Shortly after the season started, former coach Elmar Bolowich gave Rice bad news.
“I hadn’t seen any playing time in any games,” Rice said. “The issue came up in a meeting with (Bolowich) and he was like, ‘I’m going to redshirt you.’
“At the time I was frustrated and was like, ‘You know I really want to play,’ but as I thought more about it, I thought this could really be something that could work out for me academically.”
Rice started to focus more on his schoolwork and found himself taking a pretty heavy course load during the spring semester of his freshman year.
“I was in a bunch of heavy (computer science) classes that required pulling all-nighters programming,” Rice said. “I had a couple practices in the spring where I just didn’t do very well.
“One day after practice (Bolowich) says, ‘Josh, can we talk in my office after practice?’ and I was like ‘Oh, OK, sounds good,’ and he said, ‘I don’t see you fitting in very well. You might want to look at transferring.’”
Being redshirted one semester and then asked to transfer the next might be the breaking point for many college athletes — but not for Rice.
“I was like, ‘No, I’m going to do everything that I can. I love UNC,’” Rice said. “It’s not even an option. I’m going to fight to get a starting spot.
“I just looked him in the eye and said, ‘I don’t know how you can say that, you’ve never given me a chance.’”
Bolowich told Rice he liked his mentality but that he needed to prove he deserved a spot on the team.
And that’s exactly what he did.
Since hearing Bolowich’s words, Rice made a point to prove he belonged on the field, each and every time he set foot on it.
“From that point on I really turned up the volume,” Rice said. “Every practice I was hungry. I was out there to get something.”
Rice got what he was looking for during a spring seven-v.-seven practice.
“I had one practice where we did a small-sided game and I think I had seven goals. It was like every time I touched the ball it went in.”
He was playing forward for the first time in his life.
And for the first time in his collegiate career, Rice was starting up top, alongside Billy Schuler.
Rice got more playing time and had a bit of success the remainder of the spring.
Then during the summer, he scored five goals in five games with the Carolina Dynamo club team.
Things finally seemed to be turning around for him.
Setback after setback
Rice continued to get more playing time in the early part of his redshirt freshman season, his second year in Chapel Hill.
But injuries continued to haunt him, and he was unable to finish the season.
During the summer before his redshirt freshman year, Rice had surgery to remove an extra bone in his ankle — a condition called Os Trigonum syndrome.
The next spring, he had to have his other ankle operated on.
And then to top it all off, Rice also suffered from a sports hernia — a soft tissue injury that occurs in the groin area.
He missed the entire spring season of his redshirt freshman year.
And after playing 15 games as a redshirt sophomore, Rice hoped his redshirt junior season — his fourth year at UNC — would get off to a better start.
But that wasn’t the case.
Rice tore both of his hamstrings and was limited to only five appearances all year.
And now, in his fifth year at UNC, Rice has sustained another injury — something he’s grown accustomed to doing. But in his final season, he is fighting through a second hernia in order to make sure he stays on the field.
“It’s really tough,” he said, looking back on all of the injuries. “It’s tougher than you think.
“Not only do you still have to go to all of the practices and help — you have to be in the training room an hour and a half before practice and in some cases after practice. And then it’s the mental thing too. You’re sitting there watching when you really want to be playing.”
Getting his due
Just like when he was asked to transfer back during his freshman year, Rice is adept at using adversity to help motivate and encourage himself.
“I’m pretty good at turning negative energy into positive energy,” he said.
David Walden, a junior midfielder at UNC who also played with Rice on their high school club team — the Richmond Strikers — echoes that statement.
“I’ve probably known Josh since my sophomore year of high school,” Walden said. “He’s very passionate about whatever he decides to do.
“He would definitely try and turn a negative into a positive, whatever his setback was, he would spin it into a positive light and pull good from it.”
It’s taken four long years, but Rice finally seems to be taking hold of those positives this season.
He’s started each of the team’s 10 games this season and has earned the praise of his coach.
“I thought he’s played well this year,” coach Carlos Somoano said after the Wake Forest game. “He’s done a lot of things for us. He’s been working very hard, and he’s been doing a lot of things well.
“I’m glad he finally got a reward for what he’s putting into it and I’m hoping that can spark momentum for him going forward.”
With everything Rice has been through, he sees himself as a player who can show others how to keep grinding, how to keep working for what they want.
“I think I serve as a model of somebody that was given feedback that the level wasn’t good enough and was able to push through it,” Rice said. “And a lot of people don’t end up pushing through it.
“It’s difficult right? You really have to be persistent … keep putting in the hard work and it will eventually pay off.”