It all happened so fast in overtime of the 5A heavyweight state championship match.
Rock Hill’s Devon Rice stood and let out a roar over the cheering crowd. Everyone left in the Anderson Civic Center was watching Rice because his match was the final one of the two-day 2019 SCHSL individual tournament.
“This is mine,” Rice screamed, pointing at the mat after a 6-3 sudden death victory that gave him the title.
Rock Hill coach Cain Beard, who has sat in the corner chair for dozens of individual state championship victories, said he won’t forget the scream.
And Judy Pitts, Rice’s mother, couldn’t stop crying. She said this week that reaction even surprised her.
After the match, Rice was trying to write down his phone number for someone but his hands wouldn’t stop shaking. He wanted to text friends, relatives, anyone about his state title victory, but he couldn’t keep the phone still.
A few days later, the 6-foot-2, 265-pound senior still seemed in shock.
“I actually won,” he said this week, seated in Beard’s office.
‘Working with what I’ve got’
Rice has only wrestled on an organized team for two years. Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that Rice’s natural physical gifts were obvious, but that his unusual work ethic put him over the top.
Where does Rice’s work ethic come from? Where does his imposing physique come from?
Hard to say.
“It’s just in there,” Rice said.
Rice was two years old when Judy Pitts and Libby Rice came into the picture. They adopted him and his half sister, Shawna, from Louisiana. At one point, Pitts and Rice ended up with eight adopted children, almost by accident. Every time they began the adoption process for one child, there was almost always another one, often a sibling, closely connected. Pitts and Brice would end up adopting that child too.
Rice doesn’t know his father, and his biological mother gave him up for adoption early in his life.
How much do they know about the first two years of Rice’s life?
“Not a lot, honestly,” said Pitts.
“I just know I’m here... working with what I’ve got,” Rice said.
Change of scenery
Pitts and Brice split up after seven years and shortly after that, Pitts’ job transferred from Georgia to Rock Hill. About a year later, Rice and two of his adopted brothers joined her in South Carolina.
Rice wasn’t performing well academically in Georgia. He has attention deficit disorder and it can feel like a colossal undertaking to even commence math homework. He’s not always performed well in school and was really struggling his sophomore year at Perry High School in Warner Robins, Ga.
“It wasn’t clicking, needed a new change of scenery,” said Rice.
Rice hadn’t played high school sports because of his poor grades. He had a short-lived stint with the Perry wrestling team but that was the extent of his prep career until he arrived in Rock Hill.
But wrestling had a natural appeal to Rice. He was the fifth of six boys adopted by Pitts and Brice.
“Raising a bunch of boys was like having a pack of puppies,” Pitts said. “They were just rolling and tumbling and wrestling and pushing each other all the time. They were a very close little bunch. They always had a brother around and their brothers were their best friends growing up.”
No surprise, Pitts said that Rice has always preferred being part of a team. When he arrived at Rock Hill High, he joined the football team and immediately became a contributor on the Bearcats’ offensive line. But he had his eye on wrestling, too.
“I heard Rock Hill wrestling is where it’s at,” said Rice. “I thought, ‘maybe I could be great, I could be good.’ Got my grades right and the door opened for me to step on the mat.”
Headed into the 2017-18 season, Beard thought he had a potential state qualifier at heavyweight in Jose Nunez. And he figured he had a project in this new kid, Rice.
But Nunez broke his hand midway through the year, and the project was forced into the starting lineup.
“What happened over the next six weeks was nothing short of phenomenal,” said Beard. “We went from us thinking, ‘hey, he needs time, some mat time,’ to over that six-week period, every time the kid went out on the mat he got better.”
Rice finished his junior season 29-11 and qualified for the state tournament. He also helped the Bearcats overcome Nunez’s absence in the lineup and win the team’s 19th dual state championship.
But Rice wasn’t sure he would continue wrestling as a senior. When he received his dual state championship ring, “33-35” was inscribed on the underside. Rice thought he’d had a terrible junior season, thought 33-35 was his individual record. It wasn’t until Rock Hill High’s Senior Night last month, when his junior year record (29-11) was read aloud to the crowd, that Rice realized “33-35” was the score of the Bearcats’ championship win over Fort Dorchester.
