COLUMBIA — Shane Ray made quite the impression on NFL scouts this season.
He recorded 14 1/2 sacks, setting a school record and nearing the Southeastern Conference mark, and his 22 1/2 tackles for loss were third-best nationally.
The initial impression the defensive end left on Andy Hill, however, wasn’t quite as favorable.
Six year ago, when the Missouri quarterbacks coach was on a recruiting trip at Bishop Miege High School in Roeland Park, Kan., the school’s coaches pointed out a player to Hill.
“They said, ‘You remember Wendell Ray, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I played with Wendell Ray.’” said Hill, a wide receiver at Missouri in the ’80s. “They said, ‘Well that’s his son right over there. He’s a freshman.’”
Hill looked over and saw Shane Ray running sprints. Halfway through the drill, the freshman was lying on the ground vomiting.
“So my first impression was not great,” Hill said. “But I knew who he was at that point.”
Now, Hill isn’t the only one with Ray on his radar. With a consensus All-American nod and Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year award under his belt, Ray declared last week he would forgo his senior season at Missouri to enter this year’s NFL Draft.
The out-of-shape teenager didn’t get here by accident.
Sebrina Johnson certainly didn’t see this coming.
“Shane was a chunky little kid, and he was awkward,” recalled Johnson, Ray’s mother. “He had huge feet, and he was last at everything.”
Ray had the football roots. His father played football at Missouri and was drafted in the fifth round of the 1981 draft by Minnesota. The younger Ray adopted his father’s nickname: “Sting Ray.”
“He would hit guys so hard, they’d say he was stingin’ ‘em out there,” Shane Ray said earlier this season. “He’s a sting ray. I play physical. I want to hit guys, and I felt like that name just falls right on down to me.”
But the elder Ray wasn’t always in the family’s picture, and Shane Ray had quit football once before high school because of “family issues,” according to Johnson.
When Ray began school at Bishop Miege, he played for the freshman team but wasn’t loving it.
Then came the physical transformation.
The first changes came easily. Ray sprouted three to four inches the summer before his sophomore year. That’s when Ray decided to make some change on his own accord.
“Mom, I don’t want to be fat anymore,” Ray told Johnson. “I want to play football, and I want to be good.”
Fine, Johnson told 16-year-old Ray, but these changes will take some work.
She got Ray a trainer, and he began to improve his work ethic, his fitness and his agility.
“Sophomore year he had a great year,” Johnson said. “And then junior year he just exploded.”
So did their mailbox. Ray started getting recruiting letters, lots of them. Previously, Johnson was just happy Ray’s football prowess would get him a scholarship to Benedictine College, a NAIA school in Aitchison, Kan. But now the letters were coming on stationery from Notre Dame and Wisconsin and Kansas State — and, of course, Missouri. Despite a late urge to visit Notre Dame, Ray decided to stay close to home.
Still, more than anything Johnson saw the breakout as a chance for Ray to get a better college education.
“I still didn’t really grasp the level of where he would be in football,” she said.
Cub Becomes Tiger
In Johnson’s defense, not many saw this coming.
Through the first 14 games of Ray’s college career, he had no sacks to go with his 32 tackles.
Though he had made great strides physically, Ray still had some maturing to do mentally.
“It’s not about me, and that’s one thing I had to learn when I came to Mizzou — it’s one of the biggest lessons I had to learn,” Ray said. “That’s why it took so long. It’s not about one guy. It’s about the team.
“All distractions, whatever they were, I separated myself from that, just kept it away from myself, and I focused on being the best Missouri Tiger I could be.”
Ray, who was playing behind future second-round draft pick Kony Ealy, racked up 41/2 sacks during his next five games and in the Cotton Bowl made his biggest play of the season. Michael Sam, a SEC defensive player of the year himself, forced a late fourth-quarter fumble that Ray returned 73 yards for a score, clinching a win and anointing Ray as the Tigers’ newest sack king.
The departures of Sam and Ealy for the NFL no longer left a hole. Instead, there was an opportunity for Ray and rising senior Markus Golden to leave a legacy of their own.
The transition wouldn’t have been quite as smooth without Ray’s attitude shift.
“He’s developed from a guy who came in here, as most guys do, about ‘What you can do for me?’ to ‘How much can I do for this team?’” Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said.
That’s not to say there haven’t been a few hiccups. Ray missed half of Missouri’s biggest game of the season after being ejected for a targeting penalty in the SEC Championship Game. And just last week, when returning from Florida to announce his early departure for the NFL, Ray missed his flight, and the press conference had to be rescheduled twice.
“Shane’s whole life has been managed by me or Mizzou,” Johnson said with a laugh. “And on his own he had some challenges.”
Still, Ray and Golden formed the emotional core for a defense-led team that tallied 11 wins despite severe offensive struggles.
“He was probably one of the best leaders on our team the entire year,” Kuligowski said of Ray. “In the locker room, out of the locker room — not only in his play but with his motivation to our team to inspire them to great heights.”
Taking the Stage
Even in August, few saw this coming.
As hyped as Ray and Golden were entering the 2014 season, the NFL implications surrounding Ray were but mere whispers.
