On Thursday evening, Kansas City's first Super Bowl champion in nearly 10 years returned home, as Denver Broncos outside linebacker Shane Ray was honored during a ceremony at Bishop Miege High School.
And as Ray stood on the court during the presentation — which was made at halftime of the Stags' girls basketball game against St. Thomas Aquinas — holding a framed Bishop Miege jersey with his high school number, 52, with a smile on his face, it was impossible for anyone who has known Ray a while not to think about how far he's come.
“I told Shane, he's very lucky — I played in the league 11 years and never got to Super Bowl, and here he is, getting in his first year,” said Stags offensive coordinator Tim Grunhard, who played for the Chiefs from 1990 to 2000.
It's been a heck of a journey. Ray's mother, Sebrina Johnson, largely raised him on her own in the Kansas City 64130 ZIP code known as “The Murder Factory.” She took on extra work to put him through Miege, a private high school, and watched him flourish into the 2014 Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year and a first-round draft pick in 2015.
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Given all that, there was no way she wasn't going to enjoy the moment on Thursday, too. She stood next to Ray during the ceremony, and made sure to snap extra pictures with him holding the framed jersey after.
“Shane, look this way,” she giddily said, snapping photos.
But still, Super Bowl 50 was easily the highlight of Ray's young life, as the 22-year-old contributed to the Broncos' 24-10 upset over the Carolina Panthers on Feb. 7.
“To come out on top, that's one of the greatest accomplishments you could possibly have in this sport,” Ray said. “I'm just glad we got it.”
Bishop Miege head football coach Jon Holmes called Ray up last week and asked him to return to Miege this week so he could speak to the football team and receive his high school jersey.
“You talk to him the next day, and he's the same kid you talked to a month ago, he's the same kid you talked to a couple years ago,” Holmes said. “That's kind of been the best thing for us. He hasn't changed any, which is really good because he's a really good kid.”
The Miege community is proud of him, and with good reason. Ray is the first graduate of a Kansas City-area high school to win a Super Bowl in nearly 10 years. The last player to do it was Shawnee Mission Northwest graduate Ryan Lilja, an offensive guard who won a title with the Indianapolis Colts in February 2007.
“It feels great man,” Ray said. “I've always wanted to put on for Missouri growing up. You know, that's why I went to the University of Missouri, and I take a lot of pride in being from Kansas City because I feel like somebody's got to represent us, and if it's got to be me, then it's got to be me.
“And to win the Super Bowl and bring it back home here, it just means a lot to me to be able to share that with the city and show them my appreciation for where I'm from and share it with everybody here.”
Not only is Ray a Super Bowl champion, he was also a first-round pick of the Broncos in 2015 after being named the Southeastern Conference's defensive player of the year for 2014 at Missouri.
So when he walked in the Stags' weight room Thursday, you can imagine how the football players looked at him.
“You would have thought the Pope was walking in down there,” Holmes said. “Man, everybody stopped, looked at him, started talking to him. You know, he just mixed right in.”
It was Ray's first appearance at Bishop Miege since about this time last year, Holmes said, but they have seen him plenty over the years. As recently as the 2014 season, Holmes said Ray spoke to the football team in the locker room before a game.
“He's a man of his word, because when he left here (in 2010), he said 'Coach I'm gonna be back,'” Holmes said. “And that's big for us … just because we have kids from here like Shane, who we try to get to buy in to the things what we do.
“You know, it's not always easy for the guys. And I think, to see a kid who has kind of come through and made it, I think kind of tells all these kids well hey, if I keep working, maybe I can be there one day … it makes our job easier because we can point to guys like Shane and say hey, he was here four years, he did the things we asked him to do and now look what he's doing.”
Holmes said the staff even goes as far as to show cutups of Shane's high school film to their current players.
“We'll say 'Hey, this is the same thing we asked Shane to do, so we're not asking you guys to do anything different,” Holmes said.
What's more, when Ray returns, Holmes will even handpick seven or eight kids to speak with him.
“If it's a kid who needs to work harder, we're gonna get him that kid,” Holmes said. “Because there were times, Shane admits, he didn't work as hard as he should have here. And that's kind of big for those kids to see that, thinking man, if Shane Ray is telling me this, I better do it.”
Hard work hasn't been a problem for Ray for a while, however. In college, he turned himself into the best defensive player in the nation's best conference, and as a rookie this year, he found a way to contribute, recording 20 tackles and four sacks despite receiving limited reps behind two elite veterans at his position in Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware.
In the Super Bowl, for example, Ray only logged 25 percent of the Broncos' 80 defensive snaps but still recorded two tackles, a forced fumble and a big hit on Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.
“DeMarcus was having a hell of a game, so I didn't get as many reps,” Ray said. “But for me, it's always (about) when I get in the game, what am I going to do?
“So I came in, had a couple tackles, forced a fumble on the running back and I got a big hit on Cam. So regardless on the number of snaps I might have had, I still tried to make a difference and I think I had an impact and that's all that matters.”
Ray said the Broncos' coaching staff has challenged him to really grasp the concepts of the defense and raise his football IQ heading into the 2016 season. However, he thinks he's already well on his way toward doing that, especially after spending this year observing Miller and Ware first-hand.
“I've had a complete season in the NFL to do that,” Ray said. “So now, it's really up to me. This year was like a redshirt year for me, just going out there, learning and getting my feet wet. But now I know what to do, I know how to prepare, I know how to have my body right.
“Me personally, I knew once I got a grasp on this whole NFL thing and how I had to work and play, I'm going to be unstoppable, just like I was in college — there's no question,” Ray said.
But for the meantime, he's just focused on making the most of his downtime in what has been a hectic 12 months. That's what his appearance on Thursday at Miege — which also honored Mike Ruether, another alumnus who played in the Super Bowl for the Broncos 26 years ago —was about, in addition to giving back to the high school that helped shaped his future.
“I'm excited to be remembered as a great player at my school,” Ray said.