O’Leary: Reminiscing on the legacy of Ricky Ray

Sitting on the other end of a massive conference call with media at his home in Redding, California, Ricky Ray was asked if this was what he’d wanted.

A four-time Grey Cup champion, the CFL’s fourth all-time leading passer and its most accurate ever quarterback (that’s the tip of an iceberg full of hall of fame-worthy stats), Ray’s retirement easily warranted more than a 40-minute conversation with media thousands of kilometres away from him.

At the same time it was the most apt way for Ray to leave the game of football.

“It was (my decision),” Ray said. “I called Jim (Popp, the GM of the Toronto Argonauts) and I told him I was ready to make the announcement. He told me they’d do anything. They gave me all the options of what to do and told me to do what I’m most comfortable with.”

MORE ON RAY’S RETIREMENT
» Ricky Ray officially retires from CFL
» By the Numbers: A look at Ricky Ray’s career
» Player Bio: Ricky Ray through the years
» Ambrosie congratulates Ray on retirement

» Maas sends wishes to former teammate

 

If you’ve followed the tiniest portion of Ray’s 17-year career, that he’d choose the most low-key and practical way to make such a significant announcement shouldn’t be surprising at all.

Ray will get his moment in the sun with the Argos. He’ll be honoured by the team at its home opener on June 22. But why go out of your way to be celebrated twice?

“To fly all the way up and answer questions and turn around and come back (six weeks later), in the grand scheme of things it would be more enjoyable for me to come up and enjoy a game and see everyone then,” he said.

“I wanted to make this announcement and I was ready to get it done.”

The CFL might see another player like Ricky Ray again. Another quarterback might be able to walk out onto our large fields and lob perfect, pillowy passes into the end zone on a corner route. He might be oblivious to the chaos around him and be able to methodically march the ball the length of the field for a touchdown in the final drive of a game. He might even be able to do it with a steely-eyed game face that would make Kawhi Leonard seem expressive. That much is possible.

But the CFL will never see a person like Ricky Ray again.

“You’re an all-time legend,” Popp said when he joined the call on Wednesday.

“And as much as you are that, you’re an absolute humble person. Probably the most humble star that I’ve ever been around.

“What the public doesn’t see, the public eye, media or anybody other than your teammates and coaches and people like myself is how respected you are, how tough you are and what leadership you brought to the table every day, on and off the field.”

CFL.ca connected with a number of Ray’s former teammates, coaches and general managers to put those behind the scenes attributes into the forefront. Their memories and insights are below.

LEADERSHIP

Ray stands in the huddle with his teammates at Rogers Centre (Adam Gagnon/CFL.ca)

A portion of Ray’s career — the early years in particular — saw him catch criticism for being so quiet on and off of the field. The quarterback spot is a leadership role and when Ray didn’t show the same fire or in-your-face aggression to teammates, opponents or even officials that other QBs in the league did, some saw it as a detriment. As fans across Canada got to know Ray, they learned that leadership can take many different forms.

Orlondo Steinauer (played against Ray from 2002 to 2008, coached him with Toronto in 2012 and coached against him from 2013 to 2018): He’s just a calming influence, he is how he appears. The very first pass of that Grey Cup (in 2012) he threw an interception but it wasn’t indicative of how he finished. It summarizes what he’s about. He doesn’t get too high or too low. He just stays in the median. He’s a proven winner.

The last thing you want to be is inauthentic. When you’re around a group of guys every day they’re going to see right through that, so I think it’s important to be who you are and Ricky exemplifies that. The fact that he’s quiet, people understood that but they knew he was about business and winning and committed to the good of the whole team That was never in question. I think that’s how he led, mainly by example and commitment.

Jason Maas (played QB with Ray from 2002 to 2005 and from 2008 to 2011; coached him in Toronto from 2012 to 2014): It’s not that he can’t and that he doesn’t speak his mind, he just chooses very selectively when he does it. When you work as hard as he does and put the time in and you set high expectations that way and hold people accountable and let your work do your talking, that’s being a leader. Watching Ricky get up every single time from a hit and not say anything to anybody. That says a lot about the individual.

