Do me a favour and try to find someone with a single bad thing to say about Ricky Ray. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
You can’t. Teammates loved him, opponents respected him and even the media – we jackals determined to find the slightest imperfection and drive a truck through it – speak of Ray in near-reverential tones. He was great at football and an even better person by all accounts.
Like everyone who’s been around this league a while, I’ve got stories that illustrate both.
I covered two of Ray’s championship wins, in 2012 and 2017 and they were memorable in different ways. The first happened in front of a packed house at the Rogers Centre, 60,000 strong in town for the 100th Grey Cup. Despite throwing a pick on Toronto’s first play from scrimmage, Ray recovered to throw two touchdowns in a 35-22 win.
It was his first season as an Argo and it drove home what everyone suspected at the time: his trade from Edmonton will go down as one of the worst of all-time. I enjoyed this Tweet today:
Congrats to Ricky. Not going to lie, it was a huge burden originally to be attached to the dumbest trade in @cfl history. But at the end of the day I got to play for my home town @EdmontonEsks and get very involved in the community. #2xDavidBoone #2015GreyCupChamp
— Grant Shaw (@grantshaw11) May 8, 2019
The second Grey Cup win came in the snow in Ottawa and the signature play was a 100-yard touchdown pass to DeVier Posey, a throw that Ray dropped right in the bucket behind one of the best cover corners in the league in Tommie Campbell. Ray’s skills were diminishing by then but that beautiful touch was always there. He was MOP of that game.
And yet the Ray game I remember most is a September 2017 contest against the Ticats at Tim Hortons Field. Hamilton, who started 0-8 before clawing back into playoff contention under new head coach June Jones, had won three of four and desperately needed a victory against the Argos to take the season series. They were up 35-21 with just over 12 minutes to play in the game.
Then Ray tore their hearts out.
A field goal cuts the lead to eight with just under four minutes left. The Ticats go two-and-out. Then Ray gets picked by Courtney Stephen and we all think, ‘that’s it, the Ticats have it in the bag.’ The Argos get the ball back and Ray gets sacked and it really looks like it’s over: 3rd-and-18 from their own 54.
Ray to Posey for 31 yards. First down. Two plays later, Ray to Posey for 25 yards and a touchdown. James Wilder Jr. for the two-point conversion, tie game. In overtime, Ray to Armanti Edwards for 22 yards, Ray to Posey for another touchdown. Ball game.
That was Ray at his absolute best: relentless, fearless, tough, pinpoint accurate and, most of all, unflappable. And he did things like that, had games like that, his entire career. It was amazing to watch and I’ll miss it.
The people story is just a small thing but one that spoke volumes, to me, about how the man saw himself and his teammates.
It was after the Argos exhibition game in Guelph last season, a contest in which Ray did not see the field. James Franklin got the start and played well, going 9 of 14 for 72 yards and a score in limited action. The media was crowded around his locker after the game and Franklin was chatty. It took awhile.
Ray’s locker was right next to Franklin’s. Coming back from his shower, Ray saw the throng and instead of pushing through, politely, he just stood off to the side and waited until Franklin was done with every single question. It was a teeny-tiny example of humility and leadership that, to me, made Ray great.
Ray deserved to go out on his own terms and to be absolutely sure he was at peace with his decision. Like a lot of people, I was hoping he’d retire if only because last season’s injury was so scary and I didn’t think he had anything left to prove. But when football has been your life and the locker room your family, it’s hard to give that up knowing once it’s over, it’s over for good. I get that.
I enjoyed Ricky Ray’s quiet brilliance, his taciturn confidence, the one that could fool you into believing that the guy who looked and acted like a mid-level accountant was anything less than a stone-cold killer on the field. That he seems like good people made me enjoy it just a little bit more.