STANFORD, Calif. -- A woman in a red dress is power-walking through the Stanford University campus. It's a Thursday morning. She's running late.
Condoleezza Rice reaches the door of the Hoover Institution, the foreign-policy think tank that launched her career. She's been a pianist, a provost and the U.S. Secretary of State. She left the White House eight months ago. Rice spends hours now at a computer, writing her memoirs when she's being productive and, when she's not, exchanging e-mails with former President George W. Bush. Life can move slowly. The best part is that no one usually notices.
Rice reaches for the door, fumbling with a phone, her keys and a handbag the size of a newborn.
"I've never been a very good long-term planner," the 54-year-old says. "If I was a good long-term planner, I would still be in music. I've always let life unfold and then take whatever the next most-interesting thing is."
She's a political science professor now, away from Washington and politics, but there's another high-profile career that interests her. The industry has held her attention since she was a girl in segregation-era Alabama. Decades have passed, but this hasn't changed: The job she's always wanted is in the NFL.
Rice was linked last year with a high-level position with the San Francisco 49ers, but it never materialized. For now, she's in her office at Stanford. It's filled with photographs of Rice with President Bush, cards from Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices, even a fist-sized chunk of Saddam Hussein's toppled palace.
But the centerpiece is a shrine to the NFL: six footballs, four helmets, a Pro Bowl ticket stub and a mounted New York Times article. The story says that Rice once influenced America, and someday she'll influence the NFL.
"I have jokingly said that I'd love to be commissioner of the NFL," Rice says, "or president of a team."
She pauses and smiles.
"Half-jokingly," she says.
Dinner was finished, and the dishes were clean. It was football time in Birmingham. Condi was 6 or 7 when the games started, one-on-one football against her father, the Rev. John Rice. On the day after Thanksgiving, their front yard was a football field. Condi got the ball first, and if she couldn't run past her dad without being tagged, it was John's turn. They called it the Rice Bowl.
"An old tomboy," she says now. "It wasn't really proper for a little Southern girl."
But John Rice loved football, and he wanted his only child to love the game as he did. He'd been a football coach and athletic director, but there was something else: John knew football could distract his daughter from the violence and discrimination surrounding her. Birmingham wasn't paradise for middle-class blacks in the early 1960s. The South was adjusting to desegregation; some weren't ready to part with old ways.
One Sunday morning in September 1963, Condi was in church when she heard a devastating announcement: There had been a bombing at another church, 16th Street Baptist in downtown Birmingham. Four young girls were dead. Condi had attended Denise McNair's birthday party and shared dolls with her. Now, Condi heard the minister say that 11-year-old Denise was gone.
John tried to shield his family from the turmoil. He didn't march or participate in sit-ins, afraid his temper would sully a movement whose foundation was nonviolence. Instead, he camped in a cul-de-sac, ready with a shotgun if the Ku Klux Klan made the wrong turn.
When Condi asked where her dad was going, he'd change the subject, turning the conversation toward the NFL or their Saturday ritual: listening to the University of Alabama's football game on the radio. Back then, going to watch 'Bama had been Condi's dream. Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide. What could be better?
One year, Alabama was playing Auburn at Legion Field in Birmingham. Condi wanted to go. Not this year, John told his daughter. He preferred to follow the game on the radio. Condi conceded, and she enjoyed listening with her dad so much that it didn't occur to her why John had kept them home: because blacks weren't permitted at Legion Field.
"My parents never really liked to say, 'You can't do that,'." she says.
Condi's mother, Angelena, taught her to be a lady and play Brahms. John taught his daughter to read a defense and predict the screen pass. They'd sit for hours, John explaining the game and Condi absorbing it all.
Years later, the memories -- and what the game means to her -- are special.
"Just my father and me," she says.
Condi ate dinner in Denver with a group of her college friends. Several of the Broncos players were there, too. It was the late 1970s.
She'd left the South to pursue her education, and Denver felt like home. It didn't hurt that there was an NFL team there. Attending the University of Denver and hanging with the Broncos put her closer to the game. It wasn't close enough. Friends say now that she wanted to marry a football player.
