Commentary

Ray still fighting to play

Arthur Ray Jr. still dreams of suiting up for Michigan State

Originally Published: May 22, 2009
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- A large man appears at the entrance to the Skandalaris Football Center, braces himself with his crutches, swings open the door and hobbles inside.

Arthur Ray Jr.
Matthew Mitchell, MSU Athletic CommunicationsArthur Ray Jr. looks forward to the day he puts on the green and white in a game.

The interview will be held on the second floor, and while the stairs are navigable, the football-shaped elevator is the safer option. When Arthur Ray Jr. reaches his destination, the lobby outside Michigan State's football offices, he lowers himself onto a couch and places his crutches to the side.

The crutches have accompanied Ray since July 2007, when he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his right leg. Last week, doctors gave him the go-ahead to use only one crutch, but he hasn't fully supported himself for nearly 21 months.

He has enough hardware in his leg to fill a shelf at Ace or Home Depot. He has undergone four surgeries in addition to several other chemotherapy procedures. Amputation is still a word doctors use around Ray, who had a type of bone cancer that often results in patients losing a limb.

Bottom line: Ray doesn't look like a man who could play offensive line for Michigan State.

He doesn't pass the eye test.

But he aces the ear test.

Listen to Ray tell his story and it's hard not to believe that one day, he'll fulfill his dream and suit up in green and white.

"If all else fails, I just want my health, man," he said. "I just want to be able to walk without crutches. I just want to live a normal life again without restrictions, without worries.

"But there's still that itch in me. Football is in me. I can't give it up. I can't just wake up and be like, 'Maybe I don't want to play.' I do. I can play this game."

He played it extremely well for most of his life.

Ray was just a freshman in high school when he proudly informed his dad, Arthur Sr., that he would be going to college for free. After starring as an offensive lineman for Chicago-area powerhouse Mount Carmel High School, the younger Ray proved prophetic as scholarship offers streamed in from around the Midwest. He settled on Michigan State.

Toward the end of his senior season at Mount Carmel, Ray noticed a bump on his right leg. He didn't think much of it.

"In high school, they tell the D-linemen to dive at your legs," he said, "so I thought I just got bumped up, nothing too big. I just iced it."

The bump started growing and became more noticeable when Ray played in a high school All-American game in Florida on Jan. 4, 2007. But it wasn't enough to worry about, likely the result of another season in the trenches.

He signed with Michigan State in February and looked forward to preseason practice.

Ray But there's still that itch in me. Football is in me. I can't give it up. I can't just wake up and be like, 'Maybe I don't want to play.' I do. I can play this game.

-- Arthur Ray Jr.

"Then I was in school one day and I couldn't walk up the stairs," Ray said. "It was pain, real bad."

He underwent tests on the bump. Doctors initially thought it was a hematoma, but a biopsy showed it was a cancerous tumor.

The day before Michigan State's spring game in April, Ray was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer most often seen in teenage boys.

"It was crushing," Ray said.

Michigan State offensive line coach Dan Roushar, who recruited Ray to the school, was scheduled to start a recruiting trip in the Chicago area immediately after the spring game.

Instead, he got the go-ahead from head coach Mark Dantonio to shelve recruiting and accompany Ray and his family as they visited an oncologist.

The doctor detailed a daunting prognosis.

"They're talking about going through chemo and the chance of sterility occurring, loss of the limb, the potential for death, all the things they have to share with you," Roushar said. "We walked out of their office and I know I personally don't ever recall feeling as troubled and concerned for this young man and his family."

A different set of emotions rushed through Ray.

"This doctor, he didn't have too good of bedside manner," he said. "He was just like, 'You've got to start immediate chemotherapy. Throw football out the window. The most you'll do is run around with your grandkids.' I'm 17. I'm not trying to hear that at all. I'm not thinking about grandkids.

"He made me pretty angry that day."

Roushar immediately got on the phone with Michigan State's training staff, hoping to find a second opinion for Ray. Four days later, they met with Dr. Steven Gitelis, an orthopedic oncologist and a renowned surgeon who has written papers on osteosarcoma.

Gitelis provided a much more encouraging outlook. Since Ray's tumor was located at the base of his shin rather than on or near the knee joint, he wouldn't need a full knee replacement, which would have ended any hope of playing football again.

"If my cancer was about two or three inches higher, we wouldn't be talking right now," Ray said. "There wouldn't be a chance [to play]."

Roushar remembers Gitelis telling Ray: "You will play football again."

Ray immediately started chemo, which brought the typical side effects. He dropped 10 pounds the first week, lost his hair and developed mouth sores.

In late July, he underwent a 14-hour surgery to remove the tumor. A rod was inserted into Ray's leg along with plates and screws to hold the bone graft in place.

[+] EnlargeArthur Ray Jr.
Matthew Mitchell/MSU Athletic Communications Ray still has hurdles to clear before he resumes his playing career.

Ray stayed at home during the fall and continued chemo. He finally arrived at Michigan State in January 2008 to start the spring semester.

"Everything was going smoothly," Ray said. "I was on crutches, but it was about two months for me to get off of them, so I was feeling good. And then in March, I got another shock: bone infection."

Infection is always a risk for patients who have a bone graft and hardware inserted into their limbs. Though doctors at Michigan State closely monitored Ray for any changes, he developed a substantial infection on the same spot where the tumor had been removed.

"He was rushing it too quick, trying to put some weight down on it," said Dr. Doug Dietzel, Michigan State's team orthopedic surgeon, who detected the infection.

