Welcome to the League

Shane Ray scrolled through his Twitter mentions early in the afternoon of June 3; he couldn’t help but laugh. This was ridiculous. He paused before responding.

The Broncos first round pick had just wrapped up another day at Dove Valley with OTAs in full swing. He had also become a very rich man fewer than 48 hours before.

Ray practiced with the Broncos for the first time ever on June 1. A big toe injury suffered in a Citrus Bowl win exactly five months before, on New Year’s Day 2015, kept the former Mizzou star from participating in drills at the NFL Scouting Combine in February and had scared away at least a few teams.

“I hadn’t been on a football field for so long, it’s just about dusting off that rust,” Ray said.

The reward for getting back on the field? Ray signed a hefty four-year, $9.1 million deal that came with a bow on top in the form of a $4.9 million signing bonus just hours after that first practice. The timing, by all accounts, was a coincidence, but nothing says “you’re in the big leagues now” like one practice followed by becoming an instant millionaire.

The next day two cameramen, an editor and a writer had taken over the lobby at Dove Valley, waiting for Ray. The Broncos’ brand new entrance hall is as grand and spectacular as the foyer of an old European castle. At least it feels that way if you bleed blue and orange. The trophy case is stocked full of tokens from years past including Super Bowl rings, important footballs and trophies earned over the decades. The two Lombardi Trophies delivered by King Elway sit right in the middle; it must be noted there’s plenty of room to add more.

Part of being in the big leagues is doing photo shoots and granting interviews – sometimes when the ink on a contract isn’t even a day old. Ray emerged from the back hallways of Dove Valley, walked to the left of the trophy case and saw his brand new jersey waiting for him. The 22-year old struggled to put it on. He’s not fat – more like jacked – but they love making these things as snug as possible. Ray finally pulled his neck through the hole in the top and looked relieved to have the uniform on. Gameday jerseys are made deliberately tight, to prevent big ol’ offensive lineman from holding on to beasts like Ray, but for now the jersey only stayed on while the camera flashed.

Smiling (and happy to be done taking pictures), Ray talked about idols like DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, personal goals for 2015 and growing up in Kansas City. Surely, being a lifelong Chiefs fan had to make it weird being drafted by the Broncos. It was, without a doubt, but there’s a saving grace.

“I had to the think about it only one way: At least I wasn’t a Raider,” Ray said with a grin.

The quote was too good not to hit social media. Raiders fans are naturally sensitive – and also assholes – so this bite prompted responses in the Twitterverse within minutes. All of them had Ray’s handle, @X_RAYted56, included – meaning he could instantly see the barbs hurled his way with a simple tap of the notifications button.

see i was gonna be cool but now i hope that toe kills his career

@redshiftrider – June 2, 2015 – 3:44 p.m.

and idgaf if he sees what i wrote. Prolly too high to see it str8 anyway

@redshiftrider – June 2, 2015 – 3:46 p.m.

He isn’t man enough for #RaiderNation fucken chump should be with the Donkeys

@2014Robmorg – June 2, 2015 – 3:47 p.m.

he’ll eat his words soon enough

@‏soullpunx – June 2, 2015 – 3:50 p.m.

we have (Khalil Mack) … Don’t need no bum

@Deepalmaa – June 2, 2015 – 4:04 p.m.

Report for spam #Raidernation lol

@TDGawd – June 2, 2015 – 4:11 p.m.

There were more. Some with language so inappropriate or making so little sense they aren’t worth printing. None of the above will win a Pulitzer, but hopefully they’re at least coherent enough to get the gist.

Flash forward 22 hours later and the chuckling Ray couldn’t help himself. There wasn’t a need to respond to any of the clowns individually; one message put all the silliness to bed.

I see some raiders fans a little salty lol

@X_RAYted56 – June 3, 2015 – 2:36 p.m.

The tweet picked up more than 80 retweets and nearly 200 favorites. It also came with congratulatory responses from Broncos fans. Ray was a member of their favorite team now and had done them proud without even playing a down. He ticked off Raiders fans and did it without engaging a single troll. He was officially entrenched in a rivalry that hasn’t been good for a while – simply because the Raiders are so bad – but will always rile some people up, even if it’s on a Wednesday in June.

Ray’s welcome to Broncos fans may have come that day, but his welcome to the team, to the guys and to a legend, came a little more than eight days before.

***

Peyton Manning was annoyed.

It had been an offseason of the same questions over and over again. One day in late May was nothing different.

“Peyton, are you comfortable in Gary Kubiak’s offense yet?”

“I think you always have to be learning and asking a lot of questions,” Manning said, while not really saying anything at all.