But as Sam had shown a year earlier, one big season could translate to a draft selection. And playing at a school that had produced eight NFL defensive linemen in the past nine years, Ray knew a big season wouldn’t go unnoticed.
“I definitely think now with all the first-round draft pick guys that we have that Mizzou is on a platform, especially for the defensive line, because of pumping those guys out,” Ray said in preseason camp. “I just think that if each guy tries to perfect his technique and just plays to the best of their ability, everybody’s gonna see that, and if a team wants you, then you have a chance to get picked up.”
Ray entered the season with hopes of matching Sam’s success from a year ago. And, point by point, he followed through.
Sam was named a consensus first-team All-American in 2013. Ray was named a consensus first-team All-American in 2014. Sam was named the SEC defensive player of the year in 2013. Ray was named the SEC defensive player of the year in 2014. Sam tied the Missouri single-season record with 10 1/2 sacks. Ray set the Missouri single-season record with 14 1/2 sacks.
Ray’s junior campaign began with remarkable consistency. He had at least one sack in Missouri’s first five games and two sacks in three of them.
After four games, Ray’s name became a common one on NFL draft boards. It was then that Kuligowski decided to get an answer straight from the source. He asked an NFL scout who was checking out Missouri players what he thought of No. 56. The scout said he was a future first-round pick.
“It’s not what I wanted to hear,” said Kuligowski, knowing his junior standout wouldn’t be a Tiger for another year, “but I was happy for him at that time.”
By the end of game No. 7, Ray was just half a sack away from the record. Two games later, he began raising the bar, recording his 11th and 12th sacks in a win against Kentucky.
With each successive accomplishment, Johnson knew it was less and less likely she and her son could avoid the NFL talk.
“He broke the sack record. I was like, ‘OK.’ And then he became defensive player of the year. I’m like, ‘OK,’” Johnson said, stretching the second “OK” out contemplatively. “And then he’s an All-American. I’m like, ‘We’re going to have this conversation, I’m sure.’”
Still, Johnson wasn’t convinced. She didn’t want Ray to miss out on completing his education because of a false hope.
“I was told that just don’t believe everything that you read,” she said. “Because these are analysts. They don’t really know.”
But as important as Ray’s education was to Johnson, it was a grade that convinced her to let him leave college early. Ray was one of four Missouri underclassmen whose names were submitted to the NFL for draft evaluation. Every team that took a look at Johnson’s son rated him as a first-round selection.
“That made the difference, because that’s what the NFL thinks of him,” Johnson said. “With all those things that he accomplished and what the NFL said, it was like kind of a no-brainer. He looked at me and said, ‘Can I go? Can I go?’ And I’m like, if you promise to complete your degree, I’ll support you.”
Ray gave his mother his word — he’ll have just one semester to complete if he returns to school — and the decision was made.
Time to Fly
The day Johnson didn’t see coming arrived last Wednesday.
It wasn’t an easy announcement to make for her son, who was emotional during his press conference. Ray said the only thing that rivaled the difficulty of forgoing his senior year for the draft was being ejected from the SEC Championship game. Because to him, they were one and the same: He couldn’t be there for his teammates.
“I’m all about my brothers and my teammates, and if there was anything that would keep me here, it would be those guys in that locker room,” Ray said. “Just everything that we’ve shared, the experiences that we’ve had — it’s never been about me. At the end of the day, if I can do whatever I needed to do for this team, and I wouldn’t have any sacks or any tackles for losses, I would be OK with that.”
Though the decision could have been a tougher one. Say, if he hadn’t been projected by some as a top-five pick. If he hadn’t crossed nearly all his goals off his checklist this season. Or, if he hadn’t been a part of back-to-back division championships before leaving.
“One big thing that me and Markus Golden talked about a lot was just putting our footprint in the program and helping this program rise to another level,” Ray said. “We felt that we were at the beginning blocks of our transition to the SEC, some of the original guys of that first team, and we wanted to do something big. These past two seasons, to be back-to-back SEC (East) champions, I think we made a statement. It definitely helped, just to know that I’m leaving behind a legacy like that.”
That was one motivation. Another was born six years ago.
“I would say to him, I was like, ‘How do you stay level? How do you keep yourself working hard when you’re amassing all these stats?’” Johnson said. “And he would say, ‘I’m still that fat kid, mom. I’m still that fat kid, and so I’ve got to work hard.’”
On the inside, maybe. On the outside, Ray is 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds. He actually had to put on weight, eight pounds of muscle, before this season. His speed has improved each year at Missouri, and he’s not content with his self-reported 40-yard dash time of 4.44 seconds.
And the hard work is far from over. Ray has to impress at the NFL combine in prepartion for what he called “the toughest job interview of my life.” Even once the ink has dried on a likely first-round contract, some inspiration will come in handy if Ray hopes to have a successful professional career.
“We talk about inspiration, and I honestly believe that when you are given a blessing or great things happen to people, then you are supposed give something back,” Johnson said. “And what can we take from this whole experience? Shane could empower some kid who thinks, ‘I could never do this, because I don’t have the skills to do it.’
“Hopefully it inspires somebody, some kid, girl, boy, somebody to say, ‘You know what, this is something I want to do. And if Shane Ray can do it, I can do it, too.’”