Winner of Courage Award for overcoming cancer 'embraces' visit
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ROIT -- It's been a long road for Arthur Ray Jr., a senior offensive lineman at Michigan State University who was honored by the Tigers prior to Tuesday's game after winning the 2011 Discover Orange Bowl/Football Writers Association of America Courage Award for overcoming his battle with cancer.
In March 2007, at 17 years old, Ray was diagnosed with osteosarcoma -- a rare form of bone cancer. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Ray was told by doctors he might lose his left leg and to forget about playing football again. However, Ray's faith and determination not only resulted in keeping his leg, but he is more than five years cancer-free and set to compete for a starting spot in Michigan State's offense come September.
"This is the best I've felt in the past four or five years," said Ray, as he stood behind home plate taking in the views from the field at Comerica Park. "I went through the process of trying to deal with everything as far as the cancer and the chemo and the recovery. ... I'm finally to the point where that's all behind me. I'm ready to play. I'm ready to do what I came to Michigan State to do."
Nine surgeries and four long years later, the once-heralded recruit was cleared to put the pads back on and begin football activities in March 2011. He spent most of that season on the sidelines, however he was an inspiration to a team competing for a Big Ten Championship and it resulted in the Courage Award.
While Ray certainly embraces that role and tries to inspire the community rather than just the team, he still has his football goals fresh in his mind. He hopes to have an equally big impact on the field this year.
"Last year, it was, 'I got the diapers on,' so to speak. Taking baby steps, still riding with training wheels on," Ray said. "This year, there's nothing wrong with my leg. I can run, jump, skip, hop, I can do any exercise in the weight room. I'm just trying to take it one step at a time."
That's exactly the approach Ray took as he climbed down from the Comerica Park concourse to the field. With a gaping smile on his face, Ray took each step slowly, not because he was limited by his leg, but because he was cherishing the moment.
"It's amazing. I'm just grateful to be here, to be a part of something real special like this and enjoy this moment after everything I've been through," he said.
Out of the blue, Ray received a call from the Tigers inviting him to come out to the park.
Despite being a Chicago native, a White Sox fan and having a tight summer schedule with football and class, he's not one for missing out on opportunities.
"Michigan's been my home the past four years," said Ray, embracing his hometown team's rivals. "I caught a few local Lugnuts games in Lansing. This is my first time visiting the Tigers' stadium, but living in Michigan for four years you got to love it. You've got to embrace everything."
Ray was told the White Sox come to the Motor City for a three-game series beginning Friday, which could be for first place in the American League Central. But he already knew. He's a pretty big baseball fan, and his parents and little brother couldn't make the trip because they were "heavy baseball traveling."
In response to the division race heating up, Ray said: "I know. It's getting real."
Ray will become the first member of his family to graduate from college in December, but he doesn't expect his football career to be over. He will apply to the NCAA for a medical exemption, which could and should allow him at least a sixth year of eligibility. He doesn't know if anyone's been granted a seventh year, but he wants to break the mold as he's done so many times throughout his life.
"I'm thinking about a sixth year and honestly thinking about something beyond that because, to be realistic, I spent two years on crutches and those years counted against me towards eligibility," he said.
Ray hasn't sat down with MSU head coach Mark Dantonio and had that talk yet, but he said it will come soon. In the meantime, he will continue prepping for the season with his teammates. Not being "the cancer guy" but just another one of the guys.
"I'm ready to relax and just become a football player and finish my degree out," Ray said.
Anthony Odoardi is an associate reporter for MLB.com.