Ten years ago, North Carolina Tar Heels mascot Jason Ray entered our lives in an unexpected and tragic way.
But his story -- and his decision to become an organ and tissue donor -- lives on. This is the legacy of Jason Ray. And why, to so many people, he'll never be forgotten.
A Decade Of Hope
by Wayne Drehs
A Decade Of Hope
Ten years have passed since Jason Ray entered our lives in an unexpected and tragic way. But his story - and the decision to become an organ and tissue donor - lives on.
by Wayne Drehs
Up the beige carpeted stairs and a quick turn to the right, Charlotte Ray arrives in the room where she goes to remember.
She pulls out the black leather chair from behind her son Jason's desk, puts her feet atop the University of North Carolina Tar Heels stool at the foot of the bed and escapes. She looks at the quilt on his bed, made from 59 of his old T-shirts and remembers the laughter and joy in every one of them.
The room has gone virtually untouched since March 26, 2007, the day Jason died. It's a moment frozen in time, with window curtains kept closed to keep the sunlight from fading any of the memories.
"I like to come in here if I'm having a bad day," she says. "I'll sit here and remember him lying in that bed as a little boy. I can see him lying there doing that. It brings me some peace of mind."
This is the boyhood room of a 21-year-old college senior who had dressed up in a yellow-horned ram costume to portray North Carolina's team mascot, Rameses. The room is complete with an old flip phone and a dust-covered VHS tape of "Dumb and Dumber." On a bookshelf sits Jason's AP statistics textbook, a 2006 travel guide for Italy and his high school class ring. There's a collection of Jason's trophies from basketball and karate (he was a black belt) and a prayer rug a family friend had brought back from Saudi Arabia. "He just thought that was the greatest," Charlotte says. The walls are still covered with posters of the bands Audioslave and Rage Against the Machine and of college basketball blue bloods Kentucky, where his family is from, and of course, North Carolina.
Charlotte shuffles to a bookshelf and opens Jason's black leather wallet, given to her on that nightmare of a day 10 years ago. Inside is his driver's license, expired credit cards and a $20 bill. On the wall, there's a UNC poster he pinned up the day he returned from his college visit and insisted he'd be going to school in Chapel Hill. And a red scarf he got in Pamplona, Spain, when he ran with the bulls.
The bulletin board above Jason's desk has gone untouched since the last time Jason was here -- except for one addition. A ticket stub from the Broadway show "The Producers" dated March 23, 2007. It was at that show where Jason accidentally left his driver's license, forcing him back into New York City to retrieve it the next day. When he returned to the team hotel in New Jersey and the rest of the spirit squad was out, he made his fateful walk to the gas station.
"I don't know," Charlotte says. "I just felt it was important to have that up there."
Emmitt Ray, Jason's father, spends far less time in his son's old room. It's just too hard. They've tried to pick up Jason's room a couple of times. They've never gotten very far. They know how this might look to some people. That they're still in mourning. And haven't been able to move on. But that isn't exactly true.
"I'm not crazy in thinking he's coming back," Charlotte says. "I just can't bear to touch any of it."
"We tried to go through it and get rid of stuff, and you start reading this or seeing that and you're messed up for the next two days," Emmitt says. "You got this big damn lump in your throat, can't hardly talk. Ten years and we haven't gotten it picked up yet. But I don't want to clean it up, that's just fine."
It's been 10 years since Jason Ray was hit by a car outside a hotel in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Ten years since Charlotte and Emmitt followed Jason's wishes and allowed him to become an organ donor. They're doing better today than they ever thought they would.
Still, it isn't easy. How do you process the fact that the world praises a selfless decision your son made that may have saved lives, but for that to have happened your son had to die? How do you sit at a dinner table with Jason's old high school and college friends -- most of whom are now married with children -- and listen to their stories about preschools and nap schedules and not wonder how different life might have been if Jason hadn't left the team hotel that day to walk to a nearby gas station for a Coke and a burrito?
