Shane Ray's way out
SO HERE COMES the son of a Missouri football legend, in size 52 husky pants. You cannot take your eyes off of him, not because of his speed or agility but because he can't keep those damn pants up over his rear end. He doesn't run so much as he waddles. He is awkward, unsure of himself -- abandonment issues, his mother says -- and, if there are 22 boys on this football field, he'd probably be picked 21st.
But it is the fall of 2006, the year before her son starts high school, and Sebrina Johnson is desperate. She knows this has to work. Her only child's idol is an older cousin who has taken up with the wrong crowd, and, in a few months, will be murdered in a botched robbery attempt. Sebrina will be the one who identifies the body of that cousin, Justen Johnson, and will make the funeral arrangements.
Football might not look as if it will weigh too prominently in Shane Ray's future at this particular moment -- he'd already quit the sport once, in fifth grade -- but it's the best lifeline Sebrina can come up with. She can feel him slipping away, closer to the streets. She takes the doughy eighth-grader to a park where the 39th Street Giants are playing. The area is known for being sketchy, but it feels safe. She is greeted by a man named Tom Shortell, dentist by day, football coach by night.
In a moment that would change Shane Ray's life, Shortell sizes up the kid and asks him, "Son, do you want to play football?"
"Yeah, I guess," Shane says.
MOST FOOTBALL FANS would say that Shane Ray's life-changing moment hasn't happened yet. It will come late next month, when the consensus All-America defensive end from Missouri is selected in the NFL draft, possibly as one of the first 10 names called on the Auditorium Theatre stage in downtown Chicago.
After sleeping on floors and living in a ZIP code known as Kansas City's murder factory, Shane will not want for a comfortable bed in a safe neighborhood. He will make millions of dollars from an NFL team salivating for his first-step explosiveness, his strength and his versatility.
Sebrina will weep when his name is called. Shane will hold up an NFL jersey and be whisked to a new city and life. But it will not be his defining moment. He has had too many of those already.
"Everybody's like, 'Will he go first?'" Sebrina says. "That's great, but who that guy is and what kind of a man he is ... that's the biggest win ever. He's going to make somebody a good husband. He's going to impact so many lives beyond this platform.
"That's my biggest accomplishment."
For at least half of her life, Sebrina says, she didn't know a good man. She knew smooth-talking men with beautiful faces and large muscles. She knew the kind of men whose lives were preordained for trouble.
But a good man? She wasn't even sure one existed.
She'd first encountered Shane's father, Wendell Ray, at a Bally's gym in Kansas City. He was the biggest man she'd met in her life. She'd never seen anyone so handsome. It wasn't until after they started going out that she learned who Wendell once was, star defensive lineman at the University of Missouri, drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 1981 before injuries derailed his career.
Everything with Sebrina and Wendell moved fast. About seven months after they met, she was pregnant. Right around the time she was due, in the spring of 1993, she knew that their relationship was over and that Shane would be her responsibility alone.
He weighed 10 pounds at birth. He arrived several weeks late, tangled in the umbilical cord, and had to be removed by cesarean section. Wracked with pain and hopped up on morphine, she didn't see him until a day or two after the delivery. When she held him, the baby stared at her.
Sebrina promised him the best life ever.
She insisted on giving him a name that was nonspecific racially: Shane Michael Ray. Sebrina's mother, Louise, balked about it, convinced her grandson was going to get beat up regularly because it sounded like a white boy's name.
Sebrina told her mom that was OK. "When he puts his name on an application," she said, "he'll get an interview."
Being an African-American male, Sebrina says, is difficult. Especially without a father. So she did proactive things to make sure he had an opportunity. He was not allowed to use slang. "Hell, no," she says.
Sebrina lugged the kid around while she pursued her college degree, exposing him to books and deep thoughts and expanded vocabularies. But no matter what she did, Shane still yearned for his father.
Sebrina eventually married a man named Emanuel McCrainey when Ray was around 6. McCrainey and Sebrina opened a Cajun restaurant called The Red Vine in Kansas City's jazz district. Sebrina made sweet-potato cheesecake; McCrainey coached Shane's youth football team. They were a family.
But then the marriage collapsed, the restaurant closed, and Sebrina and Shane, who was about 10 at the time, were on their own again. Sebrina had an information technology job before she got into the restaurant business, but that was gone, and she scrambled to find work.
They were thrown back into the inner city, back to the murder factory. Their street was constantly in the news. A small sampling of what Shane saw: a woman busting open a man's head with a baseball bat; a dead body lying in the street.
As times got tougher, Shane's outer shell became harder. One of the most important males in his life at the time was his cousin Justen, who was eight years older and had survived another shooting years before his eventual death in 2007. Shane always wanted to tag along with Justen. And the longer he was around that life, the more it seemed palatable. Sebrina knew she was losing him.
