CHANDLER – A first impression can reveal a lot about a person, but for Brenden Rice, there is more than meets the eye.
Rice, a three-star college recruit out of Hamilton High School in Chandler, is the son of Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice. That simple fact inevitably leads to comparisons, not all of which are kind.
“Just people saying ‘B. Rice who?’ and ‘You will never live up to your name,’” Brenden Rice, 17, said.
Brenden has accepted that challenge.
A family affair
The game of football has always been meaningful to Rice. He believes it was built into his DNA.
“That football has honestly been life to me,” he said. “I need that football. That football is mine.”
After a short stint playing soccer as a kid, and despite concerns from his mother, Brenden put on a football helmet around the time he turned 6. The injury risk often leads to hesitation for parents, whose instinct is to protect their children from harm.
“I think with the concussions there is a big fear,” Brenden’s mother, Jackie Edwards said. “But you know, if it is something they want to do and if I took it from him, I think it would break him.”
The game has played a huge role in the life of every member of Brenden’s family, including Edwards. Her mother’s love of the Dallas Cowboys led to her own fascination with the sport. That inheritance, in turn, made her realize she couldn’t deny Brenden’s love of the game.
On the walls of Brenden’s childhood home in Chandler are symbols of the importance of family and unity. Most prominent is a board in the living room that displays his family tree, showing pictures of his aunts and uncles, siblings, grandparents and parents.
No relationship runs deeper than the one Brenden has with his mother.
“I did not have that father figure for a long period of time and she truly took over both roles,” he said. “That is what I needed to go ahead and become the person I wanted to become in the long term and I am truly blessed to have her.”
Going through family photos, his mom reminisces about the past, everything from baby photos, ones from his time playing youth football and even ultrasounds.
“It just goes by so fast,” Edwards said. “I go through all their photo books and just seeing those 18 years, that is what you do.”
The relationship with his father took a different path.
In Brenden’s 17 years, he has never been under the same roof as his father and the relationship with his parents has had its challenges. Through all of that, his parents have been able to put aside their differences for the better of their son, something he has always appreciated.
Brenden was born during Jerry Rice’s 22-year marriage to Jacqueline Rice.
The connection between Jerry and Brenden started off slow but has grown over the last couple of years.
“It truly has gone from, ‘Yeah we talk but nothing too close’ to actually being, ‘Hey, what’s up’ anytime throughout the day,” Brenden said.
Despite the distance, Brenden has always been grateful for the time he has with him.
The first memory he has with his father is from when he was about 5.
“We were in a hotel room, and we were just staring at each other,” Brenden said. “He said to me, ‘You know why I can open my eyes for so long? Because when that ball is in the air, you have to keep your eyes open.’ So I would try to hit him with the staring contest all the time. It was so funny.”
Video by Anthony Totri/Cronkite News
What’s in a name
Sharing a last name with a Hall of Fame football player presents its challenges. Other than people believing he has to live up to his father’s legacy, it also evokes criticism or hatred.
“I have these great expectations but at the same time, there are days where I do not want to live up to him,” Brenden said. “People will look at you differently, they look at you privileged. I am not privileged, I am blessed. It is truly deeper than what it seems, not just pen and paper ‘Rice.’”
Brenden doesn’t deny that his name is a positive force in his life, but he does not want that name alone to carry him.
“That last name holds a lot of gratitude toward everything so you have to look at it as a blessing, but at the same time, it is my greatest downfall,” he said. “I do not want to be recognized as just Jerry Rice’s son, I want to be recognized as Brenden Rice.”
Brenden hopes to achieve that goal with a simple approach.
“He wants to be better than he was yesterday, not better than the person next to him,” Edwards said. “He will continue to push himself as much as it takes to get to where he wants to go.”
At the start of his recruitment, there were doubts about his ability. Coaches expressed concerns with his lack of speed.
Through diligence, he was able to trim his 100 meter dash time almost a full second, from 11.7 to 10.78.