From the archives
ESPN senior writer Wayne Drehs' original story, Ray of Hope: Read »
They try to numb the pain by building on Jason's legacy. That legacy reaches beyond the extra years Jason's organs gave to David Erving, Ronald Griffin, Antwan Hunter and Dennis Korzelius, the four men who received Jason's organs. And it has reached beyond the 118 people in 26 states as well as Canada, between the ages of 12 and 93, whose lives Jason has improved through tissue donation, according to the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation. It's the thousands of people who connected with Jason's story and elected to become organ donors -- and the lives those people might save. After Jason's death, the Rays and Jason's four recipients agreed to meet and share their stories with ESPN's E:60 to raise awareness about organ donation. According to Donate Life America, "Ray of Hope" prompted more than 50,000 Americans to become organ donors. Today, every high school health class in New Jersey watches the E:60 story, which originally aired in October 2007. The same holds true in almost every driver's education class in North Carolina. Emmitt and Charlotte have shipped thousands of copies of the story and have traveled the country sharing Jason's tale. It's not unusual for them to be sitting in a diner somewhere and get recognized as "Jason's parents" or "those organ donation people."
"I think it's reached a stage where it's taken on a life of its own," Emmitt says. "It amazes me when I think about it. I often wonder what Jason would say about all this. I'm sure he'd be proud."
Jason's parents, Charlotte and Emmitt Ray, were teenage sweethearts who had gone their separate ways after high school and reconnected some 25 years later. They'd each had children from previous marriages, and Jason was their only child together. Rob Tringali
A year after Jason's death, Emmitt and Charlotte began the Jason Kendall Ray Foundation. The organization has raised more than half a million dollars to help families of those who need transplants, be it funds for a hotel stay or gas card or even to help make a house or car payment while a recipient recovers from surgery. In April 2016, UNC Hospitals renamed its transplant center the Jason Ray Transplant Clinic. Inside the door of the clinic, there is a portrait of Jason and a plaque commemorating his selfless act. Emmitt Ray was visiting the clinic one day last year when he was caught off guard by a nurse answering the phone: "Good morning, Jason Ray Transplant Clinic."
"I lost it," Emmitt says. "It just sort of hits you."
Before the Duke-Carolina football game in September, the university surprised the Rays by bringing them onto the field to announce that a "JR" patch would be added to the uniforms of both Rameses and Rameses Jr. for the rest of the school year. Emmitt and Charlotte couldn't have been more proud. As they posed for pictures with the current Rameses, Charlotte rested her head on his shoulder. To everyone else, it's just the Carolina mascot. But to the Rays, the young man in that suit stirs vivid memories of their son.
"Sure it's weird," Emmitt said. "We always think of him when we see Rameses. But everyone who has put on that costume after Jason, they have always treated us like royalty."
But it is in that bedroom at the top of the stairs where Jason is remembered -- and honored -- most. Every month, Charlotte switches the quilts made from Jason's T-shirts. She sits in that chair, closes her eyes and pictures her boy asking when they can go to the library to check out more books.
Not a day goes by that Jason's name doesn't come up, Charlotte says. She and Emmitt agree that Jason's decision to become a donor -- and the far-reaching impact of that decision -- has made it easier. That doesn't mean they wouldn't trade it all to have their son back.
"We still have our moments," Emmitt says. "But I think we're doing OK."
Added Charlotte: "I never thought I'd be where I'm at today. I didn't think I could exist without Jason. But all these great memories I have, that's what's carried me through."
Stephanie Griffin's husband, Ronald, had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathy. He received Jason's heart in 2007, and died six years ago from heart and kidney failure. He is buried in Arneytown, New Jersey. Rob Tringali
Stephanie Griffin Widow of heart recipient
As the clouds begin to fade and the late-afternoon sun shines on the somber cemetery grounds, Stephanie Griffin strolls along the freshly cut grass searching for Plot 4458, the final resting place of her husband, Ronald.
It's been six years since Ronald Griffin died in his New Jersey home from heart and kidney failure, but this is Stephanie's first time visiting his grave.