In walked Broncos punt returner Rick Upchurch. He was flashy, spontaneous and unpolished -- everything Condi wasn't. And he supplied her fix: unobstructed access to the game. She was hooked.
"Total opposites," says Haven Moses, a former Broncos wide receiver who remains a friend. "That was probably the attraction."
With Upchurch as her chaperone, Condi attended games and football functions, absorbing the thoughts of her new friends. She would stoke the conversation, keeping it burning for hours. She'd learned from her father the nuance of line play, positioning and strategy. Now, she wanted to test her knowledge.
"She kind of inserted herself," Moses says. "The guys just got floored by that."
Condi asked players how football affected their personal lives and how the game was expanding. She wanted to uncover every detail. What was it like in the huddle? In the meeting rooms? On the sideline?
Condi was as close as she could get, but her relationship with Upchurch would cool. Moses and another former Broncos player, Rubin Carter, say Condi was attracted to Upchurch, but she was more attracted to the idea of dating a player. She also was turning her attention toward her career. The couple eventually split.
Condi was a member of the Broncos' circle, and she wasn't leaving. The friends kept meeting, and Condi kept asking questions.
"Once she got inside," Moses says, "she could truly understand."
Years passed, and it was becoming difficult for Condi to reserve time for the Super Bowl. Provost at a major university is a draining job, but she kept taking on more.
Condi always wanted to feel close to the game her father introduced her to, even if that meant adding another weighted ball to an overworked scale. She insisted on having input if Stanford hired a football coach, always negotiating the chosen candidate's contract.
In 1989, Condi wanted to make a splash. She believed in Dennis Green. He would go on to coach two NFL teams, but years ago, he was the first black head coach in Stanford's long and progressive history. Condi didn't miss the 49ers beating Cincinnati in that year's Super Bowl.
She didn't miss the game in 2001, either, after becoming President Bush's national security advisor. After some trying times, the President and Condi would exhale and retreat to a television, Condi joining her boss as he watched his beloved Dallas Cowboys.
But in 2005, there was a problem. Condi had just been confirmed as Secretary of State. She'd tried to schedule her trip to Israel around the Super Bowl, but it couldn't be done. Kickoff came at 2 a.m. in Jerusalem. She was going to miss the game.
After a long day, Condi set her alarm in time for kickoff. Fighting a losing battle against sleep, she kept the television on. With 11 minutes left, she awoke to watch New England stifle Philadelphia's comeback.
"Still never missed a Super Bowl," she says.
It was all she knew to try. Condi turned on the television.
It was 2000. John Rice was in the hospital, his brain damaged after suffering cardiac arrest months earlier. Visits were difficult, and conversations were impossible. Condi's mother died in 1985, and years later, John married a woman named Clara Bailey. They'd moved to California to be near Condi. As always, John's living room had been an auditorium, five sofas and a huge TV that seemed always tuned to football.
Clara had helped John sit upright to see Condi on TV during Bush's inauguration. Clara thought that if John saw his daughter, it might re-ignite his mind. Clara says now that he couldn't comprehend what he was watching.
Later, Condi stopped by and flipped through the channels. She stopped at a football game and sat next to her dad. Like they had done so many times in Birmingham, the father and daughter touched shoulders and watched a game.
When she's telling him about plays," Clara says now, "he smiled and nodded. He understands."
Weeks later, John's heart stopped again. Doctors restarted it long enough for his wife and daughter to say goodbye. Condi leaned in, crying. She asked him to say hello to her mother.
Paul Tagliabue, the former NFL commissioner, once sent Condi another football for her collection. Tagliabue was retiring, and Condi's name had been floated as a possible replacement. He signed the ball and inscribed a message: Be careful what you wish for.
Condi says that she has never underestimated any job and that she's aware of the NFL's challenges. But compared to what she experienced as Secretary of State? She's discussed genocide in Africa, forged peace in Lebanon, and calmed growing tension between Russia and Georgia. In those days, sometimes the only thing keeping her going was that Sunday was approaching.
"Sports were always sort of an escape," she says. "I always knew that the next day, or maybe the next hour, I was going to be confronting something pretty awful."
