Catch A Ray
story: Todd McBain
Ricky Ray Starts His 7th Season With The CFL's Edmonton Eskimos
Ricky Ray has been a Wolf and a Hornet, a 49er and a Jet, a Knight and an Eskimo. He spent time on a roster in the NFL and is a champion in the CFL. Born in Happy Camp and raised in Redding, the 29-year-old has traveled a whirlwind journey in football that has led him to Canada, where he is a star.
Now in his seventh season in the Canadian Football League, Ray has helped lead the Edmonton Eskimos to three Grey Cups (the CFL’s Super Bowl). He holds a number of the franchise’s quarterback career- and single-season records, passing Hall of Famer Warren Moon on most of those lists. He has been an All Star and the Grey Cup’s most valuable player. While he has achieved great feats, his career in football has been perplexing, confusing and rewarding.
“I guess that’s just life,” Ray says. “You go through a lot of ups and downs, and just react to opportunities that come your way. It has been an incredible adventure so far. I have always tried to work hard and be prepared for any situation that comes my way. None of it was planned; it was just hard work and a little bit of luck.”
His talents have been anchored by strong leadership, savvy instincts and acute vision. Accuracy has always been the 6-foot, 3-inch right-hander’s credo. At Shasta High School, the 1997 graduate was a pinpoint pitcher on the mound and a sharp-shooter on the court. He was also one of the Northern Section’s top quarterbacks on the gridiron. As a Wolf, however, he didn’t receive scholarship offers. They would come.
Prior to his junior year in high school, he broke his left tibia and fibula while attempting to turn a double play during a Colt League baseball game. “I don’t know how much that may have had an effect on my possibilities of getting a scholarship,” Ray says. “Sacramento State did recruit me out of high school, but didn’t offer me a scholarship. I guess the second time was a charm, because they eventually offered me one after Shasta College.”
Following his sophomore season with the Knights, he was named an All-American and the California Junior College Player of the Year. One of his most notable achievements was throwing 199 consecutive passes without an interception over the 1997 and ‘98 seasons. At Sac State, he became the Hornets’ all-time leader in completion percentage (.619). His accuracy trend continued last season, as he set a CFL record by completing 92 percent (23-for-25) of his passes in the final game of the season.
Ray’s journey through professional football was given a kick start by another Sac State alumnus, Greg Knapp, who was a coach for the San Francisco 49ers. Through Knapp’s connections, Ray was called to be an “extra arm” in the team’s 2001 training camp. He didn’t make the team’s final roster, but the opportunity opened doors for him He was soon invited to try out for the Fresno Frenzy of the Arena Football League 2, where his head coach was Rick Worman, a former CFL quarterback (and currently the Eskimos’ quarterbacks coach). “He said that if I did well, he would try to get me into the CFL,” Ray says. He played eight games for Fresno and did well enough to use Worman’s connections. “If it weren’t for him, who knows where I would have ended up?” Ray says. He arrived in the Great White North with an opportunity to be a third-string quarterback.
By the fifth week of the 2002 CFL season, he was the starting quarterback. Injuries to the first- and second-string signal callers landed Ray in the driver’s seat. He took control, and led the Esks to the 90th Grey Cup. He was the rookie who came out of nowhere to lead his storied franchise back to prominence. However, the Cup wasn’t theirs, as they lost to the Montreal Alouettes, 26-16. In the game, Ray threw for 324 yards. The next season, he led the Eskimos back to the Cup. This time the green and gold won, defeating the Alouettes, 34-22. He threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns.
Following a season with the New York Jets, Ray returned to Edmonton in 2005. It was a welcome return, as he again led the Esks to the title, winning the Grey Cup for the 13th time in franchise history.
After completing 35 of 45 passes, he was named the game’s MVP.
“Winning a championship at the professional level is a great feeling,” Ray says. “For that year, you and your team were the best, and they can never take that away from you. Each championship meant something different to me, because each year is different and you are always overcoming different obstacles.”
Over the past three seasons, Ray and the Eskimos have been contenders, but have not returned to the title game. Last season, they fell in the West finals. This season, they have a new head coach and have added some valuable free agents. It’s also the final season on Ray’s contract. While speculation may come up that he could again try his hand at the NFL, following the likes of Moon, Doug Flutie and Jeff Garcia, he has his own arguments against the move.
“I am very happy in the CFL, because I get the opportunity to play, which is better than sitting the bench somewhere,” Ray says. “The Canadian experience has been good, too. It’s not much different than (playing) in the U.S. – it’s just a little colder.” •
For more information about Ricky Ray and the Edmonton Eskimos, visit www.esks.com