"Sometimes even parents out here lose hope," Shane says, looking back. "You have no outlet. You're stuck in this, and that's what they continue to feel. They're stuck in it forever. What's the point? Everyone else is on the corner selling drugs; everyone else is toting guns.
"When I think about my situation, I just always remember, whenever I would stick my head in the pond, someone was pulling me out."
THE CONCORD FORTRESS OF HOPE CHURCH is one of the many places Sebrina would pray for her son. J.J. Smith, a former running back for the Kansas City Chiefs, also attended the church, and he became someone Sebrina could turn to for advice. Smith urged her to see Tom Shortell, the coach of the 39th Street Giants.
The park was chaotic the day Sebrina and Shane arrived, with adolescents running around and paperwork flying about. Sebrina asked Shortell whether he needed some help. Of course he did. She grabbed a clipboard and became the team mom, driving kids around, handling details.
People around the program at the time of Shane's debut with the Giants paint a similar and rather unflattering picture of the future SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Shortell says he was shaped like a toad.
About the only place Shane moved quickly, apparently, was in front of a refrigerator. His cousin Ronnie Johnson says Shane would often go to a relative's house and polish off leftovers meant for a family of four. Maybe the food comforted him, Sebrina says.
But when Shane was on the field, he tried so hard. He'd go against anybody, get his butt kicked and come back for more.
Playing for the Giants did something else for Shane. He was surrounded by positive male figures. Shortell, who is white, has four boys, two of whom played with Shane for the Giants.
They immediately became like his brothers. He'd spend weekends at the Shortells' home, and the boys would wrestle and roughhouse. Shane was so polite that Shortell got to calling the kid the "New Eddie Haskell," a knockoff of the brown-nosing character from the old TV show "Leave It to Beaver."
They ate hamburgers and hot dogs together, and Shane's weekends with the Irish-Catholic sports-crazed family flew by. Shortell says he didn't make a point of trying to help Shane. It just seemed natural. So when it was time for high school for Shane, Shortell suggested that Sebrina send him to Bishop Miege, a private Catholic school just over the state line in Roeland Park, Kansas. There, he told her, Shane would have structure. He'd follow a dress code and get hounded about his grades, and he'd play for Tim Grunhard, a former Kansas City Chiefs lineman.
There was only one problem. Bishop Miege cost nearly $10,000 a year. Sebrina worked and made sacrifices to send him there. But freshman year, Shane rebelled against the school's strict rules. He was constantly in detention, late for football practice and challenging the school's dress code.
Shane was going through a lot at the time. Not only had he lost Justen, but his aunt Carmelita had died of colon cancer a few months later.
Carmelita was one of Shane's biggest supporters. She collected his football jerseys. To get an idea of how close-knit the Johnson family is, everything revolves around Louise Johnson's house. She's the matriarch, mother of Sebrina and Carmelita, grandma to Shane. The cousins would play football in a patchy lot beside her house; the adults would always lean on Louise. Carmelita spent her final days in Louise's house, ultimately dying in her bed. For years, Louise refused to replace the bed.
Shane was a concern for much of the family, but nobody thought he was a bad kid. He was acting out, Shortell says, because he needed help.
After all the troubles his freshman year, Shane wanted out of Miege. Sebrina was on the verge of pulling him when Grunhard encouraged her to give it another year to see whether he could work things out. His sophomore season, Shane was injured during a game, hit in the head/neck area. As he lay on the turf, he couldn't move, and he had to be carried off on a stretcher. It turned out to be a bad stinger, but Grunhard could see the look of fear in his eyes. For about 30 minutes, Shane thought everything might be over for him.
"He was given a second chance to kind of wake up and do it the right way," Grunhard says. "I think at that point he decided to make a change in his lifestyle."
By that time, Shane was starting to look the part of a serious football player. He had spent the summer before his sophomore year visiting relatives in New Orleans and mowed lawns from morning until night in the Louisiana heat. By the time he got back to Kansas City, he was hardly recognizable. He was no longer chubby, and he had experienced a significant growth spurt.
Shane committed himself to football, and slowly evolved into one of the best defensive ends in the Kansas City area. He led Bishop Miege to the state championship his junior season.
The University of Missouri, his father's old school, offered him a scholarship. When Grunhard found out that coach Gary Pinkel was going to extend the offer, he called Sebrina. He knew how important this was to her.
Grunhard had her hide in the hallway outside his office while Shane took the call from Pinkel. When the coach delivered the news, Shane's face lit up. Grunhard could tell he wanted to call his mom when he hung up. Then Sebrina walked into the room. Mother and son cried and hugged. In their minds, they had made it.
"She's very tough," Grunhard says. "She had to be the dad. She had to be the disciplinarian. But the biggest compliment I can give her is this: She was one hell of a mother."
Shane went to Missouri, endured more growing pains and attitude adjustments, and after redshirting in 2011, he backed up Kony Ealy and Michael Sam before becoming a starter as a junior. Before games, Sebrina would send him the same text. "Be great," the texts would say. "Be as great as God intended you to be."
