It's been eight years since Matthew Rice helped Penn State win the Orange Bowl en route to a No. 3 national ranking. With a road that has taken him through trials on both a personal and professional level, the former Nittany Lion defensive end standout known as Blu by former teammates and friends recently took time to reflect on the transitions and inspirations from on-field attacker to on-canvas artist.
We ran a long Q&A with Rice in FOS the Magazine. With his return to State College this week for the Purdue game, a talk with art students at Mount Nittany Middle School and several promotional events, we thought it would be good to run the interview online, as well.
You can meet Rice at the G-Man downtown from 5-7 p.m. Thursday as he takes part in The Goon Show.
Friday, he will be at the FOS Tailgate at Damon's from 6-8 p.m.
Sunday, he will hold a special art show from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the State College Framing Company & Gallery (Hills Plaza South, 160 Rolling Ridge Drive, State College, Pa., 16801).
Rice will be available to talk to fans, explain his art and sign things at all three venues.
Read on for his interview with FOS staffer Mark Harrington.
FOS: Talk about what brought about the end of your football career.
MR: Basically, I had just finished one of my toughest years playing football, physically and mentally, going from an Orange Bowl season to preparing for and competing in the NFL Combine to the NFL Draft. I went undrafted, but quickly got picked up by the Buffalo Bills. The Bills released me before I had a chance to make an impact, so I had to figure out what I was going to do with my life, figuring my football career was over.
I started to move away mentally from football when St. Louis called. I took the opportunity and had a great preseason, but I was not in the best shape and really had to work through it. Despite that I led the preseason squad in sacks, but started to really get an understanding of the business of professional sports. It's this business aspect of the NFL that can easily take away a passion for the game. Despite making a preseason impact, I was released by St. Louis and started quickly learning that the numbers game in the NFL is not so much about talent as it is about the support, politics and timing of everything. It can be incredibly stressful.
The NFL gave me a greater appreciation of what I had in Happy Valley with all the support and love around me.
At the time I was released from St. Louis, I had to balance it with my mom having heart surgery. At that time I went into survival mode. I wanted to get my mind off things, so I went to California to see Michael Robinson, who was with San Francisco. We're best friends
brothers. The calmness of the West Coast was great.
Then, out of the blue, the Giants called and wanted me to play tight end. I had never played a single day at tight end, ever. They wanted my size and aggression and offered a chance to play backup defensive end too. Things were going well and then New York lost some corners in a single game. The numbers game took over and they released me to make room to pick up some secondary players.
Detroit picked me right up, and at a time they were not winning. Things were much different in Detroit; since they weren't doing well it was open season in practice — every player had to go all out to earn their position. The practices were brutal; it was Joe Paterno-type football. After going through some sessions, Detroit offered me a chance to go to NFL Europe. I didn't want to go, but the move made sense.
The coaches in Germany were more old school, more so than Joe. They were the type who thought, Water makes you weak. Three days before I was to return to Detroit, I found out I had a brain tumor that needed surgery. That was devastating.
FOS: What was the transition like to life after football?
MR: From starting defensive end at Penn State, winning the Orange Bowl to dealing with NFL pressures to dealing with being in the best
best shape to dealing with something (the brain tumor) I had no control over. The transition was chaotic since there is no playbook for dealing with it. I just had to press on and take it head-on.
FOS: As you went through your health issues how did it change you personally?
MR: I am not sure it changed me; I just had to deal with it. I had gone through so much outside of football and was already battle-tested, so the health issues were just another challenge to me. You can feel sorry for yourself or just deal head-on with it. My mom went through dialysis, breast cancer twice — once during my senior year — and heart surgery. I couldn't let this one situation hold me back. But I was in shock and had to dig deep.
FOS: Penn State football seems to continually inspire your art. Why is that?
MR: Man, you ask good questions. I found my artistic path at Penn State. I didn't think I would have become an artist. I was trying to get off the streets out of high school. Someone told me, 'The worst thing you can do in life is not use the gift God gives you.' That really impacted me.
When I got to Penn State it was 100 percent new, but I didn't really have the drive to play college football or get to the NFL at that time. College gave me freedom and the PSU coaches, and especially Joe, pushed me to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew a cubicle would be suicide for me. I always liked to sketch and draw, so I tried out an art class, but at PSU you could not minor in art. I originally wanted to be an engineer, but the math held me back. My academic advisor arranged for a meeting with the dean of the art school. I decided to take an advanced oil painting class — it was like taking Spanish 4 without ever taking a Spanish class. Everyone around me was waiting to see how I was going to do.
Getting art supplies was big for me. I never had that opportunity as a kid. Growing up I was lucky to have a pencil and some paper. When I got to class I watched the techniques people around me used with their paintings — how they mixed their oils and the strokes they used. I was basically learning on the job. It opened up a new world to me with the endless ways to express myself. I fell in love with the challenge and took as many art classes as possible, which landed me in integrated arts.
It's given me so much opportunity to give back to non-profits with my art.
FOS: As you look back on your relationship with Joe Paterno, how has it impacted you life?
MR: He was a person who didn't change much — he was consistent. At Detroit I sat down with Matt Millen. His relationship with Joe was similar to mine
but different. Joe and I talked when we needed to and we had a mutual respect for each other. He taught me so many life lessons. He was always there when I needed him.
He had a level of respect for what I was doing off the field with art, which amazes me still. It saddens me to see what he had to deal with given what he was, what he is and what he always will be to Penn State.
I am looking forward to the whole story to come out. Joe was a coach, a scholar, a philanthropist, a father and so much more. He was targeted by the media and Penn State.
FOS: What about your relationship with Larry Johnson?
MR: I had a difficult, but respectful relationship with Coach Johnson. I bumped heads with him a lot at PSU. Now, as a man, I've gained so much respect for what he did for me and the position he put me in. He's so passionate and always gives 100 percent. I coached for a year and a half and gained a whole new level of respect for coaches with how they manage different personalities, strengths, weaknesses and maturity levels.
FOS: What are your thoughts on Bill O'Brien?
MR: I've met him twice, but I look forward to sitting down with him. What I have witnessed with him I feel comfortable with what he is doing with PSU. He respects the alumni and program. I have talked with previous players, fans and outsiders of the program to get different perspectives on Coach O'Brien. He's made a big impression all around because he is expanding on the foundation Joe set.
You can keep up with Matthew Rice's art career, see his work and learn about his upcoming events at www.mateoblu.com