NEW ROCHELLE, NY -- When the Baltimore Ravens face off against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII this Sunday in New Orleans, Port Chester, NY teen Odele Alexander Jr., 17, will be watching with special interest after a phone call from Ravens All-Pro Ray Rice, a call six weeks ago that changed his life.
Odele's story has been described as "complicated". He grew up in a difficult family situation. He lived most of his life under foster care through the Westchester County Department of Social Services (WCDSS).
O'D, as he is known to his friends, has long considered Rice a source of hope and inspiration.
WCDSS staff speak glowingly of O'D. They know him as a young man who has persevered over tough odds, searching deep within himself and remained positive, optimistic and upbeat.
O'D's personal motto is "I live for today, Can’t worry about yesterday.”
O'D has put a lot of that positive energy into football. As a youth he played in the Pop Warner League in Port Chester, NY. Football became his passion and outlet. He loves being part of a team and the sportsmanship that comes with it. As he grew older, O'D settled on playing running back like Rice. He joined the Port Chester High School football team where he plays running back for the Rams. He dreams of following in Rice's footsteps and playing in the NFL someday.
Last fall O'D suffered a tremendous personal loss. Leslie Farucci, his WCDSS caseworker, soon after noticed a change in O'D. His normal enthusiasm just wan't there. She became worried.
Farucci works in the WCDSS Foster Care and Preventative Services Unit in White Plains, NY. She has worked in the foster care system protecting kids for more than 20 years.
"I have known O'D for a long time," Farucci says. "I want to do everything I can to give this kid an opportunity to succeed in life."
She sensed O'D was losing direction and focus. She knew he needed something to help him stay motivated and on track. She wanted to give O'D a special “once in a lifetime” experience. She was looking for a miracle.
She discussed the situation with John Eforo, her Supervisor at WCDSS. Eforo was also close to O'D. Farucci and Eforo came up with a plan; find a way to give O'D something he would never forget, a chance to speak with his idol. They became determined to make it happen.
They both realized that O'D admired Rice not just as a great player but for what Rice had been through in his own childhood and how Rice had persevered and eventually triumphed.
Rice had his own struggles growing up in New Rochelle, NY. Rice's father was shot and killed when Ray was just one year old. Ray's cousin was close to Ray and mentored him but when Ray was 12 his cousin was killed by a drunk driver. Ray's mother raised four children as a single-parent.
Farucci shared her concerns about O'D with this reporter who in turn reached out to the New Rochelle community for help.
Just a few weeks later came devastating news. John Eforo died unexpectedly.
Farucci was very concerned for O'D, fearing this might be the final straw.
Efforts to connect O'D with Rice intensified.
A special education teacher from the New Rochelle School District, Dr. Maria Cox, got involved. She reached out to Nina Gainor of the New Rochelle Parks and Recreation Department.
Gainor has long been close to Ray Rice and his family through youth sports programs in New Rochelle. Gainor made contact with Rice. She told Ray about O'D. Rice did not need further prompting. The conspirators came together and all the arrangements were made to give O'D a moment he would not soon forget.
The call came on December 11th.
O'D was at wrestling practice in the school gym when he was told that Leslie Farucci wants to see him. He found Farucci in a school office down the hall with a big smile on her face.
"I have an early Christmas present for you," she said.
She handed her phone to O'D.
"It's Ray Rice, for you," she said.
Too stunned for words, O'D carefully took the phone and put it up to his ear.
"Hello?" said O'D, cautiously.
For the next 15 minutes O'D and Ray Rice talked football and life. They talked about the Ravens, football training, and the importance of working hard in school. During the call, Rice offered to meet up with O'D after end of the season. Rice invited him to be his guest at Ray Rice Day in New Rochelle this coming summer.
When the call finally came to an end, O'D was ecstatic.
“I cannot believe this just happened" said O'D. "I just can't wrap my head around this. I cannot believe Ray Rice called me.”
O'D felt transformed by the call.
"Oh my God," he said. "I just can't believe this. I can’t even feel my body right now, I can't believe this."
For Farucci, the call was an answer to a prayer. Since that moment, O'D's has a renewed positive attitude, his grades are up, and he is convinced his life has taken an unexpected turn for the better.
As the days count down to Sunday, O'D is looking forward to meeting Ray Rice in person but happy to wait an another week if that week means waiting for Ray Rice, his friend, to play in the Super Bowl.
A final personal comment. Having played my part in helping to bring O'D and Ray together, I want to express my thanks to the two of them and all those responsible. I’ve cried from joy before- but nothing like this Ray's selfless act to help a struggling man he never met is beyond commendable. His interest in O'D was genuine and heartfelt. It was 15 minutes out of his busy day but a life-defining moment for the kid on the other end of the phone. O'D's willingness to accept the help of others, to let the rest of us see his reaction and hear his voice after he spoke to Ray is something I will not soon forget and for which I am grateful.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Be sure to watch Ray Rice in Super Bowl XLVII. The NFL Super Bowl XLVII Pre-game show starts at 6pm ET on Sunday February 3rd. Alicia Keys will sing our National Anthem just before the 6:30 PM ET kick-off on CBS when Rice's Baltimore Ravens take on the San Francisco 49ers.