“College coaches thought I was too slow, too stiff,” he said. “Even my best friend doubted me. He actually ran a 10.3 and I told him ‘Bro, I am going to run a 10.78 this year, I promise you that.’
Hamilton High School coach Michael Zdbeski said Brenden has adopted a blue collar mentality.
“He has learned to do the things he does not want to do to be good at the things he wants to do,” Zdbeski said.
That improvement in his speed and his willingness to try something new drew colleges’ attention. Rice received 21 Division I collegiate offers during the recruitment process, eventually committing to the University of Colorado on Oct. 15.
Rice said he liked Colorado’s history. He liked wide receiver coach Darrin Chiaverini’s recruiting pitch – Chiaverini also coached Brenden’s half-brother Jerry Rice Jr. — and he bought into head coach Mel Tucker’s vision for the program.
“I have entrusted him and my family as well to take me to the next level, to develop me and be a great leader and figure in my life,” he said.
Brenden’s relationship with his brother and sister also have influenced his decisions. Everything from choosing to attend his sibling’s alma mater, Hamilton High School, to proudly representing the No. 2 on his jersey, just like his brother, Qualen.
“I wanted to be just like him growing up, watching him play and win three rings at Hamilton,” he said. “His mark left in the community, on the field, in the classroom means a lot to me.”
His mother, brother, sister and Brenden have lived in the Valley since 1999. Throughout that time they have remained committed to the school. Nick Arvay, the Huskies’ senior quarterback, said he has never seen a person so dedicated to the program since transferring from Casteel High School in Queen Creek his junior year.
“He talks about Hamilton like no one else talks about Hamilton,” Arvay said. “He grew up around here, his brother went here. This is his home.”
He has definitely been tested in his time at Hamilton. In a short time, he has had to grow and mature from that inexperienced freshman to the senior leader that the people around him know him as today.
His freshman year, the varsity quarterback, Tyler Shough, who eventually went on to play college at Oregon, took him under his wing and showed him the ropes.
“Freshmen come in all funny and try to be the center of attention,” Brenden said. “Quickly, I had matured and grown and that truly helped me go about my game.”
Brenden recalls his second game at the varsity level his freshman year and how Shough changed his mindset in the middle of the game.
“I was having the worst game of my life,” he said. “He took me in and settled me down. He told me ‘keep your head up, keep driving, you are going to make those simple catches. You are going to be okay, trust me.’”
“If it was not for him doing that I would not be who I am today,” Brenden said.
Along with calming him down, Tyler helped develop him into a mature and responsible person on and off the field, Brenden said. He showed him how to step up for his team when it mattered most, to be a leader.
“I have not seen anyone else on campus since I have been here that has led the way he has,” Arvay said. “He wants to keep reminding us of what we were chasing.”
Rice has played three seasons at the varsity level and has accumulated 1,974 rushing yards, 28 touchdowns, 115 receptions and averaging a total of 17.2 yards a catch. He was also selected as a 2020 Under Armour All-American, but none of those individual statistics or accolades mean as much to him as the success of his team. The one accomplishment that has eluded him the first three high school seasons has been the state championship.
With a 7-2 record to finish the season, the Huskies are pursuing that goal.
They will pursue their state championship aspirations Friday when they play Centennial High School in the first round of Arizona’s first open division tournament.
Legacy lives on
The name Rice will always be a part of Brenden. There is no escaping that, but he won’t use it as a crutch or a point of privilege.
“I describe myself as ‘nameless,’” he said. “It is not in any way disrespectful to my father. It is a term that I took on knowing every single day that I have to push myself for greater success. Success is not inherited, it is always earned.”
Despite declaring himself “nameless” in an effort to make an impact separate from Jerry Rice, Brenden hopes to achieve more than his famous father ever did.
“I need to go about this (as) if I can do everything he does, better, I can be 20 times better than he ever was,” he said. “I want to be better than Jerry Rice. I want to be the greatest receiver of all time.”