After all, Manning did deadpan back in January (right after Kubiak was hired) the only offense he may not be comfortable in is, “Tubby Raymond’s Delaware Blue Hen Wing T offense.” This isn’t rocket science. It’s football. Manning’s won five MVP awards and will be just fine. Some reporters don’t seem to be sure – or maybe they just like to hear themselves talk.

“Peyton, how much does it hurt not having Demaryius Thomas at practice?”

“Like I said, I want what’s best for him,” Manning said in the middle of a rambling response.

Translation: I’m not going to sit here and talk about another guy’s contract situation no matter how many times anyone asks. Thomas’ absence from Dove Valley was a popular topic, but clearly the future Hall of Famer wasn’t taking the bait. John Elway torched Thomas for the media back on April 23 saying, “I see absolutely zero value in him being away from here – zero value for him… it makes no sense for him not be here,” but the guy throwing Thomas the ball this season wouldn’t do the same.

“Peyton, what was it like playing golf with Shane Ray on Tuesday?”

Manning’s mood and tone took a shift. A chance to bust on a rookie and get a few chuckles from the local scribes? He pounced on the opportunity.

“It’s old, boring and cliché, but all of us need to be sticking with (our) day jobs for sure – Shane especially… It was his first time playing golf, so that can be a humbling experience,” Manning said, greeted with hardy laughs.

Ray’s first time playing couldn’t have been at a much nicer place. The Broncos gathered at the Sanctuary Golf Course right before OTAs commenced for their annual team outing and the spring rain had the always-pristine course in even better shape than usual.

When Ray found out he’d be sharing a cart with No. 18 the rookie had to take a second and regroup.

“I had to keep telling myself not to act weird. I mean, I was with Peyton Manning. He’s one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Playing golf with him and just interacting with him as a teammate was very different. It was just awesome. I was like, ‘Wow, I’m playing golf with a legend,’” Ray said.

There were big divots, lost balls, ugly swings and at times a few too many strokes to count, but the experience in general couldn’t have been better for Ray. He couldn’t wait to share the news with the people he cares about most.

“When all my family found out they were like, ‘Oh my God you’re playing golf with Peyton!’ I was like, ‘He’s my teammate now.’ It was all pretty awesome,” Ray said, still humbled by the experience more than a week after the fact.

One of those family members was Shane’s mother, Sebrina Johnson, who couldn’t have been more floored and happy to hear the news.

“Peyton Manning is (one of the all-time greats). For Shane to even be in the same world is so surreal. He’s just in the presence of all this greatness,” Johnson said from her home in Kansas City.

Then there was the photo.

A shot of Ray, Manning and fellow rookies Ty Sambrailo and Max Garcia on the green went slightly viral. The two rookie offensive lineman each had both arms raised triumphantly over their heads. Manning, right hand in the air, fist pumping like he just threw another record-breaking touchdown pass, and Ray on one knee, left arm flexed almost as if he was Tebowing. In the foreground is a golf ball, lipping into the hole as the foursome looks on and celebrates the made putt triumphantly.

Johnson has a Twitter account and, of course, follows the Broncos. It was the team account that tweeted out the picture, and she immediately wondered if it was her son Shane who made the putt.

“Shane prides himself on being the ultimate athlete. When he threw the (first) pitch at the Royals stadium he was like, ‘All I care about is getting it across home plate.’ And he did, so I thought maybe he pulled it off and got the ball in the hole,” Johnson said with a laugh. “I called him up and said, ‘Did you do that?!’ And he said, ‘No, it was staged.’”

Staged or not, would it really surprise anyone if Ray was a natural golfer? The guy’s a freak of an athlete with the build of, well, a freakish athlete. The Broncos website lists him at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds but you could add two inches and 15 pounds to that and anyone who meets Ray in person wouldn’t be surprised.

With Miller a free agent after 2015, and Ware turning 33 at the end of the July, Ray could go from the Broncos third-best pass rusher as a rookie to the guy on the defensive line in 2016. While expectations are high this season, there’s no doubt moving forward he’ll need to be a 15-plus sack player. But going from relative anonymity to a full-fledged star is nothing new for Ray. His path from Kansas City, to Mizzou, to the Broncos, featured plenty of changed allegiances, high expectations and one already planned bold celebration.

Sabrina Johnson’s home is undergoing a bit of a makeover.

Specifically, her wardrobe.

The Chiefs stuff has got to go.

“I will not have any crimson and white in my house – it will all be Denver Broncos,” Johnson said.

There’s one thing that’s crucial to understand about Johnson and Ray. They’re not casual Chiefs fans. They’re diehards, or, were diehards. The Chiefs were one of the biggest highlights every fall growing up just 15 minutes away from Kansas City. Ray says his aunt would usually get them tickets to Arrowhead Stadium, a place that, let’s face it, has given the Broncos fits over the years. Bitter weather and boisterous fans take a toll on the opposition inside Arrowhead, a place that quickly became Ray’s (and mom’s) favorite place to watch football.

