Age is just a number
Navy veteran goes back to school to get a degree and play ball
Geneva College’s Brian Rice spent almost 25 years in the U.S. Navy, serving his country and traveling to 60 countries and six of the seven continents before retiring.
But Rice, who joined the Navy directly out of high school, was not ready to kick his feet up and relax. The 43-year-old decided to pursue his Bachelor’s Degree in religious studies at Geneva, and test his basketball skills – and his endurance – by trying out for the school’s men’s basketball team.
Geneva’s academic coursework suited the ordained elder, who has a passion for biblical studies and community ministry.
“I wanted to look for a program that catered towards ministry and I ran across Geneva,” Rice said. “When I read their information, I definitely thought the course of study would fit into what I wanted to do.”
The added bonus was an opportunity for Rice to play collegiate basketball, despite the long hiatus since playing at the high school level.
“I had an epiphany moment on the court one day when I was shooting around with one of my young sailors,” Rice said. “I said to him, ‘You know what, I’m going to play Division III college basketball.’ He said, ‘Go for it man.’”
Rice kept in shape by playing for teams on his ships or bases, and competed in several Armed Forces tournaments.
But the question was whether he could keep up with guys half his age.
Rice talked to friend Bob Kerr, an assistant coach at Westminster (Pa.), as well as the coach at Newcastle High School, where he had played more than 20 years ago.
“I spoke with them and let them know what I was going to do, and asked Bobby Kerr what some of the intricacies were with playing college ball,” Rice said.
“The Newcastle High School coach called me about Brian and explained the situation, and told me about him as a player back in the day,” Geneva head coach Jeff Santarsiero said. “The first question I asked Brian was, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’”
According to NCAA rules Santarsiero could not watch players practice until Oct. 15, so he suggested Rice join the team for voluntary workouts leading up to that date, and then go through a three-day tryout.
Rice also talked to his wife Marquita and explained how time-consuming practices and games would be, and she fully supported his ambitious venture. His two daughters – 22 and 13 years old – didn’t think anything of their father competing against players younger than his oldest daughter because he had always played ball. He decided to give it a shot and go through a month of voluntary workouts with the players with his eyes on the prize of making the team.
“I was using that as a gauge to see if I could keep up with these kids,” Rice said. “Once I found out I could, it was a no-brainer to try out.”
The open workouts also helped him get to know the players and allowed the players to become acquainted with Rice’s basketball skills.
“I got to form relationships before there were any coaches around,” Rice said. “I think it speaks volumes that they see a guy a little older than them, and still respected my play on the court. They realized I wasn’t just some guy who had pipe dreams of playing college basketball. The respect came from them seeing I could really play.”
Santarsiero was in agreement with his players and Rice made the squad.
“He is a good player with good skills,” Santasiero said. “He had a nice shot. He had all of the parts, it was just a matter of whether all the parts were oiled enough or not…but he kept up in practice. The one thing he had difficulty with was all of the schemes, so he had to learn about that, and now he is caught up and on board and doing a great job.”
Coaches and players have dubbed Rice with the nickname of “Chief” after his rank of chief petty officer in the Navy. He has played in all nine of the Golden Tornadoes’ games, averaging 6.6 minutes and 1.6 points per game, and his leadership skills are a huge strength he brings to the team.
“It was a win-win for everybody,” Santasiero said. “It’s not always about the wins and losses, but mentoring young men and making them understand their role in society. To have a 25-year military veteran was just a bonus with the life experiences he could add.
“He’s like that uncle who comes to Thanksgiving and Christmas and calms everybody down when everybody is arguing in the family. He has a great spirit and is a great individual.”
Rice loves being a student-athlete as the military prepared him to adapt to any situation. What he did not expect when he made the decision to pursue these goals was the media attention that has spread far beyond Geneva’s campus in Beaver Falls, Pa.
“It’s been a little overwhelming with all of the interest that has come from this,” Rice said. “As a family, we didn’t expect this.”