Carla Koch waited through a long line Saturday in the southwest corner of Mizzou Arena to slip a plastic bag filled with homemade cookies into Shane Ray’s hands one more time.
Ray’s face lit up and he hugged Koch. He was home.
Koch, of course, wasn’t alone in welcoming Ray back to Columbia for the first time since he was minted as a Super Bowl champion with the Denver Broncos.
Ray said he’ll go to his Florida home to begin training next week for the 2016 season, so his appearance before the Missouri men’s basketball team’s 84-69 loss against Texas A&M was something of a final hurrah on his whirlwind, post-championship tour back home in Kansas City.
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“It happened so fast and it was a crazy experience, but I’m just happy to be a part of it,” Ray said. “I really don’t think anything trumps being a Super Bowl champion. When you’re a kid, you’re thinking about playing college football one day, playing pros one day and, of course, playing in the biggest game there is. … You don’t really fathom that you can actually do it.”
Ray, who set the Tigers’ record with 14 1/2 sacks and was chosen as the 2014 SEC defensive player of the year before declaring for last year’s NFL Draft, slid to the Broncos late in the first round.
It was disappointing at the time, but seems fated after getting to hoist the Lombardi Trophy earlier this month at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
Ray, a Bishop Miege graduate, is the first Kansas City native to win the Super Bowl since Shawnee Mission Northwest graduate Ryan Lilja won it with the Colts in 2007.
He knows not everybody at home was happy to be rooting for the Chiefs’ Rocky Mountain rivals in the Super Bowl, but he’s felt nothing but love from his hometown.
“It’s tough, being from Kansas City,” Ray said. “But the amount of support I got from everybody — just so many people in the town — I’ve been back for two weeks and haven’t been able to stop talking with people about the Super Bowl and how happy they are for me. … That’s always a great feeling to have your hometown people supporting you.”
Ray’s looking forward to receiving his Super Bowl ring, which will have his nickname “Sting Ray” incorporated into the design.
Perhaps he’ll come back to Columbia to show that off one day, even as seismic shifts took place in Mizzou’s football program in the year since he left.
The team endured a boycott amid racial protests on campus, and has a new coaching staff after Gary Pinkel announced in November that he had cancer and would retire after the season.
“It’s weird for me, coming back and seeing all the changes in the coaching staff and the changes just around the campus,” Ray said. “You don’t feel like you’re gone that long and a lot changes very quickly.”
It still feels like home, but it was different not seeing Pinkel, former strength and conditioning coach Pat Ivey and former defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski during a visit to the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex.
“It’s a little adjustment, but I really like the new coaching staff as well,” Ray said. “Coach (Barry) Odom is a good guy and they treat me like this is my home as well and make me feel comfortable. I’m always going to love coming back to The Zou, regardless of who’s here. (I put) sweat and blood into this school and this program, so it’s always a great feeling to be here.”
As for what’s next, Ray said he’s got goals — lofty goals — like he always does.
“You guys know I’m big on my goals,” Ray said. “Definitely, nothing less than a 10-sack season and definitely a Pro Bowl. That’s definitely on the list.”