Ray Rice was a child when his mother, Janet Rice, told him he was the man of the house.
She didn't tell him in jest, like maybe you've heard when your father leaves for a business trip. Janet was serious.
Ray's father was gunned down in a drive-by shooting when he was 1 year old. Ten years later, his caretaking cousin and father figure died in a car crash.
The Rice family was living on public assistance in an apartment in New Rochelle, N.Y., in a part of the projects called "The Hollow." It wasn't where you heard gun shots at night. That was just on the other side of town.
So when Ray was dubbed the man of the house, he took his newfound duty seriously. And he hasn't relented in that duty to this day.
When he was 8 years old, Ray swept up hair in a barbershop for dollar tips. He worked in a catering hall washing dishes and when he was 15 he took a job as a summer camp counselor.
Janet remembers one day when he came home with $150 at the end of a work week. He took the cash out of his pocket and gave it to his mother. It was his contribution.
"He was so proud," Janet remembers. "Ray stepped into some big shoes at a very early age. He was a man before he was a boy."
Slowly, Ray has learned more and more about his father, Calvin Reed.
Janet has a color snapshot, which serves as the only means by which Ray knows what his father looked like. There are stories in which he has learned that he was a respectable man with a respectable job.
These things are comforting to Ray because the reason he never got to know his father is extremely uncomfortable.
In the summer of 1988, a car rolled past Reed as he was walking home from work. Shots were fired and Reed died there on the sidewalk.
Three years later, when the gunman was convicted and sent to prison, it was revealed that Reed wasn't the target. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"Sometimes you wonder what it would be like to have your real dad," Ray said. "Just for a walk in the park or just recapping our lives. That's the part that makes me think."
A few years later, Rice's aunt died of brain cancer at 37 years old. Her son, Shaun Rice-Nichols, moved up three floors in their apartment complex to live with Janet and Ray.
Treated like a son by Janet, Shaun was a father figure to Ray, who was 10 years younger. They did everything together, from Ray's favorite (playing sports), to Shaun's favorite (rapping in front of the mirror).
Shaun was an up-and-coming rap artist known as S.U.P.E., which stood for Spiritually Uplifting People Everywhere. He sang about inspiring people and guiding them in the right direction despite their tough surroundings.
Shaun would always tell Ray to go for his dreams, to pursue them with extreme passion. After all, Shaun was proof that even a kid from the projects could make it.
At about 21 years old, Shaun signed his first record deal and moved with his fiancée and two young daughters to California to pursue his music career.
"He was the one in the family where if he wanted something he went after it and he got it," Ray said. "He was the first one the family was really proud of."
But Shaun's dreams ended on a road in California on March 21, 1998. That's when a driver, swerving to avoid another car during the early hours of St. Patrick's Day, plowed into Shaun's compact car. His fiancée died on the scene, and Shaun passed away four days later.
"That was rough, really rough. But I believe today he's still here," Ray said. "My family is different. When he died, in a sense some of my family died. Everybody just changed for a little bit."
Just 11 years old at the time, Ray didn't change. He just became even more obsessive about continuing the mission that Shaun began for his family, he says.
Ray still carries Shaun close to him at all times. He has Shaun's name, S.U.P.E., tattooed on his right biceps and he carries his memories of him onto the football field.
"I'm in his place now," Ray said. "I made it to the NFL, but that's not enough. It's about my family and I'm trying to gel everyone together."
"I believe in my dream and I chase my dream like S.U.P.E. chased his dream. He didn't get a chance to finish his dream. I want to finish my dream."
One day after football practice during his 11th grade season, Ray stared out of the apartment window as his mother ran him a hot bath, pouring in Epsom salt to ease his sore muscles.
"Ma, I'm going to the league," Ray said. "I've got to make it to the league. I'll be glad when I can tell you, 'You don't have to work no more.'"
Janet lived her whole life in The Hollow. She sometimes worked two jobs trying to make ends meet while doing her best to spoil Rice and his three younger siblings.
Besides the time she spends doting on her own kids, she has dedicated her career to teaching special needs children, a calling that shows her heart is bigger than the 4-foot-11 body it lives in.
Ray decided early on in life that his mother needed help. And since then, a large part of his mission has been to use his passion of football to give her a different life.
Ray was a two-sport star at New Rochelle High School. He played point guard for his basketball team, leading them to the state finals in 2003-2004. On the football field, he scored 31 touchdowns as a senior and was named to the Madison Square Garden's All-Heisman team.
Ray then became a college football legend in the New York-New Jersey area, rejuvenating Rutgers' football program and leading the team to a miraculous upset win over previously-undefeated Louisville in 2007.
Right before being interviewed by ESPN on national television that night, with the cameras rolling, Rice stopped and called out, "Where's my mother?" He was worried about her being trampled by the students streaming onto the field.
Despite her son being drafted, nearly leading the NFL in total yardage last year and being named to the Pro Bowl in just his second season, those words on ESPN serve as Janet's favorite football memory for the sheer fact that it shows how much her son cares about her.
Ray and Janet still talk on the phone every single morning at around 6 a.m. while Janet is cooking breakfast for her children. They talk about everything, from football to girls.
"I'm more than just his mother," Janet said. "I'm his best friend. We laugh, we giggle. We have so much fun together."
In large part, Ray's success has already allowed him to take care of his family. His mother drives a new Lexus and now lives in a safe, waterfront property just about 15 minutes from their old apartment.
But Janet still goes to her job at school, still caring for special needs children.
"I've got one more phase left," Ray said. "It will be her choice whether she wants to work. I want her to fulfill what she wasn't able to just raising us. I want her to enjoy herself.
"Mom and I have been through a lot, so right now it's a time where we just get to enjoy this moment in each others' lives."
Now enjoying the spoils of the NFL, it's easy for Janet to see that Ray is now freer to be himself – a 23-year-old boy.
Ray is the smiling, laughing jokester in the Ravens' locker room, constantly goofing around with his teammates while always pushing them and himself to improve. He lives by the S.U.P.E. principals, to always uplift those around you.
"When adversity struck it didn't deter me from being great," Ray said. "It fueled me. It fueled me to be a person that wanted to leave his mark."