Four years after his football career was halted by a frightening cancer diagnosis, Michigan State's Arthur Ray Jr. is dreaming big once again.
It's game day at Spartan Stadium, and Ray is in uniform, running out of the tunnel and on to the field.
"Every day, every night I go to sleep, I see myself doing it," he said. "I see the crowd. I see the student section going crazy."
For so long, Ray's high hopes seemed out of reach. Two months after signing with Michigan State in 2007, he began chemotherapy for a cancerous tumor in his left leg. Although his condition improved initially, an infection derailed his return to football.
After several operations and about two years using crutches, Ray began making significant progress in 2010, and he was cleared this January for more intense physical activity. He's been back at practice this month, and no matter how much he actually plays, the affable offensive lineman's return figures to be the most heartwarming moment of Saturday's spring game.
"When you see him back and you watch Arthur play, it gives you a feeling like you can accomplish anything," coach Mark Dantonio said. "I think that's the message to our football team, and that's the message to the general public."
As he was wrapping up his senior season at Mount Carmel High School in Chicago, Ray noticed a lump on his leg. He had a tumor on a bone near his left calf, and although he did not need a prosthetic as originally feared, he faced several weeks of chemotherapy.
Ray had successful surgery to remove the tumor in July 2007, but his medical problems were far from over thanks to a subsequent infection. He's had multiple bone-graft operations and says he had surgery nine times.
"Four on my leg and five other ones related to chemo or something else," Ray said.
All the while, he kept going to games, trying to remain part of a team he couldn't play for.
"That's what really kept us going — kept him going," said his father, Arthur Ray Sr. "He loved the game so much."
When he was finally able to put the crutches away about a year ago, Ray wasn't content.
"Once I finally got off those and started walking, and you hear people that are like, 'Aw, he's walking now. That's good enough,'" he said. "I was never satisfied. I always knew I'd get to this point where I'd be able to run and perform at this level."
Although he was cleared early this year for increased conditioning work, there was still one more hurdle for Ray and the Spartans. He had been medically disqualified so as not to count against the team's scholarship limit, but he was granted a waiver by the NCAA that now enables him to participate.
Ray and his family have been cautious about discussing too many specific goals, saying he simply wants to keep making progress physically and not think too far into the future. The team has been careful not to rush him, even amid the initial excitement when he first returned to practice.
"I got my powers back," the 6-foot-3, 295-pound Ray said. "I looked down, and I had my helmet. I had my shoulder pads. They got me back in the (No. 73). I'm very happy."
No matter what happens with his football career, Ray's ordeal has taught him some valuable perspective. He met other chemotherapy patients while receiving his treatment, and the experience has helped him mature quite a bit at a young age.
"I've had to grow up a lot," Ray said. "I left chemo and went right to prom. Thinking of those days, remembering, I see life in a totally different light than most people."
Ray's parents will be in attendance in East Lansing this weekend, and although there's been no definitive word on whether he'll be on the field for any actual plays, his teammates seem to be anticipating it.
"I think that thought gives everyone an energy boost," defensive lineman Jerel Worthy said. "Two years ago, he couldn't walk, but when we see him on the field, there will be a lot of tears on our faces."
After that, the road back continues. When Ray was in high school, he was good enough that he traveled to Florida to play in an all-star game in January 2007. After four years off, it isn't easy going up against Big Ten competition, even in practice.
But Ray says it would be a thrill to play for the Spartans in a game, and his father would love to see that happen at some point.
"That would be the icing — that would be the apple pie on everything," the elder Ray said. "I want him to be satisfied that he didn't give up."
Ray's father needn't worry about that, of course. His son is already beaming with pride over what he's accomplished.
"I always knew I could play this game, regardless of what anybody said — from doctors, other people who felt like I shouldn't keep doing what I'm doing," Ray said. "I just let it go in one ear and out the other. I always knew what I had in my faith and my family and the great support here at Michigan State."
- Spartan Stadium
- coach Mark Dantonio
- East Lansing