As a young football player at Missouri, Shane Ray’s goals were easy to see.
They were plastered on the walls of his room in Columbia. Pieces of newsprint, stories about his father’s athletic exploits. Tales about the same man who left him and his mother when he was less than a year old.
Ray ached to be better than his dad, Wendell, at everything — until he realized that anger was holding him back.
“I’d look at them all the time, but it came to a point where I decided that could no longer be my motivation,” Ray said. “I took those clippings down and focused on myself.”
Never miss a local story.
After his junior season at Mizzou concludes Thursday in the Citrus Bowl against Minnesota, Ray almost certainly can become a first-round pick if he opts for the NFL Draft. He registered a school-record 14 sacks at defensive end this season, becoming the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year and a consensus first-team All-American.
Nobody would have predicted that eight years ago when Ray was an angry and self-proclaimed chubby kid growing up at 54th Street and Norton Avenue in Kansas City — part of the 64130 ZIP code dubbed “The Murder Factory.”
Mad at his dad, bitter about his mother’s divorce from another father figure and heartbroken after a cousin’s murder, Ray found himself at the first of many crossroads.
“I was pit-falling and really didn’t know what I was going to do,” he said.
With help from his mother, Sebrina Johnson, football became Ray’s salvation.
“Shane made his dream happen,” she said. “He worked so hard. It wasn’t something that was always destined for him.”
One of the first times Shane Ray was old enough to remember meeting his dad was at the Jackson County jail, where Wendell was briefly locked up for non-payment of child support.
“Wendell called and said, ‘I want to see my son,’ and I said, ‘In jail?’” Johnson recalled. “At the time, I thought it was a good idea, because Shane was cutting up so bad, I thought it might scare him a little bit and seeing his dad behind bars might change it.”
The pat down, the bars and the bulletproof glass left an indelible impression on Ray, then a high school sophomore.
“It was awful,” Wendell Ray said. “I’m sitting in there and he’s putting his hand on the glass and I’m putting my hand on the glass. ‘I love you, dad.’ ‘I love you too, son.’ That was hard. His mother’s sitting there crying. Yeah, it wasn’t a pretty sight at all.”
After that, Wendell called Shane more often but still remained largely absent.
“He never saw him play in high school,” Johnson said.
When Ray signed his football scholarship with Missouri in February 2011, Wendell promised to come to the ceremony, but he never showed.
“Shane cried so hard — 17, and crying so hard,” Johnson said. “He was like, ‘What do I need to do for him to love me?’ … Of course, as a mother you tell him ‘it’s not you’ and all the things you do as a mother, but that was very painful for him.”
The closest thing Shane Ray had to a father growing up was Emanuel McCrainey, who Johnson married when Shane was 6.
McCrainey coached Shane’s youth football team and was a good father, Johnson said, but the marriage disintegrated after four years.
Johnson closed the restaurant she owned with McCrainey and struggled to find a job in her old profession, IT management, after four years away. She applied for food stamps to feed Shane.
With only the clothes on their backs, Ray and his mother returned to 54th and Norton.
“We left with nothing,” Ray said. “We literally had nothing. My mom had a house she had been renting out, but we were sleeping on the floor.”
Ray’s cousin Justin Johnson, the son of one his mother’s sisters, was shot to death a year later. Justin lived with Shane and his mother for a time.
“Shane idolized him and my nephew was like a son to me …,” Johnson said. “We did everything to try to help him get back on the right track.”
Even though he was killed, Johnson said her nephew shielded Shane from violence.
“It’s nothing to know drug dealers and people who carry guns in that environment, but Justin and his older cousins would not allow Shane to be part of that,” she said. “If he was doing something that he wasn’t supposed to be doing, Justin would be in his tail. He loved him enough to know that life was not for him.”
But seeing his cousin in a casket pushed Ray, who had quit football, toward a dangerous path.
“That was a crushing moment in my life,” he said. “When that happened, I started stepping outside my box and doing things that I didn’t have any idea why I was doing.
“I was getting in fights but also chilling with a lot of friends who were gang-banging and had guns. That’s all I grew up around.”
Shortly after Justin’s death, Johnson’s other sister died of colon cancer and Ray’s great uncle died from a heart attack.
Now in middle school, Ray was living in Raytown with an uncle during the week so he wouldn’t have to attend class in the Kansas City School District, but the time away from his mom only deepened his struggles.
“I was really angry about a lot of things … ” Ray said. “I was just getting in trouble. My mom and I were having a terrible relationship.”
Something had to change.
Former Kansas State and Chiefs running back J.J. Smith worshipped at Sebrina Johnson’s church and took an interest in her son.
He introduced Johnson to Tom Shortell, who coached the 39th Street Giants youth football team.
“Tom sort of adopted Shane,” she said. “He had his own boys and would let Shane come over there for the weekends and hang out with them.”
Football became fun again for Ray, even if it didn’t initially appear to be a career opportunity.