Ricky is never high, he’s never low. He’s just even keel and he’s been that way his whole career. That shows you, if that’s who you are, be that guy. Ricky’s always been that, that’s why he can lead the way he does. Everyone knows what they’re going to get from him. They know it’s good enough to win a championship, so it’s like, ‘Don’t mess with that guy. Let’s get in line.’

Any time Ricky Ray talks to you, if you’re a receiver, if you’re a running back, I know he has their ear. I know they’re hearing everything he’s saying to them because of the knowledge he has and the fact that he doesn’t speak often. When he does speak it carries more weight.

DeVone Claybrooks (played against Ray from 2007 to 2011 and coached against him from 2012 to 2018): He does a good job of letting his play do the talking. You know you’re going to get a warrior out there. If you as an offensive line get beat and your quarterback is wiping blood and he’s not even looking at you, he’s concentrating on the next play, you have confidence in that, that you can do better because he’s doing better. That’s how you coach your standard.

Ed Hervey (teammate of Ray’s in Edmonton from 2002 to 2006): When Ricky came to Edmonton we had a veteran team. It was in his best interest not to say a whole lot outside of calling the plays, he’d probably end up tied up in the whirlpool or something (laughs).

As we grew to know him and understand him, he was a naturally quiet guy but he said what he needed to say and when he did speak you’d listen. He did explain things that he needed done and it wasn’t in a belligerent way. As far as everything else was concerned he was one of the greatest teammates. He was quiet for a quarterback but he didn’t really need to speak, he did it with his play.

Dave Dickenson (played against Ray in 2003 and 2005 to 2007; coached against him from 2009 to 2018): There are certain guys that you feel like you’re a bit more similar to. I’ve always felt like we have a lot of similarities, as far as our priorities and how we live our lives.

I think the best quarterbacks you’ll know are the ones that guys would die for that man. You’re not going to find a lot of teammates that don’t believe or trust in Ricky Ray.

TOUGH AS NAILS

Ray takes a hit from an Edmonton Eskimo in 2016 (The Canadian Press)

Ray’s quiet nature and his surgical passing ability inadvertently worked against him in some regards. He wasn’t going to set blazing records with his 40 time, but in his early days in Edmonton he was a respectable rusher, hitting a career-best 469 yards on the ground in 2006. His toughness was also overshadowed. Ray endured some crushing hits through his career and would almost always quietly get up and get back in the huddle to lead his team’s next play. He also came back from a career-threatening shoulder injury and a partially deflated lung.

“Some really tough times for me, just physically,” Ray said of the injuries later in his career.

“When I hurt my shoulder in 2013 that really affected how I had to play the game. There were times when I was first coming back, I couldn’t throw the ball 10 yards, it was so painful.

“Then I got to a point where I could barely throw 30 yards. Then there were times where I couldn’t even, I think the max I could get to was 40 and 45-yards.

“That was probably the hardest thing physically, was just going out to practice every day and going into games and knowing that I just couldn’t throw it like I once used to be able to do it.”

DeVone Claybrooks: We were in Montreal. It was Dario Romero, one of our defensive tackles. And we both won. I hit him low and he hit him high. It was one of those hits, blood comes out of his mouth and we’re cheering like, ‘It’s over. He ain’t getting up.’ He wiped the blood off of his mouth and got back in the huddle and I was like…(face drops).

Jim Popp (Argos GM with Ray from 2017 to 2018; saw Ray as an opponent in three Grey Cups): With the injuries that he had, golly, he’s a tough guy. I would say after working with him you really realized how tough a guy he is and how mentally (tough he was). He could play hurt. With injuries. How important it was to him that maybe you would never see or know.

I found with Ricky he’d take a lot of shots in the pocket unnecessarily. He had this unique way of letting someone get open and he would hold that ball until the last minute and take that shot just to get the ball thrown to a player so he’d get him.

