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Mercy . . . is for the weak

This was hell.

This was where my soul, which once belonged to a decent athlete, went to pay penance for its fall from grace.

At some moment of delusional bravado, a 37-year-old reporter (that's me) who has had a long-standing love affair with ice cream, thought it would be wise to spend three days in Phoenix trying to figure out what makes Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice so effective.

So despite not doing anything competitive in about seven years, I figured I could run, lift, work out and play ball for three straight days with a man known for his unbelievable stamina.

Two words come to mind: Baker Act.

The insanity began late last season when Rice was named NFC defensive player of the month for November. Not surprisingly, when the announcement was made, after 7 on a Thursday night, Rice was the only player left at the training facility, and I asked him how he did it.

"Come (to Phoenix in the offseason) and see how I do it," he said. "Do everything I do, then you'll know."

Now, I know.

Thanks to Rice, I have a deeper respect for what it takes to become an elite athlete and, more important, to stay one. I have a profound regard for the limits of the human body and the capabilities of the mind.

We entered Rodriguez Boxing Club, and Rice's boxing trainer, a former professional named Earl Butler, began the process of taping my wrists. I imagined the blaring music, the pouring sweat and the thousands of adoring fans chanting at ringside. I was going to shuffle and dance and throw a couple harmless jabs, look pretty doing it and call that a wrap.

Wrong! Boxing workouts aren't cruel, they are medieval.

I could barely last three rounds. One minute into the fourth round, my legs were weak, my arms couldn't throw a punch and my heart was waving the white flag, or at least throwing in the white towel.

"Come on, Mr. Reporter," Butler scoffed, "we're just beginning."

I thought I would exact revenge on the heavy bag. After all, I could smash the sand out of that sucker, and he wouldn't fire back, right? Wrong again. Conveniently, no one remembered to tell me heavy bags are more than 150 pounds and that, according to a certain law of physics, every force is met with an equal and opposite force.

Then, the most humbling moment.

"Spar? Hey, hey, hey wait a minute Simeon, you didn't say anything about sparring," I squealed.

"Don't worry," Butler said, "I won't hit back."

It began with some jabs, a few upper cuts, lefts and rights and finally Butler begged me to throw a real punch. Of course, I had been doing so for three rounds.

I gave him everything I had. My hardest straight right landed squarely above his right eye and, in my world, it would have floored Goliath.

"Sorry Earl," I said and immediately stopped.

"For what?" he asked. "Box!"

Lesson learned? In boxing, speed is power. Hit fast so you can hit again.

Now, on to the basketball court.

The day before, I lost a game of one-on-one to Rice by the score of 11-3 and felt proud of scoring three points. Problem was, I talked some trash at the lunch table.

This time, Rice brought his A game. He never smiled. He never let me get off a shot. He predicted I would not score a point, and he was right _ 11-0, 11-0, 11-0.

I couldn't let him post up because, at 6 feet 5, 260 pounds, he'd dunk on my head every time. So, I had to give him the outside shot. At one point, he hit six consecutive three-pointers.

"I don't want to lose (to you)," Rice later said. "I don't just want to win, I want to kill you. There's nothing you can do. It makes no difference if you're 8 years old, 28 years old or 88 years old, if it comes to that, I'll destroy you."

Lesson learned? Get an outside shot and learn to play defense.

Then, there was The Hill. On this almost 40-degree incline, 600-meter paved road that led to a water tower, Phoenix's top professional athletes frequently gather to do a series of uphill sprints.

Rice did 10, I did three, okay 2 1/2, and learned painfully that there's one good thing about running uphill _ you don't have to fall too far to hit the ground.

Lesson learned? Lean far forward when sprinting so that gravity is on your side.

On the third day, when getting out of bed was an act of resurrection, Rice came up with this brilliant idea that after working on a series of 15 wind sprints, we were going to do this contact drill.

He made a square with four cones, each about 15 feet apart. My job was to stand on one cone and find a way, by any means necessary, to get to the cone diagonally opposite.

The goal was to use hands, strength and quickness, which meant I had no chance. Rice routinely slammed me to the ground or just stuck his arm out to my chest, giving me the feeling that I was being impaled.

Rice punished me for thinking that I had a chance. He cut me no slack. Not on the court, in the ring, in the weight room or on The Hill.

If this is what it takes to earn $20-million in upfront money, then here's one vote to pay the man every cent.

One final thought, Mr. 23.5-sacks-in-your-last -22-regular-season-games, let's see you write a newspaper story, in 30 minutes, on deadline, for 350,000 readers, after a Monday Night Football game.

Huh?

Yeah, that's what I thought!

Staff writer Roger Mills, left, felt the full brunt of Rice's ultra-competitive spirit.

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