Beard obviously talked Rice into wrestling this season, convincing him that he needed to raise his goals beyond just individual state tournament qualification. Rice was motivated, increasingly believing as the weeks passed that he could win a state title.
The sport brought him out of his shell a bit, too. Wrestling (and football) helped Rice adjust to his new town, new school. And once he made that adjustment, he became a force for good in the Bearcat wrestling room.
Prior to a practice before the Fort Mill match in January, Rice erupted on a few teammates that were goofing around.
Rice was the biggest guy in the room, well-liked, a senior, and at that point, still undefeated. Yeah, teammates were willing to listen to what he had to say.
“We had wanted that,” said Rock Hill assistant coach Ryan Whitmore.
“We talked to him, ‘hey, you can make this your team,’” said Beard. “For him to do that was really positive.”
Rice’s undefeated run continued into the Upper State individual tournament. He entered the event 56-0 and ranked No. 1 among 5A heavyweights. He advanced to the final where he met Spartanburg’s Malik Shuler, a taller and heavier opponent that he didn’t know much about.
Rice took two risky shots during the match.
By the end of the first period of most of his previous 56 matches, Rice had registered a takedown. He didn’t have one yet against Shuler and was getting antsy. That prompted the first ill-advised shot, near the end of the first period. Shuler deflected Rice’s advance and scored on the reversal.
The second one was near the end of the match, when Rice, trailing by a point, got impatient again. Shuler fought off Rice’s shot, got the points, and the win, 4-2.
“If you’re gonna take a shot, take a shot with a purpose,” said Rice. “Mine was a shot in the dark.”
Shuler won the Upper State title and Rice took his first “L” of the season. Rice had gotten away from his style of wrestling and it cost him.
“I wasn’t mad. In my mind I thought, ‘I gave him the match, I hurt myself. He didn’t do it to me,’” said Rice. “But then again I was glad I lost now, instead of the following weekend. Now I have a chance to learn from my mistakes.
“I knew I would see him again.”
Rice was right. Two wins at the 5A state tournament put Rice in the heavyweight state final against Shuler.
“I was zoned, I was ready,” Rice said.
This time, Shuler took the risky shots. And Rice, belying his relative inexperience, was the patient wrestler. The match went to overtime, tied 3-3, when Rice evaded a Shuler shot to score. A stalling call added two more points. The Bearcat was a 6-3 sudden death winner, a state champion. Talking about the moment a couple days later, he just shook his head and smiled.
“For him to be 61-1 and win a state title in Year 2, you just don’t hear about it,” said Beard. “Says a lot about him as a person and as a worker.”
“I burst into tears, which really surprised me,” said Pitts. “But I was just so happy for him, and to see him going crazy was… I don’t know. It made me feel good.”
The reason why
Did Rice ever consider himself really good at anything else, in the way he is at wrestling?
“No, not really,” he said.
Rice’s adopted mothers gave him family and stability he otherwise may have never experienced. But playing team sports the last two years of high school has also changed Rice’s life.
“He’s not the world’s best student,” said Pitts. “But playing football and wrestling, it has given him a place to be great. It’s given him a place to be one of the best. And that’s been good for him.”
Wrestling gave him two state championship rings. It also gave him self-belief. And a more promising future. Beard said that Rice has college recruiting interest from a number of schools in the Carolinas, and that he may even play football and wrestle at the collegiate level.
Pitts said that Rice has the information he needs to find his mother. And Rice said he’s looked at her Facebook page.
“I would like to get to know her, ask her why I was given up because I have no clue, I was so young,” he said. “Everything’s done for a reason. I would just like to know the reason why.”
Rice isn’t sure when -- or even if -- he’ll ever be ready for those answers. But there may be some other things to learn, too.
Like, where did his strength and athleticism come from? Do genetic roots lay beneath his thoughtfulness, the affable personality, the big smile? What about that work ethic?
Here’s the thing, though: whether Rice decides to pursue the original source of those qualities, or not, he’ll still have them.