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By Brian Burnsed
A pair of Division III student-athletes can see the top of hill, yet they refuse to be thrust over.
Florina Petcu, a 37-year old former actress and Muay Thai boxing champion, recently competed as a member of Brooklyn College’s soccer and swimming teams while wrapping up her degree in creative movement, drama therapy and sports psychology.
Brian Rice, a 43-year-old who spent 25 years hopping across six continents in the Navy, is getting steady minutes coming off of the bench for Geneva College’s basketball team while pursuing a degree in community ministry.
Both came to school to get an education and jumpstart new careers. Thanks to athletics, both will leave with much more.
“It was such an amazing gift to be able to do this,” Petcu said. “I did have to make sacrifices. For me, those sacrifices are always worth it.”
Petcu, born in Romania, wasn’t allowed to play soccer in her youth. At the time, sports were solely the domain of boys, she said, though she’d routinely sneak away to kick a ball around with friends until she got caught.
She channeled her need for physical activity into a devotion to dance and acting, which brought her to America more than a decade ago. Enamored with the country, she stayed in the U.S to pursue an acting career, which was highlighted by a small role in the 2006 heist movie Inside Man, in which she traded lines with Denzel Washington.
But her need to move and to be physical never evaporated. While acting, she began a successful side career as a Muay Thai boxer and went on to win countless awards and titles, including a silver medal at the IFMA World Championships in 2007. However, unsatisfied with her accomplishments onscreen and battling the injuries that had accrued after several years of fighting, Petcu eventually sought a more stable profession.
She landed at Brooklyn College in 2011 in hopes of one day becoming a licensed therapist. While she was happy with her coursework, the commute to her gym to continue her normal training regimen grew too taxing. She was restless. On campus, she stumbled across a flier asking for students to try out for the women’s soccer team, which would be competing in its inaugural season in the fall of 2012.
Though her only experience with soccer came from watching matches with her father and those fleeting moments kicking a ball around as a child, she tried out and landed a spot on the team. Her background as a fighter made her a natural in defense, where the athleticism and mental toughness she honed in the ring superseded her lack of ball skills and soccer experience.
Though she’d shared the screen with one of the world’s most well-known actors, had performed on stage in front of hundreds and was undaunted by the risks of life as a fighter, stepping onto the pitch for her first full game was nerve-wracking.
“I will never forget my first game,” Petcu said. “I felt like a deer in the headlights. ‘What do I do now? Where do I go?’ ”
Rice, on the other hand, had been playing basketball his entire life. Though he was a starting guard for New Castle Senior High’s (Penn.) varsity team as a sophomore, he missed his junior season with an ACL tear and wasn’t able to regain form until the end of his senior season.
The late surge wasn’t enough to draw attention from college recruiters. With no offers to play basketball at the next level, Rice decided he wanted to see the world before he went to college, so he enrolled in the Navy. What Riec had intended to be a four-year stay turned into a 25-year career in which he visited more than 60 countries. He was given top-secret clearance and cannot discuss what roles he held in the military.
At 43, he was eligible for retirement. He had seen more of the world than he thought possible and knew it was time to move on. And after all that time, the dream of going to college hadn’t been snuffed out. Having dabbled in ministry during his time in the Navy, he sought out a Christian college that could prepare him for a new career.
That’s what lured him to Geneva, where he’s part of the school’s adult degree completion program after earning an associates degree in biblical studies while stationed in Italy.
Also unquenched was his thirst to play college basketball. He’d been playing throughout his time in the Navy, once squaring off against retired NBA stars like Artis Gilmore, Tiny Archibald and Bob McAdoo in an exhibition game in Spain. He recalls Gilmore easily swallowing an early finger-roll attempt, but coming back at the 7-foot-2 hall-of-famer and scoring on him soon after.
It’s that bravado that led the 43-year old to Geneva’s basketball gym for scrimmages this fall. In a preseason meeting, head coach Jeff Santarsiero suggested that Rice should test himself, and his conditioning, by playing in the regular pickup games held by members of the team and potential walk-ons. On his first day in the gym, when the large group of men in their late teens and early 20s was divided into four teams that would play on a pair of courts, he was picked last.
“Of course now my competitive juices are flowing,” Rice said. “You picked me last and you’re looking like, ‘Why is this guy out here?’ ”
Rice’s team never lost that day. The incredulity quickly morphed into respect.
“Now they’re looking at me like, ‘This guy is still running with us?’ ” Rice said. “ ‘Does he understand he’s 43?’ ”
Neither Rice nor Petcu have been novelties on their teams. Petcu stared on the back line in each of Brooklyn College’s 14 games – the team won six – this season. And while she was far from the team’s most skilled player, her teammates looked to her for advice and inspiration.
“I was their momma bear,” Petcu said. “I told them, when you’re 37, I want you to look back and if there’s something in your way that you feel like you can’t do, remember that at 37 you can do freaking anything you want.”
Rice, so far, hasn’t seen as much playing time as Petcu, but he has gotten on the court in all of Geneva’s games. Despite being only 6-foot-2, he spends most of his time playing power forward. He is averaging more than seven minutes a game and about 10 points per every 30 minutes of playing time. Like Petcu, he said his most important role on the floor is to set an example for teammates who are half his age.
“I consider myself an encourager and a motivator,” Rice said. “Some of the guys, they have the talent and the ability and I see the potential, but sometimes they can’t see their own potential.”
Rice, who will finish his degree this summer, might consider coming back next year to pursue a master’s. If he does, he said he’s not ruling out returning as a 44-year-old. His body, he said, has held up well thanks to the school’s athletic training staff and routine ice baths.
The toughest part, he insists, isn’t staying healthy, nor is it balancing work and school. Instead, it’s juggling his life as a student-athlete with his life as a husband and father. He has two daughters and works with his wife in community ministry. So he won’t be returning to the court next year unless his wife signs off on another season. If not, he said he’ll be content with this year’s long-delayed sojourn into college basketball.
Despite her soccer schedule and later joining the swim team, Petcu maintained a perfect grade-point average at Brooklyn. Swimming, she said, was even more challenging than soccer because she’d learned to swim only recently in the summer of 2012. By this winter, she’d become formidable in the backstroke and was part of a relay team that won a race.
Armed with renewed confidence from athletics, a degree and her sterling GPA, she’s planning on attending California State to pursue a master’s in clinical counseling so she can work with abuse victims. Despite her high-profile acting and fighting careers, she says she won’t forget her brief time as a student-athlete, even if it came on a much smaller stage than the ones she’d grown accustomed to in her first 36 years.
“Through this experience, I learned that I can go beyond my own limitations,” Petcu said.