A fast-twitch first step, blazing speed, a massive chip on his shoulder—those tools made Missouri's Shane Ray a top 10 talent. Now that he's made peace with his past, the fire to chase NFL QBs must come from within
NO ONE knows where Shane Ray is. He's late on this Saturday in February, because he's been speed-dating a handful of the NFL's worst teams as part of the meet-and-greet meat market that is the combine. Now it's approaching 11 p.m. in Indianapolis, an hour typically reserved for bars or for bed.
But Ray gets neither pleasure tonight. Not yet. Instead it's time for a makeshift workout, a series of sprints and speed-technique work crammed into a hallway of the downtown convention center, and when he finally appears, he's shuffling. His feet barely lift from the carpet. He's just downed a room-service cheesesteak in a matter of seconds. And now he has to sprint. Ray is exhausted, but he's here, and then—one, two, three, go!—he's gone. His trainer, Tony Villani, looks on, parsing every step.
His first step—scouts see him as the most explosive edge rusher in the draft—is the reason the 6'3", 245-pound defensive end is a likely top 10 pick. And once he gets going? Ray's unofficial 4.56-second 40 time (recorded at Missouri's pro day after Ray missed some workouts at the combine with a toe injury) is No. 3 among edge rushers in this class.
Ray's game is all speed—speed and intimidation. The face under his helmet twists taut with aggression. In 2014, his junior season, he set a school record at Missouri with 14 sacks and was named the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year. Just months earlier he'd been a relative unknown—an anonymity that Ray relishes. Being slighted adds an extra punch to his game. And football has always been a fight. "Ask all these offensive linemen I dominated," he says. "They looked at me like I'm little."
And then his voice drops to a whisper, his dark eyes narrow, and he imagines staring across the line at an opposing tackle and hissing, I'm about to tear your ass up.
For this one sentence Ray is menacing—and then very quickly he is not. Off the field his speed fades almost instantly. His closest friends call him a teddy bear, an overgrown kid whose smiles come easy. He's gotten used to this, turning himself on and off, and now it's easy to flip the switch from angry to calm.
For years, though, it was impossible. There was no switch, only one setting. And anger only gets a person so far before it tears him down.
FOR THE first 15 years of Shane Ray's life, football was an afterthought. His clearest memory of his peewee career is of getting kicked out of games for being too aggressive. By the fifth grade he'd quit. His father wasn't in the picture and his mother, Sebrina Johnson, had divorced from his stepfather, who'd also been Ray's youth coach.
Uprooted by the split—Ray and his mother moved from a nicer part of Kansas City, Mo., back to the rough neighborhood, nicknamed the Murder Factory, where he'd been born—the chubby 10-year-old withdrew. When an older cousin with whom he'd been close was murdered the next year, he simmered; when an aunt and a great-uncle died shortly afterward, he seethed. Eventually he shut down. By eighth grade he had stopped talking to his mom and was idolizing the kind of crowd that had gotten his cousin killed. Outside of drawing, his hobbies were nonexistent.
Johnson knew she had to act. She turned to her church, Concord Fortress of Hope, where a fellow parishioner, J.J. Smith, suggested football as an outlet. Smith, a former NFL running back with the Chiefs, introduced mother and son to Tom Shortell, a suburban dentist who in his spare time ran an inner-city team, the 39th Street Giants.
"I was so out of shape," recalls Ray, who joined Shortell's team in eighth grade. "I hadn't been playing for three years. I was still short." His feet were too big, and he was so slow, recalls one teammate, that one day during a routine prank—throw a water balloon at a skateboarder and retreat—Ray found himself drenched in a retaliatory Slurpee during his plodding escape.
Even so, the self-described "odd kid" flourished with the Giants, coming out of his shell and making friends. As high school loomed, Johnson turned to Shortell once more. She wanted her son out of public school. At the coach's suggestion Ray applied to Bishop Miege, a Catholic school in the suburbs. Once enrolled, he joined the football team.
It wasn't an instant match. Ray bristled at Miege's strict atmosphere. He hated his uniform and his studies. But, more than anything, the kid who didn't even watch football on television was infuriated that his Giants teammates had moved to the varsity, while he was left on the freshman team. That first year Ray was nearly expelled for racking up so many detentions. When he told his coach, Tim Grunhard, that he wanted to transfer, Grunhard put it plainly: "You can leave—but the same problems you're facing now, they'll follow you wherever you go."
Johnson was apoplectic. She was sacrificing so much for so little return—an IT professional, she paid her son's $10,000 tuition with extra catering and party planning jobs—and after years of tough love, she had just one more move. At the time Ray's father was locked up in downtown K.C. for failing to pay child support. It was time for a visit.
Wendell Ray and his 15-year-old son had almost no relationship, but that day in 2008, as they spoke through the glass about life and consequences, something clicked: If he didn't shape up, Shane could end up like his father. "It [was] like a movie," he recalls. "I realized I had to change."
