Life can take a turn for the worst at any moment. For Miami Dolphins rookie free agent Arthur Ray Jr., that moment occurred eight years ago.
It was just a week after national signing day in February 2007. As Ray described it, he was "on top of the world" as one of the elite high school offensive linemen in the country, with more than 30 football scholarship offers from major programs. He played in the All-American game that month and decided Michigan State was the best place for him. Then a knot in his left leg and subsequent doctor's visit changed Ray's life.
"I first noticed a lump in my senior season of high school," Ray said this week after signing with the Dolphins. "But, you know, I'm an O-lineman. I'm used to getting banged up. So I thought it wasn't anything to stop me from playing.
"Finally, me and my dad went to the doctor and decided to get it checked out before I enrolled at Michigan State. That's when we got the news."
Ray was told during previous visits that he might have a stress fracture or a hematoma, which is a collection of blood outside of a blood vessel. So to hear the word "cancer" was unexpected for the otherwise healthy 17 year old.
"A tumor was the last thing on my mind," Ray said. "When he said that, I was in complete shock."
Ray's journey has led him to South Florida this weekend, where he is one of dozens of players participating in the Dolphins' rookie camp.
"Everybody came here with a different path," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. "There is no one clear-cut way into the National Football League. ... What matters now is not where you were selected or not selected, but when you get out here and get an opportunity to compete, what type of contribution you can make to the team. So it will be fun to see his progress throughout camp."
Ray's dream was to play in the NFL, but there were times when it looked doubtful that he would make it. Following his diagnosis in 2007, Ray took an entire year away from school and football to have treatments at home in Chicago. He immediately started chemotherapy and had major surgery to remove the tumor from his leg 10 weeks later.
The treatments took a toll on Ray's body beyond the rapid weight loss he experienced.
"It really hit home for me the day I was in the shower and my hair just fell out," Ray said. "I was washing my hair and it was just falling. I just decided to cut the rest of it off. Once I lost my hair, I lost my eyebrows. I used to get mouth sores from the chemo. I couldn't eat the food I wanted to eat.
"It was traumatizing for me, especially because everything I had worked for. Being an athlete, I was used to my body being a certain way, and it definitely didn't look like that after a while."
Ray was off chemotherapy after a year and felt good enough to begin schooling at Michigan State in January 2008. He was there for two months before another setback, this time a bone infection.
It was back home again to Chicago for more treatment and more surgeries. Two setbacks in consecutive years made Ray doubt for the first time that he would be able to play football again. He stayed home in 2008 with an IV in his arm for about eight months and saw a home nurse three times a week.
Doctors also put a cement spacer in his left leg for six months to make sure the bone healed properly. Ray spent a majority of the next two years walking with crutches before making significant strides the following year.
"I just walked and walked the entire 2010," Ray said. "Doctors just saw my leg progress and heal to the point where they allowed me to jog. I went through the growing pains and the rehab hard."
After nine surgeries and multiple setbacks, Ray was finally cleared to play football at Michigan State in 2011, four years after choosing the school. He accomplished his goal of playing for the Spartans, which was a proud moment for Ray and his family. Ray stayed healthy all season and played guard against Youngstown State, Florida Atlantic and Indiana.
However, he was left off the Spartans' active roster in 2012 while he finished his degree in communications. Because of Ray's medical history, the NCAA granted him two more seasons of eligibility.
He took the advice of a friend to transfer to Division II Fort Lewis in Durango, Colorado, where Ray was reunited with former Michigan State coach John L. Smith, who took over the program just days after Ray transferred. Ray became team captain in 2013 and 2014 and a valuable player in the program, which led him to Miami.
"To me, Arthur's narrative is certainly one about his ability to overcome life-altering obstacles, but really, at the end of the day what he is, is a very good football player and that fact can't be lost when seeing all he's accomplished," said Ray's agent, Paul Sheehy. "Ultimately, his football ability is what landed him an opportunity to report to the Dolphins. To think otherwise would be disrespectful to Arthur and to every player who straps on the pads."
Ray, who will be 26 this month, participated in his first NFL practice on Friday as one of the many players trying to earn a roster spot.
"I want to soak it all in," Ray said. "I feel like this is the first weekend. All the rookies will be there and it will be new to all of us. This is the first step to becoming a professional football player, which is my lifelong dream. So I'm going to take it in stride and give it everything I got, 110 percent, every rep I'm out there."