ENGLEWOOD, Colo. —** Growing up, Shane Ray didn't envision himself owning a house, and especially not at 22 years old.
His home neighborhood, located in a Kansas City, Mo. zip code infamously known as "The Murder Factory," has received notoriety, and Ray knows his life could have gone in an entirely different direction where he didn't—or couldn't—leave.
Years later, the contrast is stunning. Having signed his contract with the Broncos, Ray bought a house and began shopping for furniture. He can recall the times when he and his mother slept on the floor and lived off food stamps, and that kind of poverty must seem so incredibly far away for them now.
"It's kind of surreal, like Wow, I'm 22 years old but I'm an actual homeowner. I have a real job," Ray said earlier in July. "It's huge. There's kids my age in my city that still don't have anything, that are experiencing a lot of just negative things in their lives and for me to make it out of that environment..."
Shane Ray arrived at Dove Valley for the first time as a Bronco after being selected with the 23rd overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. (All photos by Eric Lars Bakke)
Ray trailed off momentarily as he reflected on his journey, one that's probably tough to put into words.
"I was home last week," Ray began again, "and I had family members who were like 'Wow, dude, you've made it.'"
Ray was taken a little aback by the observation. With a busy schedule jumping from the draft to rookie minicamp to OTAs, he hadn't yet taken that step back to look at where he is, what he's accomplished and where he came from. It was eye-opening for the rookie outside linebacker.
"When you hear somebody say that to you, you know, for me I'm just playing football, trying to do what I've always wanted to do with my life," he said. "But when you hear your people say that to you, you kind of sit back and think about where you came from and everything you had to go through to get here. It kind of hit me a little bit. I got back to reality but it's a big deal for me and I take a lot of pride in what I've been able to do with my life and to get where I'm at now."
The transition to the NFL hasn't been without adversity, however. A marijuana citation the week before the draft invited criticism questioning Ray's character from analysts and countless NFL fans making judgment from afar.
Ray took immediate ownership of his mistake, speaking openly about it on live television during the NFL Draft and showing accountability, but he knows he won't be able to prove to everyone that one mistake doesn't define who he is.
"What I realize is everyone is going to have an opinion about you and you can't make everybody like you," Ray said. "I know the kind of person I am and everybody who knows me understands the kind of person that I am and what I've done positively."
With that in mind, Ray refuses to let the incident drag down his character but he also won't spend his energy going out of his way to try to convince people that he's the person who he knows himself to be.
See photos from new Bronco Shane Ray's football career leading up to being selected 23rd overall.
"For me, I've moved past it and if people want to continue to think that, that's fine," Ray concedes. "It's not affecting me, they're just wasting time and energy while I'm continuing to get better, continuing to be a better person and growing every day."
That's exactly what he's been doing this offseason. During OTAs Ray worked to rehab his foot, eventually getting repetitions in 7-on-7 drills. He learned as much as he could from DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller, trying to understand the finer points of technique and how to get the most out of their offseason program practices. Then once OTAs concluded, Ray stuck around and worked out with the Broncos' training staff during a strictly voluntary period.
That's just the way he is and the way he has always been. It's the way he's always had to be to get this far.
"Everything I've ever wanted in life I've had to work hard to go get it," Ray said. "I'm here in Denver grinding every day, preparing for the season, trying to be the best that I can be. I can do whatever my coach asks me to do. If people didn't get that while I was in high school, people didn't understand that when I was at the University of Missouri then they still probably won't get it now looking at me as a pro but I'm going to continue to do what's made me successful and this is the steps that I'll take."