Sunday mornings were for church and a weekly call to the British foreign minister, but afternoons were for football. She'd watch her favorite team, the Cleveland Browns, studying each play.
"She knew more about the actual structure and technique of the game," former 49ers and Browns president Carmen Policy says, "than I did."
Policy and Condi had become friends when he was with San Francisco, about 30 miles from Stanford's campus. Later, Policy would invite her to speak to players. She'd tell stories of distant lands, how she was bringing football with her, and how she sometimes used sports to soften tough conversations.
"I could connect," she says, "by asking how their team was doing."
Condi says she has no delusions of becoming the NFL's commissioner. She likely missed her chance when Roger Goodell succeeded Tagliabue three years ago. At the time, Condi was at the foothills of her term as Bush's global ambassador. But now that she's left Washington, she'd like to be involved somehow.
For Condi's qualifications -- a recognized voice across the globe, a known female face as the league expands its marketing, and a passionate student of the game -- she also could face unique challenges. She was a key figure during eight controversial years alongside Bush, has little football experience, and, yes, is a woman trying to enter an old-boys' network. As of 2006, according to the Women's Sports Foundation, only 45 women held jobs at the vice-president level or higher throughout the NFL. No team has had a female president. And that's the job Condi wants.
She remembers one of her father's lessons.
"There was nothing that I ever wanted to try or do that I didn't get to," she says. "It wasn't going to matter that I was a girl."
Michael Oriard is a former NFL player who now writes books about the league. He says Condi is qualified, but he's uncertain she would be immediately accepted into a league that emphasizes tradition and tries to offend no one. A team might be reluctant to gamble on her, regardless of her skills.
"They don't want to polarize anybody over anything," Oriard says. "If they're going to get serious about globalization, having someone like Condoleezza Rice would be very good. But Bush didn't make a lot of friends around the world.
"The gender issue, that could be a bigger problem. The NFL might be reluctant to take a bold, risky step like that unless there were pretty clear signs of a tremendous payoff."
Policy, the former executive, says others have doubted Condi. He once shared a suite at a 49ers game with Condi and Dwight Clark, the longtime San Francisco wide receiver. As Condi had done so many times, she asked questions. How did he see the game changing? Where was the NFL headed? In the second half, Condi faced the field and predicted formations and situations. Policy couldn't help but laugh. Later, Clark pulled Policy aside.
"Damn," Policy remembers Clark saying. "That lady knows her stuff."
Condi sits in her office at Stanford, a lifetime of mementos surrounding her. Books on foreign policy, literature in the four languages she speaks, and more football gear than the room can hold.
She says there are dozens of footballs at her home in Palo Alto, Calif., and more trinkets hidden in her office. Condi's chief of staff, Colby Cooper, opens a cabinet and removes a Buffalo Bills workout shirt that former Stanford quarterback Trent Edwards sent as a gift.
"There's just so much," Cooper says, returning the shirt to the cabinet. "You could open a store."
Some of Condi's memories are more personal. In 2005, she was invited to flip the coin at Alabama's game against Tennessee. More than 30 years after blacks weren't allowed at Alabama games, one of the nation's most influential people finally made it inside.
Condi has never married. Her friends say she never found the one who could challenge her. Others say she never found a man who could compare to her father.
"He was just totally different," says Clara, Condi's stepmother. "It would be difficult for her to find someone who even half measured up."
Condi says she doesn't know what's in her future. She has ideas for the NFL -- improved technology, ways to ease time-zone concerns if the league goes international, methods to maintain the community feel in markets such as Green Bay and Kansas City -- but she'll keep doing what she's always done: wait for an opportunity.
In the meantime, she's writing her memoirs, focusing the book on her parents' lessons. She'll get a few pages down, be flying along, and -- there's another e-mail from Bush, reminding Condi that Texas, his favorite college football team, is primed for a big season.
"The infernal Longhorns," she says with a smile.
Condi stands and heads toward the door. Life might be slow, but that doesn't mean it's stopped. And, once again, she's running late. Where's she headed? Condi stops and extends her hand.
"We'll see," she says.