Shane Ray was getting salty Thursday as he sat in the green room at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago during the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
Ray, a former All-American defensive end at Missouri and Bishop Miege graduate, recognizes that his poor decision last Monday led to unnecessary anxiety and probably precipitated his slide outside of the top 10 picks.
But Ray’s emotions reached a tipping point as he watched a succession of edge rushers, many who admittedly were workout warriors at February’s NFL Combine but lacked Ray’s track record of production in college, went flying off the board before him.
Jacksonville took Florida’s Dante Fowler Jr., Atlanta selected Clemson’s Vic Beasley and Pittsburgh chose Kentucky’s Bud Dupree.
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Ray, the reigning Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, had more sacks (14 1/2), tackles for loss (22 1/2) and forced fumbles (three) than any of those players.
Nonetheless, there Ray sat, wondering if he’d ever hear his name called by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
What was supposed to be the best week of Ray’s life instead devolved into a four-day nightmare after he was stopped for speeding early Monday morning in Cooper County, Mo., and issued two citations, including one for alleged possession of less than 35 grams of marijuana.
“I went through hell,” said Ray, a Kansas City native who smashed the Tigers’ single-season record with 14 1/2 sacks last season. “You’re supposed to enjoy that time period of going to the draft and spending that time with your family. I didn’t have that luxury anymore. It instantly became a scramble every day just to figure out if somebody was even going to be pick me up by the second or third (rounds).
“When I tell you I was almost hopeless, I really was. The only thing that kept me going was my family. My family wouldn’t let me get down on myself. My family wouldn’t let me beat myself up, because I was.”
Ray has watched enough draft coverage through the years to know there’s always one lonely soul who sits awkwardly in that room — really more of a fishbowl for a national television audience — waiting for a seeming eternity to hear his name called.
He didn’t want to be that guy, but as the draft unfolded Ray couldn’t shake the feeling that would be his fate.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m going to be the Aaron Rodgers of this year.’ Honestly, I felt that way,” Ray said. “Pick after pick, I’m sitting there and my name’s not being called. … It got to a point where the cameras just stayed in my face and I really felt like I was going to be that guy this year.”
Atlanta remained in constant contact with Ray after Monday’s scrape. He figured the Falcons might still pick him at No. 8 overall, but former Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli instead opted for another edge rusher, Clemson’s Vic Beasley.
Houston and San Diego, who’d also expressed interest, also passed midway through the first round and Ray’s hometown Chiefs, the team he grew up rooting for, went with Washington cornerback Marcus Peters at No. 18.
Ray was dejected. He knew Arizona remained a possibility at No. 24 and Indianapolis had him on the radar at No. 29.
In fact, Ray flew to Chicago for an NFL Play 60 event connected with the draft Wednesday morning, his first public appearance since receiving the citations, then flew back to Kansas City that afternoon to meet with a contingent from the Colts, including coach Chuck Pagano.
Still, there were no guarantees.
“At that point, in my mind, I’m thinking I’m about to fall out of the first round,” Ray said. “I was still hoping someone would grab me, but it’s not looking pretty.”
Four hours after receiving the citations Monday, Ray flew to Charlotte, N.C., where the Panthers had a foot specialist examine the hyperextended big toe on his right foot that has been slow to heal since the Citrus Bowl.
The incident wouldn’t hit the news wires until that evening, but Ray knew the storm that awaited if — indeed, when — his indiscretion came to light.
“I was sick,” Ray said. “I was sick to my stomach. I was in the airport all day and, you know, it was just bad news after bad news after bad news. … It was tough. One moment, I’m projected as a top-10 pick. Next thing you know, I don’t even know if I’m going to be drafted. I wasn’t sure what my future’s going to be in a matter of hours.”
Ray estimated that he was driving 85 miles an hour when he was stopped. The trooper approached the passenger window and instantly smelled a small amount of marijuana, which Ray said wasn’t for him, in a baggie inside the glove box.