"There were so many times I wanted to come," she says. "But I just couldn't do it. My daughter and I would say we were going to come, and then it wouldn't happen. I guess I tried to hold on to the life part of it, not the death."
But on this day, she finally feels ready. With each step, the numbers climb, 4441, 4442, 4443 ... "We're getting closer," she says. She carefully walks between the gravestones. Two more rows. And then she sees it. In a row all by itself.
RONALD GRIFFIN MM3 US NAVY VIETNAM MAR 11 1949 MAY 25 2011 ALWAYS IN OUR HEART
Stephanie kneels down and picks up a purple piece of fabric that has landed on the grave. She rips away patches of crabgrass that have grown around the gravestone's edges. A tear begins to fall.
"It's just the fact that he didn't make it," she says. "But he really enjoyed the time he was here. He enjoyed people. He enjoyed life. He was always joking around. He's probably joking around right now."
It was in March 2007, after 13 years of battling congestive heart failure and cardiomyopathy, that Griffin received Jason Ray's heart. At the time, he couldn't walk or talk. And he could barely breathe. The only thing keeping him alive was a left ventricle assist device that pumped his heart for him. But in his four years after the transplant, everything changed. Ronald went for walks. He refused to miss a family reunion or party. And instead of always focusing on the past, he soaked up every second of the present, snapping photos of flowers or parks or anything in life that grabbed him.
"He wanted to preserve every memory," Stephanie says. "He did everything he could to hold on to his second chance and cherish the things most people take for granted."
In the wake of the transplant, the Griffins built a friendship with Jason's parents. Together they would travel the country speaking about the gift of organ donation. Every month, Stephanie would have $50 automatically withdrawn from her bank account for a donation to the Jason Ray Foundation. Those donations still happen today. "It's the absolute least I can do," she says.
In 2009, Ronald Griffin's kidneys began to fail and he ended up on dialysis. Two years after that, when Stephanie was returning to New Jersey from their granddaughter's graduation in North Carolina, Ronald failed to show up for dialysis and was found unresponsive at home. The theme of the funeral was "Pass It On," a tribute to Jason. Before Ronald's casket was closed a final time, Stephanie placed a UNC decal inside.
"He and Jason were together forever even before Ronald died," Stephanie says. "That bond was from day one and will never end."
Stephanie stands up and stares at her husband's grave. She talks about how proud he was to be in the Navy and how he always wanted a small anchor on his necklace to commemorate the time he served. But he never got one. After he died, Stephanie bought a tiny anchor that spins around her bracelet. "It catches on my clothes all the time," she says. "I know that's Ronald tugging at me."
Before she says goodbye, promising to return soon, Stephanie kneels before her husband's grave one last time. She spots a small hole at the base of the granite stone. "This must be to put a flag in," she says. "Don't worry, Ronald, I'll bring you a flag."
Six days later, and 500 miles to the south, Stephanie stands behind a lectern at the Carolina Club on the UNC Chapel Hill campus during a fundraiser for Jason's foundation. She shares Ronald's story. She thanks Emmitt and Charlotte for the four extra years their son gave her husband, and for their friendship. When she finishes speaking, everyone in the room stands to applaud. It is the only standing ovation of the night. As she walks back to her seat, she stops to hug Emmitt and Charlotte. She has but one thought: She wishes Ronald were here to do the same.
For more than 25 years, David Erving had fought diabetes. His bones were brittle. He'd lost most of his vision. He was in dialysis. By 40, he'd been in the hospital more than 60 times. Since receiving Jason's pancreas and a kidney, he's better than ever. Rob Tringali
David Erving Kidney and pancreas recipient
Ten years after David Erving received a kidney and pancreas from Jason Ray, his prognosis is as promising as ever. "The doctors are amazed," Erving says. "They've told me I could go another 20 years." Erving, who is 50, has battled diabetes since he was 13 and now lives in a senior-living apartment complex, where he has become the unofficial maintenance man, installing air conditioners and replacing lightbulbs for elderly neighbors. "I don't ask for money," he says. "I just like to help." Erving had testicular cancer in 2010 but says he has been doing fantastic ever since. He calls Emmitt and Charlotte Ray every couple of weeks and sends them a card with a picture of himself on every holiday. His bowed leg has been surgically repaired, and he walks 5 miles twice a week. It takes him three to four hours. "I love it," he says.