“Shane wasn’t the kid you thought would be something back then either,” Johnson said. “He was the last of everything — the last one running, with his pants hanging down past his butt. We’d always be like, ‘Shane, pull your pants up.’ He’d just waddle, but at least he was moving.”
Two of Shortell’s sons, Neil and Max, attended Bishop Miege, where former Chiefs offensive lineman Tim Grunhard was the head coach.
Shortell encouraged Johnson to look into it for Ray, who said he was close to expulsion from the Raytown district at the end of eighth grade.
Miege came with a hefty price tag — $10,000 per year — even after a financial aid package, but Johnson decided she could manage by taking on extra work.
Ray played linebacker on the Stags’ freshman team, but the school didn’t prove to be a panacea for her rebellious son.
“I saw all this Catholic stuff and mass, and all I could think was, ‘This isn’t for me,’” he said. “There were all these rules. You can’t have facial hair. I’ve got to wear a uniform. …
“I was already against authority, and that school just was all structure. … My first couple years, I battled to stay in there, because I didn’t want to do any of that stuff.”
But as much as Ray wanted to quit Miege, his mother wanted him out of there for a different reason.
“We had plenty of blows,” she said. “I would tell him, ‘There’s no way I’m going to continue sacrificing so much for you to be there if you’re not going to appreciate this education and take advantage of it.’”
Ray’s mother gave him one more year at Miege to turn things around.
That summer, a three-inch growth spurt spurred him to take football seriously, especially after a conversation with Grunhard.
“We were all sitting down after school one day and he said, ‘If you let me take him and work with him, I promise you he could be playing on Sundays,’” Ray said. “He told my mom that, right to our faces, when I was a sophomore in high school.”
Ray worked with a trainer to boost his speed and agility and became a key contributor on Miege’s state championship team as a junior.
“He wanted to prove to everybody that he wasn’t a waste,” Johnson said. “He wanted to prove to Tim that he had what it takes. He just started morphing and changing. He was still a little rough around the edges, but at least now I knew that he was on the right path.”
Ray racked up more than 230 tackles, 25 sacks and nearly 50 tackles for a loss in his final two seasons at Miege as scholarship offers — Missouri, Kansas, Wisconsin, Notre Dame — started pouring in.
“That was so crazy,” Johnson said. “I was just hoping for a college education … so he could get a good job.”
Of course, there was only place Shane really wanted to play. Wendell Ray was a linebacker at Missouri from 1978-80 before the Vikings chose him in the fifth round of the 1981 NFL Draft.
“It was around that time Shane decided he was going to go to Mizzou,” Johnson said. “And he told me, ‘When I got to Mizzou, I’m going to erase everything my dad did. It’s going to be me that they remember. It’s not going to be him.’”
Some of Shane Ray’s self-destructing tendencies resurfaced when he arrived at Missouri.
“I had a young mentality and I was a hot head,” he said. “I got here and wasn’t about to take no stuff from nobody, so I was getting into fights at practice, getting in trouble and just being selfish.”
During his first spring game, a teammate intercepted a pass and returned it 60 yards. Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel watched Ray sulk off the field well behind the play.
“I wasn’t mad or anything, but the most the important thing we do on our defense when we get a takeaway is we celebrate with each other,” Ray said. “Takeaways are important. That’s what the main goal of our defense.”
Steckel delivered a message to Ray the next morning during a meeting with defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski — “I don’t care how good you are, if you don’t buy into the program, you won’t play here.”
“That really stuck with me,” Ray said. “I remember it like it was yesterday. That was one of the times where I took that in and realized I had to mature and become a better person if I ever wanted to be a part of this football team.”
Reconciling with his father was an even bigger step in Ray’s maturation. Early in the 2013 season — after taking down the clippings about his dad’s MU football career — Ray hit his stride with 4 1/2 sacks during a five-game stretch.
“He started playing for himself and his team, not competing” with the ghost of his father, Johnson said.
The rage Shane Ray once felt isn’t completely gone, but it’s been transformed or replaced by confidence, passion and forgiveness.
“I figured out a way to use things that were holding me down as fuel … and learned how to channel all that aggression and frustration that I have and I turn it into a positive,” Ray said. “I turn it into energy that allows me to go 100 miles per hour the whole game.”
Wendell Ray doesn’t miss his son’s games anymore.
“It’s a joy and it’s a rush,” he said. “I loved to see him dominate this year.”
Wendell Ray was among the throng of fans who rushed Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium after the SEC East-clinching win against Arkansas. He found his son, who lifted him in the air and said, “I love you, pop.”
“Maybe he used to be angry at me, but with time God heals all wounds,” Wendell Ray said. “We’re getting through that. He’s been healed greatly and so have I just to see how well he’s doing.”
Better late than never.
“Sometimes I think it’s sad it took this long,” Shane Ray said, “but I’m just happy there’s something that brought us together.”
Some scars of youth remain, but it’s part of what drives Ray toward greatness.
“He tells me all the time, ‘Mom, I’m still that fat kid, remember? I’m still that fat kid that waddles,’” Sebrina Johnson said. “In his mind, that’s what he tells himself to keep himself working hard.”