Ray was cooperative and released at the scene with a summons for June 30 in Cooper County Court. He was given a warning for speeding but also received a citation for improper lane usage.
During the immediate aftermath, Ray briefly considered skipping the trip to Chicago, but he decided to stand tall and simply face the music after talking it through with his mom and his agent, Tony Fleming.
He also started calling the 22 teams that formally interviewed him at the NFL Combine and a handful of other teams that subsequently expressed interest to explain the situation.
“The best decision was to confront it head on,” Ray said. “If I didn’t go to the draft and didn’t face it, with all the assumptions that the media were making and everything they were putting out there, I don’t think I would have been drafted if I didn’t clarify it.”
Ray said he failed a drug test as a redshirt freshman at Missouri but passed weekly screenings administered by the program during the rest of his four-year career in Columbia.
He was up front with the team executives and coaches about it all.
“Of course, I apologized and owned it,” Ray said. “With everything that we did, everyone saw I’m still a person of great character and everything that you’ve been watching on ‘Draft Academy’ and all that. I’m still that good kid. I made one bad decision, but this one decision shouldn’t erase all the good that I’ve done.”
Not long after Dupree went to the Steelers, Ray’s phone rang.
It was a representative of the Broncos, who put him on the phone with executive vice president of football operations and general manager John Elway.
“We’re working out this trade and we’re coming up to get you,” Elway told Ray. “We look forward to you being a Denver Bronco.”
Denver traded up five spots to get Ray, sending the Lions the No. 28 pick (used to select Duke guard Laken Tomlinson), a fifth-round pick (eventually used by the Vikings to select Southern Illinois tight end MyCole Pruitt), a 2016 fifth-round pick and offensive lineman Manny Ramirez.
Ray’s competitive nature gave rise to a ceaseless motor. Along with a lightning-fast first step, it’s a big reason he’s such a highly regarded NFL prospect, the kind of player the Broncos would give up such a haul to add to the roster.
But Ray’s trademark swagger, intensity and confidence was in short supply last week —until that call came.
“It’s like having a 1,000-pound gorilla off your back,” said Ray’s mother, Sebrina Johnson, who was alongside him at the draft. “As a parent, you want him to go and be drafted, so it’s relief, but it’s coupled with the pain you see in his face and the fear. I was just trying to talk him through it and keep him focused.”
Ray’s been the object of derision before.
He was vilified on Twitter and elsewhere after being ejected for a targeting penalty during the SEC Championship Game against Alabama in December, but he wasn’t prepared for the character assassination he endured beginning Monday.
“This one got a whole lot more national attention, and a lot of people poured on the negativity …,” Ray said. “It hurt, especially to have people who don’t know me try to demonize me. … I’m not trying to say I didn’t make a big mistake, but hearing some of things that were said for something as small as a citation. It was just tough.”
Ray’s story — he grew up without his father, Wendell, around and spent much of childhood in one of Kansas City’s roughest neighborhoods — is well-documented. But until the citations it was a hopeful story of a mother and son who triumphed in the face of adversity.
Ultimately, Ray believes his narrative will be one of transcendence again.
“It was a minor setback, what happened on Monday, for a great comeback,” Ray said. “It’s a great opportunity with where I landed and what my future can be. The sky’s the limit with what I can do in my career.”
Ray said he’ll work some at both strong- and weak-side linebacker, rotating at both positions with fellow rush linebackers Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware. The Broncos also will design schemes that include all three stud pass-rushers on the field together.
“This adds so much fuel,” Ray said. “I always find a way to continue motivating myself, and I was already overly motivated to be the best I could be as a pro going into the draft.”
With a new crop of doubters and detractors, Ray’s competitive fire will continue being a raging inferno.
“My dedication to what I’m about to do is going to be unreal and the people who know me understand the kind of work that I’m going to put in to prove to teams that passed on me it was the worst mistake of their life …,” Ray said. “Every team that has to face the Denver Broncos is going to know who I am.”