Ray withdrew from school and went back to Chicago, where he underwent another significant surgery. Doctors completely removed the bone, replaced it with a cement spacer and cleaned out the infection.

For eight weeks, Ray didn't have a tibia in his leg until it was reinserted with another procedure.

His home transformed into a pseudo hospital. Ray was on a PICC line, or permanent IV, and had to take Vancomycin, known as "the drug of last resort," which is used to treat infections when other treatments have failed.

"It was two hours and a half, and twice-a-day treatment," said Ray's mother, Adrian. "What 17-year-old wants to be in the house all day?"

Adrian started working part-time to be home with Arthur as much as she could. At night, she worked the midnight shift as a poker dealer at a nearby casino.

Arthur credits his support network for getting him through those weeks and months. His girlfriend rarely left his side, and family and friends were always around. But there were plenty of low moments.

"You know they say you're young and you think you're invincible," Ray said. "It's true. I had everything. I accomplished every high school goal I wanted to: all-conference, all the accolades, all the scholarship offers. You just never think something like that will happen.

He's been an inspiration for me and for a lot of our players.

-- Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio

"There was a point where I was like, 'Will I ever play this game again?' It just sat in my head. But I'm never going to let it overwhelm me. I can't imagine not playing out there again."

Ray has been cancer free for nearly two years. Dietzel is encouraged by what he sees on X-rays, and he's cautiously optimistic that Ray won't need any more procedures on the leg.

The hope is to get Ray completely off of crutches sometime in the next six weeks and have him walking without any assistance.

If Ray's leg continues to heal and can supply blood to the infected area to support his 6-foot-3, 307-pound frame, he can start increasing his activity. He returns to Chicago every six months for a series of tests -- MRI, X-ray, CT, bone scan -- and so far everything has been clean.

"Walking is the big step," Ray said. "Because before I can run, I've got to walk. Before I can sprint, I've got to run."

But skipping steps or rushing his rehab could have disastrous consequences. Infection remains a major risk, and Dietzel constantly stresses the importance of taking things slow.

"If you don't stay off of this and allow it to heal, the plates and the screws and the rod that's in your leg cannot support your weight by themselves," Dietzel tells Ray. "Bottom line is we are going to amputate your leg.

"My discussions with him are essentially, 'I want you to leave here in four or five years with a degree, being able to walk down the aisle and get your diploma and not going down with crutches or a wheelchair.' If he does play football, that's just gravy."

But football remains in the forefront of Ray's mind. He attended practices throughout the spring, wearing his No. 73 jersey on the sideline.

Unable to do any strength training with his legs, Ray still gets in some cardio work through aqua therapy, where he swims against a current in a pool.

He has worked extensively on his upper body, joining his teammates throughout the spring for their thrice-weekly 5 a.m. workouts. Ray increased his bench press to 375 pounds and hopes to reach 400 by the start of the season.

It's not his only target.

"My deadline's next spring," he said. "Next spring, you'll see me in some pads. I'm calling it now because I'm determined. I'm going to get it."

How realistic is a return to the gridiron?

Rebuilding strength in the leg is critical, and Ray knows it. He wants to be able to squat 400 pounds before he'll allow himself on the field again.

Roushar wants Ray to go through winter conditioning and a series of noncontact drills -- agility, change of direction -- that will put stress on the leg. Contact presents the biggest risk, as a hit could dislodge the rod, plates and screws.

"I want him to have real expectations," Roushar said. "That's what makes him so special and what's made him deal with these setbacks as incredibly as he has. At the same time, I become more parental. All I care about with him is living a long and healthy life."

Adrian Ray echoes Roushar, but she also knows her son.

"As a parent, it's almost like a kid taking a first step again," she said. "We've got to be nervous, a little afraid. I just believe that if he feels it, he'll do it. If he doesn't feel it, then it's not in him no more."

Whether or not Ray plays, he'll continue to be a part of the program. Though he was diagnosed with cancer before arriving at Michigan State, the team never thought twice about rescinding his scholarship offer.

Michigan State couldn't assist Ray with his medical bills because he wasn't a scholarship player when the cancer hit, but the team set up a fund for him last April. Through various events, the Arthur Ray Fund has raised $41,465.

"If it wasn't for coach Dantonio and Michigan State, honestly I don't know what we would have been doing," Adrian said. "I know my phone, if we even had a phone, would be ringing off the hook.

"What they've done, it's just overwhelming."

The Spartans coaches say the same thing about Arthur.

"He can see and not take for granted what's around him," Dantonio said. "Because of that, he has a whole different perspective on life, on playing football, on all these different things. We try to keep that dream alive, and he has to try to continue to move forward.

"He's been an inspiration for me and for a lot of our players."

A return to the field still seems distant, and many hurdles remain for Ray. But Dantonio lets himself think about what it'd be like to see Ray in a game.

"It'd be one of those life moments for me," he said.

"Tears of joy," Adrian said. "Just to see him out there, knowing he's finally back out there, that's what he always wanted to do."

Arthur Ray turns 20 years old on Tuesday. He recently completed his freshman year and, according to his mother, couldn't wait to get back for summer school. He's well on his way to beating bone cancer.

That would be enough to satisfy most people in his situation, but Ray won't sacrifice his football dream without a fight.

"You hear all the time when you're old, never regret what you do," he said. "It's like, 'Man, if I could go back here, I could change that.' The most I will say is I never gave up and won't ever give up."

Adam Rittenberg covers Big Ten football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com