Sometimes it’d be a reflection of these guys aren’t blocking well for him. Sometimes it was him holding the ball until the last minute that he absolutely could to make the play work better. That’s something I learned about him, what he did to sacrifice. He sacrificed himself to make the team better.

Ed Hervey: I know that people talk about the toughest player in the league being (Mike) Reilly and that credit definitely is deserving but people need to go back and look at those years (in Edmonton). The offensive line in front of Ricky wasn’t all there and the punishment he took, he got back up and kept playing.

I think the majority of his career will be underrated and understated because he never complained, he never said anything. If you put a collage of his plays, his greatest plays you’ll see he was one of the all-time greatest to ever play in this league and if you see the punishment he took to stay in the pocket I think people’s opinion of him would change as a tough quarterback.

Chris Jones (coached Ray in Toronto in 2012 and coached against him from 2002 to 2018): He’s just unassuming, a great guy but underneath that is a very big competitor and he’s got ice water in his veins. He’ll stand in there and take those hits and deliver that football.

There was a long stretch where he was a thorn in my side in Montreal. The biggest thing is the fact that he’s a much bigger competitor than what people realize. He’s there, he grinds, he works, it matters to him. He’s just one of those very unassuming type of guys. He’s not big on bravado. I’ve been around a lot of guys over my time and he’s a competitor.

FRUGALITY

 

It didn’t come up directly during Wednesday’s call, but Ray’s ability to hang onto his money is known league-wide. Some would call it cheapness but Hervey, Ray’s former teammate, preferred to call it a frugalness. The most obvious example of this came if you got to an Argos game early enough to see Ray, one of the biggest and highest-paid names in the CFL, hopping off of the GO Train at Exhibition Station.

“I really do miss that. It was a good, relaxing way to get into the game,” Ray said of his train rides from Port Credit.

“Just being able to ride the GO Train in Toronto, I could put my headphones on and stare out the window, it was just a time that I really enjoyed, getting to the games. I’ll definitely miss that.”

Chris Jones: He drives I think a 1991 Ford Explorer. It has to be the same one he had in his rookie year.

Ed Hervey: I don’t know about the cheapest player…it was probably a competition between him and Jason Maas. When I played it was probably those two, they mastered the art of saving their per diem. They’d split a bag of trail mix or something or maybe some deer jerky.

With Ricky, I don’t know if it was cheap. He was frugal. He was financially conscious. He was very aware of how to survive on a CFL salary and maximizing his per diem and making sure it made it home.

Jason Maas: I don’t think I’m as frugal as Ricky. He pinched his pennies his first couple of years, for sure. He knows what he’s spent his money on.

Pretty much every road trip (going to Subway) was the cheapest thing he could eat. When we first roomed together I would order room service because I didn’t like to leave the room and I’d eat a lot. If I had any leftovers, Ricky would eat those.

He rubbed off on me more than I rubbed off on him. I got to the point in my career where I was like, ‘I’m going to save some of this per diem, I’m going to save some of this stuff.’ He’s definitely known for his frugality.

THE ONE TIME HIS EMOTIONS GOT THE BEST OF HIM

Whether through the air or on the ground, Ricky Ray found the end zone 360 times in his CFL career. There’s one touchdown that stands out from the rest to many of his teammates and coaches. It came at the end of a seven-yard run that put Ray’s Argos up 30-7 over his former team, the Edmonton Eskimos, in the Eastern Semi-Final in 2012. The sting of being suddenly dealt to Toronto almost a year earlier and the surge of his new team taking its first step toward a Grey Cup got the best of Ray. He jumped in the air and spiked the ball between his legs.

Jason Maas: That was so out of character for him. Ed Hervey and I used to joke when Ricky first showed up about how he was so mellow. He literally showed no emotion whatsoever. We used to joke that he’d go home and jump on the bed, behind closed doors. That was the first glimpse of seeing Ricky outwardly express any emotion. You knew it meant something to him, you knew leaving Edmonton wasn’t easy and it was out of his control and winning that playoff game was a big deal.

