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It would have been hard to blame Jack Rice had he walked away from the game of football.

Heck, for a while, the College of Idaho quarterback thought that was exactly what he was going to do.

Years of heartbreak and getting to the point of having everything he wanted, just to have it repeatedly taken away from him in the blink of an eye, was taking its toll.

Last Saturday, there was no pulling the rug out from underneath him. After stops at Sacramento State and Azusa Pacific ended unceremoniously, the name ‘Jack Rice’ was listed as QB1 for the Yotes. It was the first time since 2016 — his senior year of high school — he was in that role.

“It kind of hit home and definitely meant a lot more to me now,” said Rice, who led the Yotes to a 42-14 win against Montana State-Northern in their season opener. “I definitely feel like I appreciate the opportunity a lot more, especially after the whole journey I’ve been on as a player and a person. It felt good that they trusted me in that role.”

Rice had 159 passing yards and three touchdowns and also overcame three interceptions in his debut for the Yotes. The College of Idaho will look to build on that in his second start today when it hosts Rocky Mountain at 1 p.m. at Simplot Stadium.

“Since the day he’s got here this summer, he’s been so responsive and so embracing of the community,” College of Idaho coach Mike Moroski said. “I think he knows there’s not only a great opportunity here, but a sense of belonging and community. He’ll find out again on Saturday at Simplot Stadium what a great place this is.”

Rice’s journey to Caldwell started in Eureka, California, where he attended St. Bernard’s Academy, a small private school (grades 7-12), which boasts an enrollment of under 200 students in Grades 9-12. Rice said there were about 45 students in his graduating class.

In 2016, his senior year, he had 60 touchdowns and led the Crusaders to the sectional championship game. He chose Sacramento State over Azusa Pacific, in part because Sacramento was just five hours from Eureka, while Azusa was more than 10 hours away.

His first year in Sacramento was slowed by a ruptured ligament in his left big toe, which required surgery. His second year was hampered by herniated discs in his back. Things completely broke down in his third year in what Rice refers to as “a miscommunication.”

After a number of wide receivers transferred out of the program, Rice says he approached Sacramento State coaches about switching to that position. Instead, he was told that he was under strong consideration to be the starting quarterback, so Rice spent the summer preparing for that. Right before fall practice, he was asked if he could take some practice reps at wide receiver, but Rice said it was never exactly clear which position coaches ultimately wanted him to play at. After a week of getting barely any reps in practice, Rice approached coaches and a disagreement on what his role was erupted. It resulted in him transferring to Azusa Pacific a week before the 2019 season started.

“I wanted to play still and I knew Azusa was still interested in me,” said Rice. “I took the chance. I had been through a lot injury wise, so I definitely wanted to get my confidence level back to where it was before all that.”

Because he joined the Cougars so late, he wasn’t able to play in their season opener. Once he was cleared, he played in a variety of roles, getting spots on special teams, playing a little receiver and even got some time in as quarterback. After the 2019 season ended, he was told he would be the guy at quarterback in 2020.

That season never happened.

First, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed the GNAC and NCAA Division II football season to the spring of 2021. Then Azusa Pacific considered opting out of the spring season entirely.

In early December there was supposed to be a team meeting regarding that decision. It got postponed a couple of weeks, giving Rice a bad feeling about what would be decided. The announcement that was made Dec. 15 on a Zoom call was one he didn’t see coming.

After 55 years, Azusa Pacific chose to shut down its football program.

“When you look back on things, they worked out the way they’re supposed to,” Rice said. “But in that moment, it definitely hurt a lot. We’re in COVID, everybody is in quarantine and going to school online when we got that news. So, I think it hit a lot harder than it normally would.”

Just one class away from finishing his kinesiology degree, Rice figured he was done with football. Having come so close to his dream twice, only to have it pulled away, had left a sour taste in his mouth. Despite having eligibility left, he was ready to enter nursing school and start his career in the medical field.

That all changed in February when Moroski was going through a list of Azusa Pacific players who would be available to transfer. He recognized Rice’s name, as he had tried to recruit him to Caldwell out of high school.

“We kind of lost track of him a little bit,” Moroski said. “But when the Azusa roster came across on our email and the notice of them dropping the program, Jack Rice was the first person we called.”

The more Rice talked to Moroski, the more the desire to give football another chance grew in him. The first time he talked with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brian Taylor, the conversation lasted nearly two hours. Before long he was ready to come to the College of Idaho, even without the promise of the starting job he had previously craved. Taking a visit solidified that desire.

“All I wanted to do is go somewhere and make an impact,” said Rice. “I didn’t care if that was on the field, in the locker room, on campus, whatever. I felt like it was time in my life and my career to just say ‘screw it’ in a sense and make an impact, whether that role be what I wanted or as the older guy on the team, helping guys out.”

But once on campus, Rice impressed Moroski enough in a three-way battle with Jacob Holcomb and Ryan Hibbs, both of whom started games for the Yotes in the spring, to earn the starting job.

“He’s a competitor, and we learned that early on,” said Moroski. “He also has some mobility. I think they all throw the ball about the same, but it was his mobility and his competitiveness.“

While Moroski admits he made the decision a week before the opener, he didn’t make it public until before the game. Even as late as two days before the Montana State-Northern game, Rice, Hibbs and Holcomb — whom a College of Idaho spokesperson confirmed Friday is no longer on the Yotes’ roster — were rotating taking snaps with the first team. When Rice came out to take the first snap last weekend in Havre, Montana, the decision was official.

For Rice it was a moment five years in the making.

“I had kind of forgot what it felt like to be out there playing in a game,” Rice said. “I had been practicing in fall camp, and what not, but games are definitely a lot different than practices. It felt good to be out there and actually getting hit. But it was my first start since high school, which is crazy. I think it was good getting out there, getting the nerves out and get back into the rhythm of playing football.”

Even though he struggled at times, as evident by the three interceptions he threw, Moroski said he was impressed with the way Rice was able to move on and not let the mistakes compound.

“I thought he responded in a fantastic way, the way that you would want,” Moroski said. “Right after those things, he made big plays in almost every single situation.”

A change of scenery wasn’t the only change Rice made in the last year. He’s also switched his major to psychology and now is looking at pursuing a career as a sports psychologist after his eligibility runs out next season.

It’s a move, he said, that was inspired by everything that has happened to him throughout his career.

“With the journey I’ve been on and my experiences, I definitely feel like I can relate to a lot of kids,” said Rice. “I can kind of be that person they go to and talk through some of the tougher situations. ... Especially as the older guy on the team now, I see some of the younger guys going through some of the same things I went through. So, it’s kind of cool being that guy that relates to them, in a sense. When I was a younger guy, all I wanted was an older guy that told me I was doing the right thing or ‘hey I’ve been through that before, just do this and you’ll be alright.’ It’s kind of come full circle for me, so it’s kind of cool to witness that all in this sped up process.”

John Wustrow is the assistant sports editor of the Idaho Press. He is a Michigan native and a graduate of Indiana University.

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