At age 43, Dennis Korzelius had suffered from cirrhosis of the liver and end-stage liver failure caused by hepatitis C. At best, doctors told him, he had eight months. Ten years after receiving Jason's liver, Dennis continues to face health issues. Rob Tringali
Dennis Korzelius Liver recipient
Life has not been easy for Dennis Korzelius since his liver transplant 10 years ago. Korzelius, now 53, says he has been in and out of the hospital more than 20 times in the past decade, with everything from pancreatitis to blood clots to complications from diabetes he contracted after the transplant. "If there's a 1-in-10 chance of getting something, I'm going to be the guy who gets it," he says. "My friends call me indestructible. My wife says the devil doesn't want me yet." Korzelius, who was married two months before his transplant, has since been divorced and remarried. Though the scar from his transplant has faded, its importance to him hasn't. "I wear it with pride," he says. "Without this scar, the only scar I would have is the one where they opened me up to throw all my s--- away."
Shortly after his birth, Antwan Hunter's left kidney had failed and been removed. When his right kidney began to fail, too, his mother knew he needed a transplant. After receiving Jason's kidney, he wanted to know the simple things about Jason. Rob Tringali
Antwan Hunter Kidney recipient
(In the decade since receiving Jason Ray's kidney, Antwan Hunter has grown up to become a father and soon, he'll become a husband. But his health prognosis is as uncertain as ever. In this letter to Jason, as told to ESPN's Wayne Drehs, Antwan explains what went wrong and why he again finds himself waiting for that special phone call.)
I'm sorry. Twelve years ago you made the selfless decision to become an organ donor, a decision that saved my life. You and I never knew each other, but after your fatal accident in March of 2007, I received one of your kidneys. We were forever linked. And my life would never be the same.
After the transplant, I felt like Superman. A rock star. I was 16 back then. I had lived with one functioning kidney since birth, and the second failed when I was a teenager. But your gift was a dream come true. I could play basketball and football and work out. Classmates would ask me for my autograph.
Now, a decade later, I'm 26. I have two precious little girls, Jaelyn, who is 4, and Amya, who is 2. I'm engaged to be married next summer to the woman of my dreams, Cecily Derrick. But life is far from perfect. For the past year and a half, I've struggled to tell your mom and dad what's going on with me. I've started emails and then deleted them. I've picked up the phone and put it back down. I didn't know how to tell them. I didn't know what to say. The truth is that your kidney has failed. And I blame myself.
Back when I was a teenager, there were days when I would feel so good, so normal, I would skip my rejection medicine and not think twice about it. Later, I started taking generic medicines from two different pharmacies. They didn't work together the way doctors prescribed, and by the time I realized this could be a problem, it was too late.
I never felt sick or tired. There were never any symptoms that anything was wrong. But two years ago, I contracted a urinary tract infection. In the hospital, my creatinine levels spiked. And the next thing I knew, doctors told me your kidney had failed. And there was nothing they could do to save it. I went into a deep depression, wondering why this had happened to me. One doctor told me they couldn't find any anti-rejection medicine in my system. He accused me of not taking the medicine at all. It wasn't true. Did I miss a dose here or there? Absolutely. I know now it was dumb. But I never quit the medicine altogether. Another doctor told me I shouldn't have mixed the medicines. And another said the medicine could have had nothing to do with it -- my body could have just rejected the kidney.
