Anyone with an interest in the Canadian Football League had to feel sympathetic and concerned for Toronto Argos quarterback Ricky Ray as emergency medical personnel strapped him to a stretcher following the devastating collision in which he was involved last week in a game against the Calgary Stampeders.
It is sad and unfortunate any time a CFL player suffers an injury, and yet the situation takes on even greater meaning and magnitude when it is a player such as Ray, some who is a true ambassador on and off the field.
From the time he entered the CFL, Ray became known as Frito Ray because he had worked as a Frito Lay salesman. The fact he began as the Edmonton Eskimos’ third stringer in his rookie year and moved his way up the depth chart to become the starter and led his team to the Grey Cup, well, this was a Hollywood story in the making. Add in that he was a native of Happy Camp, California, all that was needed was the perfect ending. Alas, the Eskimos lost.
But the legend of Ricky Ray had already begun. Fast forward from 2002 to now, Ray’s resume includes a record four Grey Cup wins as the starting quarterback and a myriad of other statistical achievements that will make him a first-ballot Canadian Football Hall of Famer.
Ray established himself as a player with immense talent, in particular his ability to put just the right amount of air on a pass, notably the corner fade. Yet it is his professionalism that also set Ray apart. Not only did he show little emotion when throwing touchdown passes or setting records, he remained unflappable in times of duress. He could be sacked or whacked and Ray simply shook it off and moved on to the next play. He didn’t blame his teammates for a broken play that either put him on his back or resulted in an incomplete pass. Regardless of the situation, Ray stayed within himself, the true mark of a leader.
An example of this happened against Calgary. The Argos had come apart in all aspects of the game in the first 30 minutes. Interviewed on television, Ray calmly said everyone on his team needed to settle down. That wasn’t to suggest he didn’t have a sense of urgency, but having been through so many situations in his career he knew enough to not become emotionally or mentally unhinged.
Unfortunately, the second half would end far too prematurely for Ray. Now there is the real possibility he may have played his final game because of the neck injury he suffered. What is of greater concern now is his quality of life.
Ray entered this season likely as his last. He could have retired after last season when the Argos won the Grey Cup, which for him was the second time in Toronto, but he wanted to come back. Despite some serious injuries the last few years, Ray still had the desire to play one more year, and you couldn’t blame him for that. The Argos gave him plenty of time to make his decision because he had earned that respect.
Following the collision that sandwich Ray between two Stamps’ players and the awkward way in which he fell and landed, the crowd at BMO Field collectively held its breath. What was equally moving was how the players on both sides of the field reacted: some stood near Ray, some took knees and some stood solemnly on the sidelines.
Every one of those players knew what happened to Ray could have happened to them. They all know there is always the possibility they will be hurt, but it is the inherent pleasure they receive playing the game that supersedes the risk factor or the fear of injury. Anytime a player is carted off, it is a sobering reminder that they are humans, not machines.
In a touching interview after the game, Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell talked about the inconsequence of the end result. He said the only thing the players were thinking about was Ray. Mitchell completed 20 of 22 passes for a 90.9 completion percentage, third-best overall in CFL history behind Ray who has the record with 95% in 2013 and is second overall with 90.9% in 2018. Mitchell will have time to ponder his accomplishment, but in the fraternity of players, in particular quarterbacks, he will hope and pray that Ray recovers.
Not only has Ray been a standard of excellence with his play, but he has also been a model citizen off of the field. It was reported that Ray took the Go Train to the game, which says a lot about his humility and also about the overall nature of the CFL player.
In all the time I have been around CFL players, I have been impressed with them as people. Collectively they are cognizant of who they are and where they have come from and truly appreciate having the opportunity to play the game. There is a connection between the players, the fans and the media that is probably greater in the CFL than in any other professional sports league.
Last November during Grey Cup week, the Canadian Football League Players Association held a Players State of the Union address and talked about player safety and the One Play Away Campaign. It was a pivotal moment in the evolution of the CFLPA because every year during Grey Cup week the CFL Commissioner addresses the media mainly from the owners’ perspective. The CFLPA felt there also needed to be a greater focus on the players and their need for unlimited coverage for injuries and rehabilitation because of an injury.
In October, 2015, Montreal Alouettes’ defensive back Jonathan Hefney had to be carried off on a stretcher similar to Ray after a collision in a game against the Ottawa Redblacks. He sustained three fractured vertebrae and nerve damage. So severe were his injuries that he needs a third surgery. He only had coverage for medical costs for one year from the time of his injury and has had to pay for a second surgery out of his own pocket and needed to start a Go Fund Me campaign when he ran out of money. Because Hefney lives in the U.S., he is not entitled to receive coverage for a pre-existing injury and still doesn’t have the full use of his right arm.
This same fate potentially awaits every other player who suffers an injury that could be their last play.
The CFL is in better financial shape than it’s ever been, which is why there has never been a greater time to continue to address the safety of players and protecting them both during their active years and in retirement. They put so much sweat equity into the game and they deserve that much.