His junior year, he recorded 14.5 sacks, breaking the Mizzou single-season record held by Sam and Aldon Smith.
Sebrina was a regular in the stands at Missouri. And so was Shane's father.
Wendell, who was cited for nonpayment of child support, insists he's always had a relationship with his son. That's why he made the 125-mile trips from his home in St. Louis to Columbia to watch his son's games. When he sees Shane play, it reminds him of himself.
At Shane's pro day recently, Wendell wore a T-shirt that said "The Original Shane Ray." When Sebrina and her mother, Louise, saw the shirt, they became upset. They asked him to take the shirt off or cover it up because they believed it was taking away from Shane's day. Wendell eventually put on his jacket.
He scoffs at the notion that he wore the shirt to draw attention to himself. He says he was an "icon" at Missouri and wore the shirt because he's proud to be Shane's dad.
"I don't want to sound arrogant," Wendell says, "but when Shane was born, here I am, 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, with my physical build and everything ... I expected him to be an athlete. "Sebrina has males on her side of the family. None of them are athletic at all. None of them played hopscotch. He got that athleticism from the Ray family. Right here from this family."
When Wendell's football career ended, it launched him into a depression. He couldn't even watch the game on TV for a couple of years.
But he loves watching Shane. Last year, after an early-season game, Wendell found Shortell near the locker room and extended his hand. He thanked the coach for spending time with his son and helping him out.
Shortell understands why, despite feeling abandoned for two decades, Shane would want to get to know his father. Life is too short, he says, and the bitterness would only eat Shane up inside.
Wendell says that he tried to be in his son's life when he was younger but that it's complicated. He says Sebrina didn't want him around their son. He relays a story about waiting in a Kansas City hotel to pick up Shane, but nobody in the house answered the phone. At the drop of a hat, Sebrina can rattle off the times Wendell wasn't there, and how it devastated their son. His signing day for Missouri. His high school games. The times when Shane was spiraling out of control.
Wendell grew up in north St. Louis, a rough area he says is nicknamed "The Belly of the Beast." He says it would make Shane's old neighborhood look nice. Although he concedes that Sebrina did a good job bringing up Shane, he insists he would've been there more if Sebrina had let him.
"He can't say I kept him from him," Sebrina says, "because that was never the case."
Wendell says he isn't interested in Shane's money or fame. He just wants to see him and enjoy him.
IT'S A COLD TUESDAY in Missouri, and Shane Ray is at his mom's house in Raytown, getting a haircut. Ray is debating the nutritional virtues of Chipotle vs. McDonald's with his cousin Ronnie, who has taken a liking to a vegan diet.
Ronnie is four years older than Shane, who lived with Ronnie's family during some of the tough times, when Sebrina was just divorced and looking for work. Ronnie, like Shane, battled weight problems as a kid. But there was an advantage to that; they were about the same size. They shared a pair of Sean John jeans one school year. Ronnie would wear them one week, Shane the next.
Ronnie, who's going to the University of Missouri-Kansas City, plans to live with his cousin once Shane gets drafted. He's ready to transfer to another school and finish his degree in communications, ready to try something new. He also wants to look out for his cousin as he navigates his rookie season in the NFL.
Whenever Shane's in town, Ronnie wants to go out, but Sebrina usually nixes their plans. One night recently, they hung out, and Sebrina woke up in the middle of the night and didn't see Shane's car in the driveway. She called Ronnie, Ronnie's dad and Shane. Turns out, Shane was home. She just didn't see his car.
"I will tell you this," Ronnie says. "His mother has always been very protective. I'm like, 'Auntie, you can't live like that. Anything can happen to anybody.'"
Sebrina knows this. She just doesn't want it happening to her son. When he's home, near the murder factory, near the place her nephew died, it's instinct that makes her pull him in tighter, even though he's a grown man.
Before Justen was shot, he had a son. Shane saw the path his cousin's life was taking, and, although he wasn't even a teenager yet, he made big Justen a promise: If anything happened to him, Shane would take care of little Justen.
A few months ago, Shane was in town when he found out little Justen, 8, had gotten himself in trouble. He found out Justen had stolen some candy from a dollar store. He took the boy into a bedroom at Shane's grandmother's house.
Shane told Justen he wasn't going to tolerate stealing. He said he'd be checking on him weekly and would call his teachers if he had to. When Shane left, the little boy was crying. He said he wasn't going to get in any more trouble.
Shane wants to make sure that someone's always there pushing little Justen to be better, even though his dad is gone.
"I know if there wasn't football ... I could be dead," Shane says. "I could be in jail; I could be in the streets. I could have nothing."
Ronnie Johnson was there for the toughest times, but he isn't sure that's true. There's no way Shane could've fallen. He had too many people waiting to catch him.