BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Shane Ray considers his final two years with the Denver Broncos and the two pandemic years after to be the hardest of his life.
The pass-rusher, drafted at No. 23 out of Missouri in 2015, had a promising start in the NFL. He was part of the Broncos team that won Super Bowl 50, and he had his most productive season in Year 2, with eight sacks and 21 quarterback hits. But he suffered a left wrist injury during training camp in 2017 that led to four surgeries and helped derail his career. Ray played 19 games with the Broncos over his final two seasons, but they did not re-sign him at the end of his rookie deal.
“Mentally, physically not feeling like me. Feeling beaten up, feeling torn down by media, feeling, you know, just everything,” Ray said. “I felt like I wasn't me anymore, and I had no value ... and people that I thought were gonna help me through the process ended up fading away, and now it's only me and my mom, and the other close people to me, believing in me."
While his career went off track, Ray was living with stress and nervous breakdowns with his temper getting “out of control,” as he described it. He had to learn, with the help of counseling, not to worry about what others thought of him or their expectations.
Ray signed with the Baltimore Ravens in 2019 but was cut before training camp.
“I don't think I showed up how I should have showed up to the Ravens, honestly,” Ray said. “I was still dealing with my injury.”
He had 10 tryouts with other teams during the 2019 season, but none worked out.
“I think he was angry. He was angry about a situation. It showed up in his workout,” his agent, Joby Branion, said after talking to teams that worked out Ray. “It showed up in sort of the way he carried himself. When anybody asked anything about special teams, it pissed him off.”
His career hit a low point in 2020, with no team workouts. He then spent two seasons with the Toronto Argonauts, rediscovering his love of football along the way. Despite not getting an NFL opportunity for four years, Ray says he had faith his best football was still in front of him.
“I had to humble myself -- more humbled than I could ever been before. From going to Canada and buying in, you know -- I can’t act like there was days that I didn’t walk in and I was like, ‘Bro, this is where I am? Like, I’m not supposed to be here,’” Ray said. "But that’s where I was, and I had to grind through it.”
Now, after a good performance at the Buffalo Bills rookie minicamp, 30-year-old Ray has signed again with an NFL team, with a big opportunity in hand.
“I always tell [Ray], ‘The universe rewards grace. You know, whatever cards you dealt, you just play them to the best of your ability, man,’” said teammate Von Miller, who was also with Ray in Denver. “... I've definitely seen him at his lowest. And I've seen him at his highest, too. And I constantly remind him of who he is and who he can be.”
TAYLOR SCOTT CAN'T recall a time when he had to push Ray during a workout or tell him to work harder. Not giving up has been a key part of getting Ray another chance.
But Scott, the founder and head coach of The Trench Academy in Tampa, Florida, does recall a time before a workout this offseason -- he has done three-a-day workouts with Ray every day for more than four months this year -- when Scott could tell that Ray’s lack of NFL interest was getting to him. Ray wondered whether he should go back to the CFL, what he should do next. Scott asked whether he had to make that decision in the next hour.
Ray told him, “No.”
“Let's not worry about anything that's not happening in the next hour,” Scott said. “All we can control is this set. So, let's do this set.”
Ray never quit. During the 2020 and 2021 offseasons, he trained with Miller in San Francisco and went all-in on working out with an eye toward another chance.
“In 2020 when COVID hit, we literally worked every single day,” Miller said. “Two workouts a day; we had the chef, we did everything in our power to be successful. Like we grinded together every single day. We went and got tattoos together."
Ray began working on other things along the way -- trying to keep up with the NFL schedule and training like a full-time player without the NFL paycheck is no easy feat. The time away from the league allowed him to start digging into what he liked doing off the field while also working on finishing his degree. Writing is one of the activities he enjoys, so he thought about coming up with a movie script and getting into the film industry. He also writes music and has been working with his mom, Sebrina Johnson, on real estate and has considered opening a restaurant.
“He would work so hard and spend so much money training and keeping his body healthy and doing all the things that he needed to do just to be ready just in case,” Johnson said. “So, that is what I'm proud of. I am proud of his tenacity.”
He attended a HUB workout, a camp designed to help free agents find a team, with NFL and CFL scouts present. The Argonauts expressed an interest, and Branion had to have a tough conversation with Ray about humbling himself by showing how hungry he was and putting his abilities on tape.
“They offered me the opportunity to come up to Toronto, and I jumped at it because I was like, I can't sit at home another year and not play football,” Ray said.
Ray played in just five games in 2021 because of a finger injury. He had a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs in between the seasons, but they were not ready to make a decision before he had to decide on his option with the CFL. In 2022, he played 13 games, recording six sacks, and Toronto won the Grey Cup. His season ended early because of a biceps tear that required surgery, but he left a positive impression on tape and in the Argonauts' building as a leader.
“He got that love of the game back,” Argonauts coach Ryan Dinwiddie told ESPN. “When you're out of it for a bit and just kind of go in a little rut, and you can see when he got out in grass, it was like, 'OK, this is fun again.' So, you could just see the energy that he brought each day.”
Dinwiddie said it was about midseason when he noticed Ray take the next step as a pass-rusher and look more comfortable.
Ray started working with Scott around the end of 2022, “to challenge myself and push myself, like, to the furthest I ever pushed myself to get the results that I wanted.” They would go from speed workouts to agility workouts to lifting sessions and then later he would return to do defensive line work. He even took on a leadership role in the gym, speaking to a group of younger athletes about his journey.
Ray attended Missouri’s pro day to put himself out there and have scouts write him up in their reports. Branion talked to several teams at the NFL combine about Ray, including Bills general manager Brandon Beane. Beane asked whether Ray would be interested in attending the team’s rookie minicamp.
Branion believed the opportunity could be better than a workout, as it would allow him to be around the coaches and staff. Ray went to camp with a positive mindset before other workouts scheduled down the road.
The efforts paid off, and the Bills signed him.
MILLER HAS NO problem giving Beane recommendations for players to sign. He publicly advocated for wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and DeAndre Hopkins. But the case with Ray was different. Miller didn’t say a word to Beane advising he sign Ray, something Branion confirmed.
“I talk to Beane about a lot of stuff, man. I talk to him about players and this and that, but I did not talk to him about Shane specifically,” said Miller. “I wanted that to be natural. I didn't want it to be like, 'This is Von's guy.' Everything that Shane got, it's been all off of Shane.”
Ray held his emotions in check when he found out he was being signed, but he cried when he returned to his hotel room and called his mom. She screamed at first and told him she knew he could do it. Then they both cried more and sat in silence for minutes.
“It's saving his life. I just, I don't know what could've happened if the opportunity didn't come, but giving him a, like, real opportunity saved his life,” Johnson said. “Because even if things don't happen the way we expect it to, he did come back from where he was, from the depths of hell. ... He came back and he did do it, because no one, I mean, absolutely no one believed he would come back.”
Ray said he walks into the facility every day with the mentality he’s going to be there but is more appreciative of the little things. He faces a battle to make a competitive Bills roster, but he’s working to capitalize on his first NFL opportunity in years. That includes working with senior defensive assistant/defensive line coach Eric Washington to learn the playbook but also spending time on the special teams side with coordinator Matthew Smiley.
“Just a lot of respect for how he came to us,” Washington said. “When you go from [Super Bowl 50] to being out of the league and trying to fight and claw and scratch your way back in and to come out in a rookie tryout situation and have to find a way to get the attention of the staff and motivate people enough of what you do to get signed, I just have a lot of respect for that.”