The large and impatient crowd – which includes a striking number of pretty, 20-something women – is enthusiastically waiting for its hero Rice to hit the stage.
“He is so hot,” one concertgoer tells her girlfriends. “I hope we can get his attention.”
“We should throw something on stage,” replies one friend. (See Rice’s thoughts about what, exactly, women should throw onstage in the video below.)
In his dressing room, Rice is pumped up. His single “Ready, Set, Roll” has recently gone gold and is still climbing the charts. He co-wrote “Cruise,” the No. 1 smash by Florida Georgia Line. And now, finally, the crowds know who he is – and have come to see him.
“The audiences have been fantastic,” he tells PEOPLE, sipping Jack and Coke from a blue Solo cup. “When they have a lot of energy, I have a lot of energy. We feed off each other. I love those seconds before I go onstage, because I know we’re gonna have a good time.”
But behind the party boy image, the 27-year-old has a serious side, which he explores on his new album, Ignite the Night.
“I’m a young kid who’s having a good time on the road,” he says. “But as much as I like to party, I’ve been through a lot of heartache. When I was 22, I lost my dad. He was really everything to me. I’ll always carry his memory with me. So my new album has a lot of party songs, but it has some really serious parts to it, as well. It’s a tribute to my dad.”
The album was released Tuesday, which would have been his father’s 64th birthday.
Relaxed and energetic, Rice sat with PEOPLE to talk about his career – and some of the surprising facts that people might not know about him.
His promising football career ended with injury
Yes, the 6’3″, 200-lb. Rice was once 40 pounds heavier when he was a linebacker for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With dreams of playing in the NFL, Rice gave football everything he had.
“It was a fantastic experience,” he says, “I learned a lot of lessons about myself: hard work, discipline but then I tore a tendon in my ankle, to the outside of the Achilles tendon. I went through rehab and tried to come back, but I just wasn’t the same player. Mentally, I was screwed. I knew that the NFL wasn’t going to give me a shot, so it was time to move on.”
He was on a NASCAR pit crew
With football behind him, Rice turned to another dream: being part of successful NASCAR team. He joined Hendrick Motorsports. He worked with NASCAR great Jimmie Johnson‘s Cup car, and the team won two championships.
“In many ways, it was a dream come true,” says Rice. “I loved everything about it. There’s something awesome about being at the track that I just can’t explain. But I knew that my dream was to be a musician. I worked there for a few years, and then decided to follow another dream.”
He was on a reality show
Something funny happened on the way to Nashville. Rice was approached to compete on Survivor in 2010. He spent 39 days playing the game in Nicaragua, finishing second.
“I appreciate every opportunity I have had,” he says carefully. “And I don’t want to be ungrateful for anything. But I also don’t want to fight the perception that I’m just a reality star who did a TV show to further my singing career. I don’t want it to close any doors. There are people who might not give me a listen because I was on a reality show. It was a good opportunity that came at a time that I was ready for it, but it was just one part of my life.”
He is 100 percent single – but open to love
“Right now, my career is my girlfriend,” says Rice. “But that’s not to say I wouldn’t be open to a relationship with the right woman. I’m having fun, I’m young. But it won’t always be this way. I’d love to find the right girl to marry and have kids.” He pauses. “Just not right now.”
“Everything has always happened in the right timing for me,” he says. “I have had a ton of experiences that have been awesome and have made me who I am today. I wouldn’t be here without all these things happening. So I can be patient to settle down. When it happens, it happens.”