UNC student mascot dies after traffic accident

Updated: March 26, 2007, 8:28 PM ET
Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. -- Jason Ray, a North Carolina student who performed as a mascot for the school's basketball team, died three days after being struck by a car hours before an NCAA Tournament game. He was 21.

Ray died Monday morning, said Steve Kirschner, the university's associate athletic director for communications.

An NCAA official told ESPN.com that the men's basketball tournament selection committee is discussing with the four Final Four teams to determine how they will memoralize Ray's death prior to Saturday's national semifinals.

"On behalf of the NCAA and its member institutions, we extend our condolences to the family and friends of Jason Ray, the young man who died this morning as a result of injuries sustained after an accident late last week in New Jersey," NCAA president Dr. Myles Brand said in a statement released by the NCAA. "Jason was in East Rutherford for the Division I men's basketball tournament East Regional, where he was to serve as the mascot for the University of North Carolina and be among the thousands of young people who get to be a part of this special event. It is with great sorrow that we learned of Jason's passing."

Ray had been in critical condition at Hackensack University Medical Center since the accident Friday afternoon. He was hit from behind while walking on a highway shoulder near his Fort Lee hotel after going to a nearby convenience store.

Ray performed as UNC's ram mascot, Rameses. He was scheduled to graduate in May with a major in business administration and a minor in religion. He was in New Jersey for the men's game between North Carolina and Southern California.

"Jason was a wonderful son, brother and friend," Ray's brother, Allen, said in a statement released by the university. "He leaves behind a legacy of friendship, laughter, excitement for life and a genuine love for all the people he touched during his all-too-short life."

Emmitt Ray said his son "absolutely loved" dressing up as Rameses, despite the costume's bulk.

"It was his way of supporting the team," the father told The Star-Ledger of Newark. "There are things you just can't explain. He wasn't doing anything he wasn't supposed to be doing. He was 200 yards from the hotel."

No charges have been filed against the driver of the sport utility vehicle. Police said the driver stopped immediately to try to help Ray and called 911. Police also said the driver had a valid driver's license and did not appear to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

On Sunday, more than two dozen family members and friends held a bedside vigil for Ray. About 40 people attended a prayer session for him on the UNC campus Sunday afternoon, said Laura Ely, a UNC senior who met Ray early in their freshman year.

Ely recalled in an e-mail how Ray auditioned for the mascot role.

"I remember vividly Jason telling me about trying out for a position as UNC mascot," she wrote. "He was instructed to dress up in costume and walk around the pit [a common area on campus] and interact with students as if he were at a game interacting with fans. He obviously made a good impression because he was soon accepted and began dressing for games right away."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press