By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The South Carolina native whose left leg launched countless footballs into orbit will be back at Scott Stadium this weekend.
Will Brice will have his jersey retired at halftime of UVa’s game with ACC rival Miami on Saturday afternoon. He’ll be the 15th former Cavalier to be so honored.
“I’m still at a loss for words,” Brice, 36, said by phone from Lancaster, S.C., where he was born, raised and still lives.
“There’s nothing that I can say to do it justice of what that means to me. You look down the list of the players that have been honored in that same manner, and I’m kind of like, ‘Wow, what am I doing in that group?’ Because it’s an all-star list of guys. So I’m extremely humbled and honored by that recognition.”
Brice is too modest. He’s widely considered the greatest punter in UVa history. He redshirted in 1992, then started the next four years for coach George Welsh, averaging 42.2 yards in ’93, 40.5 in ’94, 41.2 in ’95 and 44.7 in ’96.
“They were high and they were long,” Welsh said this week when asked about Brice’s punts.
In 1995, Brice, who stood 6-4, became to the first specialist from UVa to be named a first-team All-American. He was named all-ACC four times: twice to the first team and twice to the second.
“He helped us win a lot of games,” Welsh said. “He had a great knack of punting from around the 50-yard line and putting it out at the 10. I don’t know how he did it.”
Most memorable was Brice’s performance against second-ranked Florida State on Nov. 2, 1995. That was the night UVa, before a frenzied sellout crowd at Scott Stadium (and an ESPN audience), dealt the Seminoles their first-ever ACC defeat.
“If you had to single out one game,” Brice said, “that would certainly be it.”
On his eight punts against FSU, Brice averaged 47.1 yards. Four times he pinned the ‘Noles inside their 10-yard line.
“He probably was the player of the game because of the way he changed the field position multiple times for us that night,” recalled Anthony Poindexter, who played with Brice in 1995 and ’96.
Brice said: “I don’t know when they started the Thursday night games, but I think that was in one of the first years of Thursday night football, which now has become such a huge tradition. I can remember like it was yesterday coming out of the locker room for warm-ups and seeing how many people were already in the stands. The excitement and the atmosphere were just amazing that night.”
As a sophomore, Brice had a 78-yard punt against Georgia Tech and a 70-yarder against North Carolina. As a junior, he had 17 punts of at least 50 yards, including a 64-yarder, and 26 times he pinned opponents inside their 20.
“Tremendous weapon,” said Poindexter, a former All-America safety who’s now an assistant on first-year coach Mike London’s staff at UVa. “When a guy is kicking like Jimmy [Howell] is now and like Will did in years past, they’re the team’s best friend, really.”
Brice’s teammates at UVa included London’s younger brother, Paul, a starting safety. Brice never has met Mike London but hopes to do so this weekend.
“I really do,” Brice said. “I know he’ll be busy. From everything I’ve seen and read about him, I tell you, he seems like an amazing guy, and I know UVa is very fortunate to have him.”
Brice didn’t follow an easy path at UVa. He majored in civil engineering. He got support from other football players in the E-School: Charles Way, Tom Burns, Sam McKiver and Kyle Kirkeide.
“That was a big help,” Brice said, “having teammates that were in it, because it was a huge commitment to be able to try to make it and do the classroom work and the football-related things.”
After graduating in 1997, Brice pursued an NFL career for five years. He punted in two seasons: in ’97 for the Rams and in ’99 for the Bengals.
He was talented enough, Brice believes, to have had a long, successful pro career. “So it was disappointing,” he said, “but it’s so much being in the right place at the right time.
“When I had an opportunity, I wasn’t performing like I should. And I felt like when I was performing at a high level, the door just wasn’t open. The stars didn’t line up.
“So much of it is timing. I really believe that, especially with punters and kickers. You never know when somebody’s looking at you, and it may be your one shot. And you might make 95 percent of your field goals, and you might miss that one that was your one shot.”
Poindexter said: “I wish he could have stuck longer [in the NFL], but we all wish we could have played a little bit longer. He was a great punter here, and I learned a lot from him, just watching the way he went about his business, the way he went about preparing for the game.”
Brice and his wife, Dabney, have three children: sons Blake, 6, and Carson, 4, and daughter Kenney, who recently turned 1.
The family hopes to arrive in Charlottesville early Friday afternoon, said Brice, who doesn’t get back to UVa as often as he would like.
“My oldest is playing soccer, and I coach him, so they play on the weekends,” Brice said. “But they enjoy coming, and they’re excited about coming up there this weekend.”
When he’s not with his family, Brice works as a senior project manager for Perception Builders, a general contracting company in Lancaster. Its owner is a longtime friend of Brice who grew up in Lancaster and graduated from Clemson.
“I kind of helped him out off and on in between my pro career, then came back and went to work for him,” Brice said. “So I’ve been working with him now for the past probably 10 years.”
It’s been nearly 15 years since his UVa career ended. On teams that went to four bowl games, Brice played for a Hall of Fame coach in Welsh and with such standouts as Poindexter, Way, Mike Frederick, Tyrone Davis, Tiki and Ronde Barber, Patrick Jeffers, Germane Crowell, Mike Groh, James Farrior, Jamie Sharper, Percy Ellsworth and Rafael Garcia.
“That was my most memorable experience as far as football goes,” Brice said, “the overwhelming amount of talent I think we had.”
The ceremony Saturday will cement Brice’s status as one of those all-time greats.
“Certainly it means the world to me,” he said. “I was thankful to be able to give anything back to the University, because it’s given me so much.”