, ‘Hey coach, I have some eligibility left.’”
He then added, “But they couldn’t hold this guy’s jock.”
As Santarsiero so eloquently put it, Rice can still ball.
Jackson explained that the players were aware of Rice’s military background prior to his first practice, but he arrived in far better shape than they expected. He said, “We ran about 5-7 games back-to-back-to-back and he ran every single last game. It got to a point where he was telling us to get back on the court.”
And because Rice can still compete athletically, his age becomes that much more of an asset.
He redefines veteran leadership.
“When asked what Rice adds to his squad, Santarsiero said, “The whole team concept—obviously the military is a team, his life lessons and sometimes players will get frustrated and he’s the calming factor. He’s like that uncle who comes on Thanksgiving and Christmas and calms everybody down when people are yelling at each other across the table.”
“He’s a great leader," Jackson said. “He has an extensive amount of wisdom when it comes to basketball and he’s a fighter. There’s no quit in him and that’s what we, the Geneva Golden Tornadoes, need right now.”
Rice defined his role as “ever changing” and said, “I’ll do whatever coach needs me to do. I definitely didn’t join the team to watch, though. I’m very competitive.”
He recently had his most productive performance of the year against Youngstown State recording six points, three boards and a steal in 15 minutes of action. And after a slow start to the 2012-2013 campaign, Rice and the Golden Tornadoes notched their first win against conference rival Waynesburg.
The highs just keep coming on Rice’s roller coaster ride.
“When I initially started this venture,” he said, “it was to fulfill my dream of playing college basketball being that I went into the military right out of high school. I've always wanted this experience to be an encouragement for others. No matter how old you are, you should pursue that dream."
“There’s a saying we use in our household,” Rice continued. “We say preparation plus opportunity leads to success. I knew I prepared myself, the opportunity presented itself for me to tryout and now I’m experiencing that success that I always thought I would.”
*All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
David Daniels is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report and a syndicated writer.