Messiah Horne had heard rumors and been given hints, but he still couldn’t believe it. So when the day finally arrived last spring, the 17-year-old football star morphed into little more than a nervous teenager.
That afternoon at school, Horne peeked out at the side parking lot at Somers (Lincolndale, N.Y.) High School and eyed the approaching car like it carried his prom date.
“I see a white Mercedes-Benz pull up,” Horne said. “It was all tinted. It looked great, and I’m wondering who it is? And then Ray pops out.”
Yup, not only were those Ray Rice stories real, but the Somers senior ended up having a private audience with the former NFL star for over an hour that day. It was a pep talk that changed his outlook on school and football. Those close to Horne believe it has set one of the area’s most talented running backs on a path toward stardom. And he agrees.
“I definitely needed that,” said Horne, whose team opens its season Friday night at Lakeland. “It was kind of a huge step.”
At the time of his meeting with Rice, preparation had not been Horne’s weakness, but it hadn’t been a strength either, according to coach Tony DeMatteo and Horne’s father, Tyrone. His focus on schoolwork and his training had especially waned during the offseason. That led to DeMatteo and his son and assistant, Anthony DeMatteo, hatching the plan to put Rice and Horne in a room together.
“He was doing the bare minimum,” Anthony DeMatteo said. “It wasn’t a knock on him. He had always done the bare minimum and been the best. We wanted him to elevate that and that was the point of bringing in Ray — someone who had elevated his level of player.”
First, however, the elder DeMatteo spoke to Horne’s father, an NYPD detective, to gain approval. Although the DeMatteos have maintained a strong relationship with Rice since his high school days, DeMatteo wanted to be certain the Horne family wouldn’t be dissuaded by Rice’s reputation stemming from his 2014 arrest for assaulting his wife, Janay.
“He tells me it’s Ray Rice and I said, ‘Ray Rice? Yeah, it’s not a problem,'” Tyrone Horne said. “I said, ‘Can I be there?’ ”
That enthusiasm carried over to his son, who was set up with Rice through Anthony DeMatteo, who once competed against Rice at Somers’ annual Block and Tackle Camp.
Rice said he first developed a fondness for the DeMatteos when Tony DeMatteo told him he was “a special talent” as a young high school player.
“Now I consider myself like one of coach DeMatteo’s sons, so when he calls and says I have a kid who is just as talented as you and he needs somebody who can max out his potential, I’m going to be there,” Rice said.
Rice met with Horne for over an hour in DeMatteo’s office. They discussed everything from his workout regimen to growing up without a father. Of course, that also meant time spent reliving his NFL success and his personal downfall.
Rice, who routinely counsels New Rochelle athletes, delivered similar messages in June to rookies on the Baltimore Ravens, his former team. It’s an opportunity he relishes now more than ever.
“I think that adversity I’ve been through, it wasn’t easy to overcome and I think that part of my healing process now is making sure others understand what I went through and understand the decision-making process of life,” Rice said. “I always preach to kids and now tell adults that one or two mistakes in life and your life can become a nightmare. I’ve lived both — the dream and the nightmare. The only things I have to worry about now is the finishing chapter. The finishing chapter for me is giving back to the youth and letting people know my story. When I have a moment where I can speak to a kid one-on-one, I have everything I need in that moment. I don’t have the lights or the cameras. I don’t have 70,000 fans. It was me and Messiah in that classroom. It was a powerful moment. And I think that shows how powerful a message can be.”
Horne’s willingness to accept that message has transformed him into a workout fiend and even led the 73-year-old DeMatteo to alter his Wing-T offense. The coach has rarely adjusted his schemes to feature one back, but Horne’s talent has led to the Tuskers installing single-back formations. They will also run plays out of the shotgun for the first time since DeMatteo arrived at Somers in 2000.
“Last year we were in a little of this one-back stuff, but it was on the fly. I did it out of necessity,” DeMatteo said. “This year I’m doing it because he’s that much better than everybody else.”
Rice saw it, too. Anthony DeMatteo texted him some of Horne’s highlights, and Rice said he was impressed. His advice focused more on the fundamentals of success than anything Horne could do on the field to improve.
“I told him, ‘In high school, your’e probably a little bit bigger than I was. You look at me and we size each other up, so what does that tell you? Size doesn’t matter,'” Rice said. “I said, ‘There are some things that you can take care of along the way, like hard work and dedication. Those are some of the things that can separate you from the rest.’ And he has it.”