Whatever the reason, in May 2016, I joined more than half a million other Americans battling kidney failure. Three days a week, I wake up at 4:45 in the morning to head to the local dialysis center near my home in Irvington, New Jersey. There, my blood is cycled through a machine and cleaned for four hours. The dialysis is draining. It's as if I am a superhero and the dialysis is my kryptonite taking my powers away. I hate needles. Always have. Now they're a constant part of my life. I'm on a strictly portioned diet, and I'm not allowed to drink more than seven cups of fluid a day. I don't urinate anymore. That's weird. And because of the port in my chest, I can't take a shower. I just sit in the bath and my fiancée helps me wash my upper body with a washcloth.
I wish I could find a time machine to go back and tell 16-year-old Antwan to get it together, to do everything in his power to protect your kidney. Instead, I'm again on the list waiting for a transplant. My mom and I have traveled to register on the various recipient lists in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida and yes, North Carolina. In North Carolina, we visited your transplant clinic. Your photo on the wall gave me chills. I felt so incredibly guilty.
Not a day goes by that I don't think about you. Every night you are in my prayers. I don't know if you can hear me, but the message is always the same: "Thank you. And I'm sorry." You gave me so much. And I feel like I let you down. That's why I haven't reached out to your mom and dad in so long. What would I say? I don't even know the words. For so long, I just wanted to crawl in a hole and hide.
Thankfully, my daughters and my fiancée pulled me out of that funk. In church, I prayed over my guilt. And realized I needed to pick myself up. I needed to fight. And that's when my mom and I started getting back on these lists, to see if my prayers could be answered one more time.
Twice now I've gotten the call that they've found a match, there's a kidney for me. But both times bloodwork revealed that my antibodies were too high. My body was likely to reject a new kidney. So it went to someone else.
I don't know what's going to happen. I just try to stay positive, hoping there will be a medicine or a treatment that will bring my antibodies down so, if I ever get that call again, my body will be ready. This time I know I won't make the mistakes of the past. This time I know my luck will be different.
People have told me that transplants are often hardest on teenagers. They're old enough to understand what's happening yet not mature enough to handle it. I try not to think about that. I don't make excuses. Instead I focus on taking care of my body and helping others learn from my mistakes. I know I need to be here for my girls. That's my motivation.
Late last month, I was at a health fair when I ran into a representative from the New Jersey Sharing Network. His name was Keath Gerald -- your mom and dad and I spoke at his school in New Jersey back in 2007. At the health fair, Keath looked at me like a celebrity. We took a selfie. And he asked if I would be interested in speaking. I told him absolutely. And a week later I was on stage at that same high school talking about the importance of organ donation and making the most out of every opportunity in life.
In the end, I just wanted to say thank you for the blessing you gave me. Your kidney helped me become a father. Soon I'm going to be a husband. My family is my world. I can't imagine life without them. So thank you.
And again, I'm sorry. I plan to call your mom and dad and tell them the exact same thing. As a parent, I get it now. I can't imagine what they've gone through. But I want to talk to them. I want to go visit them in North Carolina at your home.
Until then, just know that I won't stop fighting. Regardless of what has happened inside me, you're my brother for life. Nothing will change that. And I owe it to you, your parents and my family to fight as hard as I can, as long as I can, until the day that phone call comes.
Thank you for everything,
Paying It Forward
Audio slideshow of those affected by Jason's decision to become an organ donor.
Emmitt and Charlotte Ray started the Jason Kendall Ray Foundation a year after their son's death. Photograph by Rob Tringali
Keath Gerald is a heart and liver transplant recipient who now volunteers for the New Jersey Sharing Network. Photograph by Rob Tringali
Jeiner Betancourt is an 18-year-old student at North Plainfield High School whose father is waiting for a kidney transplant. Photograph by Rob Tringali
Kartik Sonavane, a freshman at Rutgers, had a friend who had a liver transplant and has been inspired by Jason's story. Photograph by Rob Tringali
Lauren Kearns, director of the UNC Hospitals Jason Ray Transplant Clinic, says Jason's decision influenced thousands more to register. Photograph by Rob Tringali
What you can do
Each year, 8,000 people die waiting for an organ, according to Donate Life America. And while 95 percent of U.S. adults support organ donation, only 54 percent are registered donors, according to organdonor.gov.