ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Through the woe-is-me low points, wrist surgeries, mood swings, counseling sessions and tryout obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic Shane Ray experienced over the past five years, the one-time promising NFL edge rusher never lost sight of his desire to play football.
If it meant attending league-sponsored free-agent hub camps, Ray was there. If the only teams expressing interest were from Canada, the 2015 first-round NFL draft pick packed his bags and spent a week in self-quarantine upon crossing the border to play for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts.
And if it came down to the Buffalo Bills offering him, at 30, an invitation to attend their rookie minicamp in May, Ray leaped at the opportunity in what became a successful bid to win one of the team's final roster spots.
“I had to humble myself, more than humbled than ever before,” Ray said following a recent practice.
“From going to Canada and buying in, you know I can’t act like there were days that I didn’t walk in and I was like 'Bro, this is where I am?'” he added. “I was desperate for an opportunity.”
Ray has one in Buffalo — “For now,” as he cautiously said — while fully appreciating his job is far from secure, and knowing he's running out of chances at an NFL comeback.
This is not the career arc Ray envisioned upon being selected 23rd overall in the 2015 draft by Denver, where he would line up opposite Von Miller and go on to win a Super Bowl in his rookie season. By March 2019, he was out of a job in Denver after two injury-limited seasons and four wrist surgeries.
What matters is Ray learning from the experience to tune out outside perceptions and expectations, and focus on controlling what is within his reach in being reunited with Miller in Buffalo and on a team needing to upgrade its pass rush.
His journey is not lost on Bills defensive line coach Eric Washington, who was an assistant with Carolina and still recalls the chaos Ray helped create during the Broncos' 24-10 Super Bowl win over the Panthers.
“When you’ve been at the top of the mountain ... to being out of the league and trying to fight and claw and scratch your way back ... I have a lot of respect for that,” Washington said. “Even before the signing came to fruition, there were a lot of things that he conceded about the first part of his NFL career that let me know that he was real.”
And Washington sees the glimpses of talent Ray showed in Denver, when he combined for 12 sacks and 28 quarterback hits in his first 30 games.
With his wrist still bothering him, Ray signed with Baltimore in May 2019, but was cut before the start of the season.
It wasn’t until 2021 when he turned to the CFL, appearing in five games with the Argos without a sack. Ray returned the following year and had six sacks in 13 games before being sidelined by a biceps injury for a team that went on to win the Grey Cup.
Argos defensive coordinator Corey Mace credited Ray for the leadership he displayed and the explosiveness he still possessed.
And Mace can relate to Ray’s perseverance to keep his football dreams alive. Though undrafted in the NFL, Mace spent two stints with the Bills and played his final six CFL seasons in Calgary before turning to coaching in 2016.
“I don’t know that he ends up where he is without making that decision to be vulnerable and be humble enough to stick to it and come to the CFL,” Mace said.
“He’s got a lot of work to do, obviously, ahead of him. But he’s ready for it mentally and physically,” he added. “It’s a culmination of everything he’s experienced in his life that’s prepared him. He’s earned the right to go there and try to make a team. We’re all pulling for him.”
So is Miller, who noted he had no input on the Bills' interest in Ray.
“Everything that Shane’s got, it’s all been all off of Shane,” said Miller, who spent offseasons training with Ray. “So Shane should feel proud about that. His opportunity is solely based off of him.”
Where Miller played a role was encouraging Ray to not give up on his dream.
“I’ve definitely seen him at his lowest. And I’ve seen him at his highest, too. And I constantly reminded him of who he is, and who he can be,” Miller said.
It wasn’t easy, Ray acknowledged, recalling how his temper would sometimes flare out of frustration and he began to question who he was.
“(Those) were probably the hardest years of my life, mentally, physically, not feeling like me, feeling beaten up, feeling torn down by the media,” he said, referring to being out of football. “I felt like I wasn’t me anymore and I had no value.”
Ray turned to self-reflection, his passion for writing and also sought counseling to find a sense of peace.
“I know everybody has hard times, and I understand that people don’t often get second chances. And mine came after a really long time. But like I’ve been telling everybody, the one thing I didn’t do is I didn’t quit on myself,” he said.
“No matter how this ends, I can go back and be like, 'I gave you everything that I had,’” Ray added. “And I can live with that.”