Arthur Ray Jr. has been waiting a lifetime for the phone call he received Monday night.
The former Michigan State football player has been on a challenging eight-year journey since he was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2007.
There have been many ups and downs, some good days and some terrible days. But on Monday, he was all smiles after receiving an invitation to the Miami Dolphins’ rookie minicamp and the opportunity to achieve his lifelong dream of playing in the NFL.
“It still really hasn’t hit me, but I’m sure it will when I start packing,” Ray said Tuesday afternoon. “It’s so surreal right now. I’m enjoying the moment for what it is.”
It’s been a long time coming.
Ray, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound offensive lineman, was ranked among the nation’s top offensive guards coming out of Chicago’s Mount Carmel High School. But just one week after signing a scholarship to play at Michigan State, he was diagnosed with cancer.
The Spartans honored Ray’s scholarship, and he began taking classes on campus in the fall of 2008. He spent more than two years on crutches, undergoing chemotherapy and nine surgeries.
He would be lucky to walk, let alone play football.
“All those bad times and times when I was on chemo and I had to deal with the negativity…it was just the reality of being a cancer patient,” Ray said. “It was all worth this moment, to have this opportunity.”
Ray was finally cleared to practice in the spring of 2011, and on Sept. 2, 2011, there wasn’t a dry eye in Spartan Stadium as cameras showed an emotional Ray on the sidelines during the National Anthem. He then took his place on the offensive line to start against Youngstown State. He also appeared against Florida Atlantic and Indiana during the 2011 season.
Ray was not included on MSU’s roster in 2012, though. But he never lost sight of his dream.
He graduated from MSU in December 2012 and received a medical disqualification, which allowed him to transfer to Fort Lewis College — a Division II school in Colorado — where he played for former MSU coach John L. Smith.
Ray played for the Skyhawks for two seasons and was a second-team All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference selection at left tackle last fall.
“I knew, once I reached the point where I reached the point where I could play ball at a high level again, the NFL wasn’t out of the question,” Ray said.
He was right.
On Monday night, Ray’s agent, Paul Sheehy, called with the news. Ray was heading to south Florida.
“I was ecstatic,” Ray said. “I was real ecstatic, shocked. I was happy. I just told my family immediately.”
Ray’s support system has been crucial for him during the last eight years. When some advised Ray to hang up his cleats and pursue a different path, his family continued to encourage him to follow his dream never.
They just wanted him to be happy, which he is as a new challenge begins.
“I think everything that I’ve went through already prepared me for the mental ups and downs that the NFL is probably going to bring,” Ray said. “So I just gotta stay even-keel and keep the confidence in myself that I can play at a high level and showcase my ability.”
He’ll have that opportunity to prove that this weekend. Ray hopes to show the Dolphins that he’s a legit, talented player with all the traits of an NFL offensive lineman.
“I know a lot of people can question how good I can move, so I plan on answering all of that,” he said.
Ray also hopes the Dolphins see that he’s a hard worker and mentally tough. But they probably already know that.
At 25, Ray has been through more difficult times than many people will experience in their entire lifetime. But he never lost his confidence, faith, drive or positive attitude.
“It gives me a sense of fearlessness,” Ray said. “That’s how I’ve been operating the past few years. I feel like I’m fearless, nothing really spooks me anymore. Not even failure.”
Which doesn’t appear to be an option for Ray, who simply sees another challenge ahead.
“A long journey to start another one: a journey to make the team.”