DENVER –Outside linebacker Shane Ray joined Mile High Sports Radio's Les Shapiro on Tuesday for a conversation at the Denver Jewish Community Center that covered Ray's childhood, his time at the University of Missouri and Super Bowl 50.
Ray, who was filling in for DeMarcus Ware as the featured speaker at the JCC's second annual Hall of Fame induction, was open and honest during the lengthy discussion.
The conversation began with Shapiro touching on the Broncos' Super Bowl 50 win, and he asked Ray whether he realized how rare it was to achieve such heights in his rookie season.
"Without a doubt, [the veterans] made sure I understood how big of a deal this was," Ray said.
In the locker room before the game, Ray said he only had to look at the faces of Ware, Peyton Manning, T.J. Ward and other key Broncos players to realize the game's importance.
"I guess I should probably buckle up a little bit," Ray remembered thinking.
The conversation then turned to Ray's tough childhood. Shapiro, who acknowledged that the audience likely had a different background than the Broncos' pass rusher, asked a series of questions that prompted Ray to reflect on growing up in Kansas City.
Ray spoke about living in a single-parent household, his anger issues as a child and maturing without a father in the picture.
"Even through all the situations I had to deal with growing up, my mom was awesome," Ray said.
She helped keep her son on track through the loss of a cousin and made sure Ray "understood there was more outside of our city."
Ray's mom was also around to help push him back into football after he quit in fifth grade. The family had gone to church, and former Chiefs player Tim Grunhard was there to speak about the value of football. Ray would end up playing for Grunhard's high school program, but it was during this anecdote on Tuesday that Ray and Shapiro provided a moment of levity.
"I know not a lot of people here like the Chiefs," Ray said.
"Not a lot of people here go to church, either," Shapiro retorted.
From there, Ray joined the Bishop Miege High School team, but he struggled in his first year while he was "still wearing husky pants." While the rest of the freshmen were playing varsity, Ray said he was stuck on the freshman 'B' team.
But after a year in the weight room and a growth spurt, Ray said he began to attract attention from college coaches. He thought about Miami and Notre Dame, but he ultimately chose to head to the University of Missouri.
Ray's father, Wendell Ray, also played at Missouri. That – along with his desire to stay close to home so that his mother could see him play – prompted him to commit to Mizzou.
"I want to be better than my dad," Ray remembered thinking. "I'm going to go there and be better than him."
And, he said, as he thought about the decision more and more, he saw Missouri as a school full of underdogs.
"If I'm going to represent a place," Ray said. "I'm going to represent where I'm from."
Ray spoke broadly about his time at Missouri, but most of the conversation on Tuesday about his alma mater focused on former Tigers player Michael Sam, who came out as gay following his senior season. Ray, one of Sam's teammates, said the players in the locker room preached a message of acceptance and having Sam's back. In his words on Tuesday, the situation wasn't a big deal to anyone. Sam's sexuality, however, was a secret to the Missouri coaching staff.
"But college coaches know everything," Shapiro said.
"They didn't know that," Ray countered.
In a particularly telling portion of the conversation, Ray discussed being drafted at No. 23 by Denver after early projections had him in the top five. He admitted that looking back on the situation now, he couldn't see a better way for everything to work. While he said he made a "knucklehead mistake and lost a lot of money," he couldn't be happier to be in Denver with the Super Bowl 50 champions.
"I fell to No. 23 and Denver," Ray said. "I was supposed to go No. 3 to Jacksonville. I'm perfectly fine with [the way it happened]."
Ray and Shapiro's conversation helped wrap up an event that was held in part to recognize the late Leonard Alterman as its 2016 JCC Sports Hall of Fame inductee. Alterman, who played at the University of Denver, was one of the founding members of the Denver Nuggets in the NBL.
The inductees "serves as inspiration[s] because of their achievements, character, leadership skills and commitment to the highest standards of sportsmanship." Alterman is the second individual to be inducted into the recently created Hall of Fame.
Maccabi athletes Lauryn Engel and Jordan Sabatier were also honored for their performance in the JCC Maccabi Games, and former Broncos Mark Jackson and Billy Thompson were also in the audience.
Two days after filling in admirably for Ware on the field, Ray's encore performance proved just as successful.