One moment from that visit sticks with Johnson: her son pressing a hand up against the glass, across from his father's palm. Shane's was bigger. It was about damn time that he grew up.
FOR ALL the hatred that he felt toward his father, Shane Ray always clung to this point of pride: His dad had played football at Missouri and was drafted by the Vikings. Wendell had been a stud defensive end. (Injuries ended his pro career before he played a down.) His son was developing into a pretty good one himself.
Ray hit a growth spurt at the end of his sophomore year. He lost his baby fat and finally fit those feet. By his junior season, after he knocked the opposing quarterback unconscious in Miege's state championship victory, offer letters started to pour in. Now, rather than fighting against the rules, Shane was directing his anger toward his father. When Wendell Ray's alma mater extended a scholarship offer, Shane jumped at the opportunity to one-up his old man.
He was joining a program known for churning out pass rushers. In 2001, Missouri's Justin Smith had been the NFL's No. 4 pick. In '09, Ziggy Hood went 32nd, and the spring before Ray arrived in Columbia, San Francisco drafted Aldon Smith seventh. While Ray was with the Tigers, Sheldon Richardson, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam would all be drafted too. Ray was positioning himself perfectly to end up where he is now. But back then he was blind to everything but besting his dad.
It was evident in his dorm-room décor: Ray covered his walls with newspaper clippings detailing his father's college achievements. To others, he came across as angry, a hothead. He hated that teammates knocked him for having attended private school, so he partied to toughen up his reputation.
On the field Ray cared little for the concept of team. "Every time we talked about football," says his roommate Ian Simon, "the first thing he'd say was, Did you see what I did?" In his redshirt year he missed a mandatory workout. The next day he was made to drag a set of chains around the practice facility for three hours while Paul Wall rap lyrics—I'm a break 'em off real bad/I'm a break 'em—blared over the speakers on repeat. Coaches hoped he'd learn from the punishment. "But he didn't learn too much," recalls teammate David Johnson. "It just kind of pissed him off."
Once Ray got into the Tigers' rotation, success followed—and he made sure teammates knew it. During a 2012 spring practice he forced an interception and celebrated loudly as he jogged off the field. Later Ray capped the night by attending a house party on campus.
The following morning coaches summoned him. First, defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski showed him photos on Facebook: Ray, underaged, at the alcohol-soaked party. Next, defensive coordinator Dave Steckel played a video of the previous day's practice antics. Steckel's words stick with Ray today. "You selfish s.o.b.," he recalls the coach saying. "I don't care how good you are, you'll never play for the University of Missouri like that. I'll send you back to Kansas City."
It was there, in a facility where the walls were dotted with the NFL jerseys of former Tigers pass rushers, that Ray finally realized how close he'd come to losing his opportunity. He resolved to change.
He took down the clippings and worked to repair his relationship with his father, forgiving him for years of absence, and underwent what Simon calls a "complete 180." He let go. "He became somebody different, because now he wasn't just playing for vengeance and anger," David Johnson says. "He was playing for his team and his brothers."
In 2013, Ray performed well enough as a backup to Ealy and Sam that Kuligowski tailored a third-down package for him. That season Ray logged nine tackles for loss and 4½ sacks and burst onto the national scene in a 41--31 Cotton Bowl win over No. 13 Oklahoma State when he scooped up a fumble for a 73-yard touchdown return. In his final, junior season, his 22½ tackles for loss led the Tigers, but his most transformative moment came off the field when, for the first time, he saw footage of his father playing at Missouri. The team's video coordinators had been putting together a highlight reel, and when they came across a clip of Ray's father they gave the defensive end a glimpse.
As the video played, Ray saw that he was better than his father had ever been. But he also realized that he owed his father appreciation for the raw skills he'd inherited.
By late last fall Ray had met every goal he'd set when he arrived at Missouri. He'd let go of the grudge that for so long fueled him, and he'd abandoned the anger that accompanied it. Still, he was restless. He couldn't sleep. He'd spend hours each night racking his brain, wondering how he could get better, what would push him now. He'd call his mother or read on his phone. And as he tossed and turned, Ray finally realized: He didn't need anyone else to motivate him.
Which is how the fat kid ended up here, in this hallway in Indianapolis, running sprints while talking heads debate his worth—second pick? eighth? 13th?—on a television just out of earshot. With every one, two, three, go, Villani fights back a smile. There's nothing to critique, nothing to improve, but Ray keeps running. Tonight he'll sleep well.
Ray pressed his hand up against the prison glass, meeting his father's palm. Shane's was bigger. IT WAS ABOUT DAMN TIME THAT HE GREW UP.
6 Players drafted from Missouri's pass-rush factory in the past six years. In the NFL that group has contributed 318 tackles and 72 sacks over 13 combined seasons.
Photograph by Todd Rosenberg For Sports Illustrated
Photo Illustration By SI Premedia
RAY OF LIGHT Johnson (below, right) got her son to visit his incarcerated father—and then, at Missouri, to play like him.
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COURTESY OF SEBRINA JOHNSON
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