by David Burcham, New Castle News
NEW CASTLE — Brian Rice wasn’t ready for college 25 years ago, opting instead for a stint in the Navy.
“I thought I’d do four years to get more discipline and save some money,” said the 1987 graduate of New Castle High School.
But his first tour of duty evolved into a military career that lasted a quarter century and took him to 60 countries on six continents.
As for college, he’s ready now.
Already a student in the adult degree completion program, studying community ministry at Geneva College, the former Red Hurricane basketball star also has decided to pursue another young man’s dream. At age 43, Brian will become the most senior junior in Golden Tornadoes’ basketball history when he suits up for the Nov. 16 opener in the Coaches vs. Cancer Tipoff tournament vs. Penn State Fayette.
Rice learned following tryouts recently that he was one of two walk-ons selected by coach Jeff Santarsiero.
Attending workouts with Geneva players for a month, Rice has already forged some strong relationships with his new teammates, who are young enough to be his sons. Rice’s 22-year-old daughter, Brittany, is a senior at Penn State-Behrend.
NO AGE LIMIT
Santarsiero, 53, said there’s no age limit for playing Division III basketball. Players, aged 25 and 26, have tried out in the past.
“When you hear about a 43-year old wanting to play college basketball, you have some questions,” Santarsiero said.
“Are you sure?” is the first thing Santarsiero wanted to know from Rice.
“He served our country for 25 years. His personality and drive, the fact he wants to go back to school and finish his degree shows how serious he is.”
Santarsiero said Rice competed well during the initial practices. “We’ll just have to see if his knees are going to hold up. He’s got to ice them after every practice.”
“I’m not putting him on the team as a charity case,” Santarsiero said.
In high school Rice was 6-foot-2, 165-pound shooting guard. Flash forward 25 years and Rice is a 6-2, 200-pound versatile athlete, who believes he can contribute at the 1, 2 or 3 spots for the Golden Tornadoes.
PLANNING TO PLAY
Rice was a shooter while playing at New Castle High, but coach Don Ross helped him hone other aspects of his game.
Like his faith, Brian said his game has matured, too.
“I will rebound, play defense or whatever coach needs me to do.”
But make no mistake, Rice is not there to watch.
“I’m trying to get into the top seven of the rotation,” he said. “I may not be as fast as others, but nobody can outwork me,” Rice said. “And coach made it clear that whoever works the hardest will play.”
Because the basketball program graduated a lot of seniors, Santarsiero said “We’re going to be a different Geneva team and play a different style. We’ve got to create points from defensive pressure.
“Brian wants to play, but we’ll have to see how that factors out,” Santarsiero said. “I don’t make any promises.”
“He has to go through everything the others do.”
Rice understands and agrees. His teammates refer to Brian as “Chief,” which was his rank in the Navy.
“They show more respect when they see you doing everything they are doing,” Rice said.
Rice relates to his younger teammates, but also to a peer on the coaching staff. Assistant Jason McCowin was a junior at Blackhawk in 1987 when the Cougars played New Castle during the Christmas tournament. There was a stand-clearing brawl during the contest, but Rice says neither he nor McCowin were involved. “When I was being introduced to the team, Jason said, ‘I know you.’ ” A few moments later they were discussing the game.
SPEAKS TO ’CANES
Rice said it was a rare day when he didn’t have a basketball in his hands during his 8,800 days in the Navy. He played for more than two decades almost always against younger players.
Seeing that he could compete with them made him believe he could compete on the collegiate level when he returned to the states last February.
Ralph Blundo, boys basketball coach at New Castle High, invited to Rice to share his wisdom with the ’Canes during last year’s championship season. “He was around our players a lot, and it’s been very beneficial,” Blundo said.
Rice graduated from high school in June 1987, and two months later was serving in Japan. That was where he met Marquita, a modern jazz ballet dancer from Brooklyn, N.Y.
They have two daughters, the aforementioned Brittany and 13-year-old Zoe. Marquita embraces Brian’s dream while she pursues one of her own — opening dance studios in New Castle and Youngstown.
Brian’s father, Kelly, died in 2003. His mother, Catherine, lives on South Jefferson Street.
He is a licensed minister and ordained elder, having served in community outreach overseas, working with youths and young adults.
He began that course while he was stationed in Virginia, where a pastor asked him to mentor the young adults stationed there. The pastor had a 17-year-old daughter and a 21-year-old son whom he enthusiastically entrusted to Rice.
Santarsiero believed that Rice’s experiences will help his younger teammates.
BASKETBALL AND LIFE ADVICE
Rice said those relationships have already formed, noting that some players have invited him to share basketball and life advice with them.
“I have a responsibility to make my teammates better,” said Rice, who has a love for basketball and for being a positive example for young people.
“God has allowed me to get the whole package,” Rice said. “Sometimes God combines our vocation with our avocation. He ceretainly did that for me.
“Everybody is using the label of Christian, but most don’t seem to understand what it means to be a follower of Jesus.”
Rice does not want to come across being judgmental.
“All I have to do is think back to myself and some poor decisions that I made.
“It’s a different culture today.”
Rice said becoming mature in one’s faith is an important step.
The defining moment in Rice’s Christian walk came while he was stationed in Alaska.
“I professed being a Christian, but wasn’t living the life,” he said. “Now before I make any decision, I think how it will affect my relationship with my wife.”
Rice and his Geneva teammates are looking forward to a Dec. 6 date at Division I Youngstown State University, just minutes away from Rice’s house in Boardman. The deal was sealed when he saw the garage came with a hoop attached.
“After looking at dozens of houses for sale, I knew that’s where I was supposed to live.”
Geneva awards bachelor's degrees in nearly 40 undergraduate major areas of study and offers seven master’s degree programs.