Mike O’Shea: I wouldn’t say it was out of character. It was just a part of his character that he didn’t show very often. When it showed, the rallying cry it gave the team was pretty unique.

It’s the (touchdown) run more than anything. He was fired up and I think that was an important time right there. I think guys always understood how important it was to him and they just enjoyed that moment. I think it had some lasting effect.

LEGACY

Ray smiles after winning the East Division in 2017 (Johany Jutras/CFL.ca)

The stats will tell you very quickly that Ray is no doubt hall of fame-bound. The one person who will likely never weigh in on where he stands in the all-time greats debate? Ray.

“I don’t really consider myself anything,” Ray said in training camp last year, just a few weeks before his season-ending neck injury.

“(Success definitely gives me confidence, for sure. I can definitely draw off of those experiences I’ve had. I have the confidence knowing that if we do get to another Grey Cup or East Final, I’ve been there and I know I can play well.

“But if you look at my career it’s been like this,” he said, doing a roller coaster motion with his hands. “I know things can change really fast. Honestly, I look at the other quarterbacks in the league and think, ‘Man, there are some talented guys, more talented than myself.’ I know that and I don’t try to rank myself with those guys. I just try to come out and do my best and help this team.”

Corey Chamblin (coached Ray with the Argos in 2017 and coached against Ray from 2007 to 2015): “The biggest thing is Ricky’s always been a winner and he has a winning mindset. That’s the thing. Ricky’s been a winner on and off the field. Ricky’s been a phenomenal player, he’s a phenomenal human being and he’ll probably be a phenomenal coach or whatever it is he wants to do after (he retires).”

Ed Hervey: I think Ricky’s legacy is he’s one of the greatest leaders who rarely said anything. He didn’t lead with his voice, he led with his play. But I think his legacy, he wasn’t a boisterous personality, he ended up being one of those guys that’s underappreciated for the actual greatness of his career.

You’re talking about a four-time Grey Cup champion quarterback. Year-in, year-out from the time he came into the league he was consistent at what he did, making the right decisions on the field, never once saying anything negative, never was in any controversy. He was one of the greatest players in our league but one of the most humble people. As a quarterback, you don’t think that personality goes with that position and that’s the uniqueness of Ricky. Tough as nails, and probably the most accurate quarterback I’ve ever played with. Definitely one of the most accurate quarterbacks I’ve ever seen play that position.

DeVone Claybrooks: He’s a winner. He’s one of the best pure passers in the league. There’s no better corner ball thrower in the league than that. He’s a great leader of men. Every team he’s gone to he’s won, been successful, played at a high level and put up numbers no matter what the system is. When you’re able to do it in multiple systems, that’s your fortitude as a player, to be a chameleon and adjust to those different circumstances.

Chris Jones: He’s top-five of all-time without question, in my opinion. He’s certainly one of the top guys I’ve ever gone against.

Orlondo Steinauer: He’s a hall of famer. There’s no doubt.

COACH RAY?

In Wednesday’s call, Ray said he’d take a year to distance himself from football, but his interest in coaching is no secret.

“It’s definitely in my mind. I’m not 100 per cent sure if that’s the direction I want to go in,” he said.

“I’ll make that decision over this next year.”

The door would be wide open for him in Edmonton if he chooses to pursue that profession.

Jason Maas: Ricky at some point will coach. He and I have had discussions in the past, much like Scott Milanovich and I had discussions when I was a player. The thing about coaching is you want to go somewhere that you know someone that you can trust so that it’ll be a good experience.

I do think Ricky will coach one day. I don’t know when. If he’s as good as he is with his money he can probably sit out a couple of years, spend some time with his family to make that decision. Would I love to have him on my staff one day? I would. I’d love to coach with him. In coaching you spend so much time around people and when you can spend time around your buddies it’s even better.