“Our family, our city, all my friends are just crazy. We tailgate; we do it strong. We just love the Chiefs and cheering them on,” Johnson said.

This, of course, creates a bit of a problem. One that’s going to come to the forefront early in the 2015 season. The Broncos play at Arrowhead on Thursday night in Week 2. The NFL season will be just a week old when Ray takes the field in front of his friends and family on September 17.

“It’s going to be amazing. Knowing the kind of atmosphere Arrowhead has and brings. I’m so excited to go out there and be able to play at home. I won’t be in a Chiefs jersey, I’ll be in a Broncos jersey, but I’ll be playing at home and there’s no greater feeling that that,” Ray said.

Preparations are already being made for the homecoming. Johnson and her friends want to make sure the night is special. They are also prepared to take the plunge that night; ready to become full-fledged Broncos fans.

“Everyone loves Shane in this city,” Johnson said. “He’s a city kid that made it and everyone honors him. We’re already planning. We’re doing a big tailgate and my friends are getting shirts made that say ‘Kansas City is in our heart, but we have Shane Ray’s back.’ At that big tailgate I want to have that shirt on; I’ll be a total Denver Bronco. All my friends want to support Shane even though he’s going to be a Denver Bronco.”

This isn’t the first time Johnson has switched her rooting interests on the fly. She’s a graduate of the University of Kansas. The rivalry between Mizzou and Kansas, at least in Midwestern circles, is huge – and nasty. It’s Duke-North Carolina, Red Sox-Yankees, Broncos-Raiders. Go to a home football or basketball game in Columbia, Mo. and over and over again you’ll hear half the crowd chant “MIZ” while the other half responds with a raucous “ZOU.” When Kansas comes to town the chant is slightly modified. The alumni let out the “MIZ;” the students respond with “F*CK-KU.”

There are two problems right now. First, Kansas has refused to play Mizzou since the Tigers left the crumbling Big 12 for the greener pastures of the SEC. Second, Kansas’ recent football teams have been awful. The Jayhawks are 12-48 the last five years and a jaw-droppingly terrible 3-41 in the Big 12. Their over/under for 2015 wins, set by Las Vegas, is at 1.5 games.

“If we (Kansas) had a good football team it’d be different, but we don’t,” Johnson explained. “(Shane) went to the best place. Mizzou has been putting lineman into the league so that was the best place to go. I was like, ‘Free college – that’s good enough for me.’ I let that go for football at Mizzou.”

And her assessment of the Tigers churning out productive defensive linemen who had crazy college success and are now thriving in the NFL is spot-on. Aldon Smith, who was picked No. 7 overall out of Missouri back in 2011, has a litany of off field problems, but has racked up 44 sacks in four NFL seasons. He tallied an eye-popping 33.5 sacks for the Niners his first two years in the league. In 2013 Sheldon Richardson went 13th overall to the Jets and promptly won Defensive Rookie of the Year. The All-SEC selection in 2012 spent two very productive years in Columbia and mentored Ray. With Smith and Richardson in the league it was clear his time was coming.

“Every year it’s expected we have a defensive lineman who has a breakout year,” Ray said. “I just think that’s how our room was there. It’s the expectation from the coaches and the players. Everyone jumped on board with that tradition that we’re going to have an NFL guy every year. I felt like I just had to do it. I was able to accomplish some really great things at Mizzou and make some history of my own.”

Ray had a modest 4.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 2013 while Michael Sam made headlines, winning SEC Defensive Player of the Year and putting up 11.5 sacks of his own. With Sam off the team in 2014 Ray broke out – and broke records. He racked up a silly 14.5 sacks, good for a school record that was previously held by Sam and, before him, Smith.

Mizzou is called “D-line U” for a reason. You know about Smith, Richardson, Sam and now Ray. But how about Kony Ealy, Markus Golden, Dominique Hamilton, Ziggy Hood, Jacquies Smith, Justin Smith and Sean Weatherspoon? They’re all guys who have played in the NFL over the last 15 years (Golden is a rookie like Ray) and there’s more than a handful of Pro Bowls and promise to go around with that bunch.

Ray’s next.

He’s had the best training in college football. Think of defensive linemen who produce at Mizzou like PhD recipients from Princeton. They’re the best at what they do and are more than adequately prepared for their careers.

It’s not just the numbers that support Ray possibly being the best defensive lineman to ever emerge from Missouri. Craig Kuligowski, the defensive line coach, has been the guy mostly responsible for the group’s success. He’s been at the school since 1996, so this isn’t his first rodeo. His praise for Ray is sky-high.

“Shane athletically – the whole package – he’s the fastest guy I think I’ve ever coached,” Kuligowski said via phone from his office in Columbia. “His ability to compete is as good or better than anybody I’ve ever seen. Shane’s play for us, it was better than Aldon Smith’s.

“The guy I’d compare him to athletically most was Von Miller. I know you guys like Von Miller there so you guys will probably enjoy Shane.”

Those wild expectations will start Week 1 against the Ravens, but that Week 2 game against the Chiefs is the one to circle. It’s the logical coming-out party for the young man so fond of Kansas City, but so ready to succeed as a member of the Broncos. Ray has something special in mind for that night.

“I told my mom after I get a sack I’m going to run down the home sideline,” Ray said with a grin.

“When Shane was drafted by the Broncos my friends were like, ‘We’re glad for Shane and happy for him, but gosh, we don’t know what we’re going to do about him being a Bronco,’” Johnson said.

The t-shirts are a good place to start; a Ray sack that mid-September night would place their the dilemma front and center. Look for Ray to alert the Chiefs and their fans, knowing he just put Alex Smith on his back.

***

It took about 12 hours for the media to get ahold of the news, but once they did, the story took off like wildfire.

Ray very nearly wasn’t a member of the Broncos. He easily could have been on the Washington Redskins or New York Jets. Find a mock draft from February, March or April and Ray was slated to go at No. 5 or No. 6 to one of those two teams in almost all of them.

It was Monday morning, April 27, and Ray saw sirens in his rearview mirror. He was pulled over just after 6 a.m. in Cooper County, Mo. for driving in the left lane without passing anyone on the right. A technicality that’s rarely enforced; a fishy reason to stop someone.

The officer found fewer than 35 grams of marijuana in the car and wrote Ray a citation. He wasn’t under the influence or impaired and wasn’t detained. He was out and about before the sun rose that morning and saw his draft stock take a big hit just after sunset that night.

It doesn’t take someone who has passed the bar exam to figure it out. Had Ray been pulled over in Colorado that morning he likely wouldn’t have received a ticket at all. All of this would be a non-issue and Ray might be in New York answering questions about being reunited with Sheldon Richardson.

But he isn’t. He’s in Denver after the Broncos sprinted to the podium to take him at No. 23 overall. It took a trade with the Lions to move up five spots but it was worth it. John Elway couldn’t believe Shane Ray tumbled as far as he did and as soon as he was in range No. 7 pulled the trigger one more time. There was no way he wasn’t moving up to grab Ray.

“We felt the price was right. Where Shane fell on our board, we just felt like it was something we couldn’t pass up. We have the upmost confidence in Shane that in talking with him that he realized the mistake that he made and guaranteed that it wouldn’t happen again. We got a guy that plays with his hair on fire, rushes the passer, loves the game of football, is competitive and is going to be a great fit for us,” a beaming Elway said after the first round deep into the night of April 30.

Ray felt bad about the situation, there’s no doubt. It was a silly position to put himself in. In today’s world it’s also just not that big of a deal. There are many worse things athletes do than possess a little weed. The way he’s handled himself since the incident has been admirable. It will ultimately be a footnote for a guy hoping to have a long and prosperous career.

***

It was just a couple hours after Ray called Raiders fans “salty.” He had struck again.

Another set of nasty tweets were rolling in from guys with profanity in their profile and some of the dumbest silver and black costumes you’ll ever see. It’s a football game; not Halloween. Raiders fans just don’t get it.

This was now, without a doubt, hilarious. People hiding behind their smart phones and computers talking smack to a guy who could squash them like the cockroaches they are. Ray needed to send one more tweet.

Comedy. I forgot how funny Twitter could be.

@X_RAYted56 – June 3, 2015 – 4:25 p.m.

Broncos fans, once again, thought the response was awesome. Their first round pick had managed to needle a fan base that has won just 11 games the last three seasons combined. The Broncos haven’t won fewer than 12 games in each season of the Peyton Manning era.

Since Raiders fans let Ray have it on Twitter, he’s posted some fun tweets here and there. The guy’s a cool cat – seemingly sending to the world what’s on his mind when the time is right.

The toe and I are Gucci lol

@X_RAYted56 – June 4, 2015 – 6:03 p.m.

Gouda cheese is good

@X_RAYted56 – June 7, 2015 – 2:55 p.m.

I need summer jam tickets

@X_RAYted56 – June 11, 2015 – 1:58 p.m.

A good update on the toe that’s been bothering him, a cheese everyone can appreciate and tickets to one of Denver’s premier summer concerts? Hopefully those don’t incite the wannabe pirates out in Oakland. Even if they do, Ray will handle it just fine.

Welcome to the NFL, rookie; there will be a lot of outside noise that needs to be laughed off.

Ray passed his first test with flying colors.

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