April 27, 2011

After cancer, Ray thankful to be a Spartan

Adrian Ray didn't have time for tears, even though mothers aren't supposed to go through what she was facing.

Her 17-year-old son had just been diagnosed with cancer. Didn't God know that this was Arthur Ray Jr.? He was a strapping 6-foot-2, 297-pound high school All-American headed to Michigan State to be a football star.

"It was shocking," Adrian Ray says. "Here he is, getting ready to graduate, go to prom, getting ready for college.

"We had to stay together and keep moving. I told him, 'This is a time in your life when you have to fight back. You have to fight for your life right now. It's not about football.' "

Now, a bit more than four years later, it once again is about football for Arthur Ray Jr., now 21. It's not about chemo, doctors and checkups anymore. The doubt about his future is gone. On April 7, the doubt officially was replaced with hope. On that day, Ray walked onto the practice field as a cancer survivor - and as a Michigan State Spartans guard.

He wore a helmet, knee braces, shoulder pads and a big smile. Arthur Ray Jr. finally was going to hit somebody again.

"I have been banging a little bit," says Ray, who has been limited to drills during spring practice, which ends Saturday. "I feel stronger, upper-body wise. It's the speed of the game that is tough. When you get out there, it's moving. I haven't been tentative. But just not playing at this level for so long, I have to get used to everything."

No one knows for sure what kind of a player Ray will be; he has had nine surgeries on his right leg and spent almost two years on crutches. He hopes to play this fall and could seek a medical redshirt if he isn't ready. He's considered a junior; he first enrolled at Michigan State in the spring of 2008 but had to withdraw because of an infection in his leg. He returned to school in the fall of 2008.

But never mind talk of a redshirt. For Ray, it's all about the here and now, and in the here and now, he is back on the field.

Ray has learned to embrace the present because for years his future looked murky. Battling cancer will do that to a person.

"He's a tremendous role model for all people who fight through some difficult things in life," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio says. "He always has been positive and has handled a lot of adversity.

"What it means is dreams can come true if you continue to have faith, no matter what situation you are in."

A bothersome lump

Arthur Ray Jr. says he had quite a large smile when the equipment manager handed him a shiny green Michigan State helmet earlier this month.

"It was one of the greatest days of my life," Ray says. "He sort of read my mind when he gave me the helmet: 'Arthur, I know it's tempting, but don't take your helmet home.'

"I was definitely going to take my helmet home and just stare at it all night long. I felt like a kid again."

Ray had not played football since January 2007, when he participated in a postseason all-star game. In the fall of 2006, Ray was a star guard at perennial power Chicago Mount Carmel. He chose Michigan State over offers from, among others, Illinois and North Carolina State.

As a junior and senior, Ray helped coach Frank Lenti's Mount Carmel team go 25-3 and reach the state finals each season. But during Mount Carmel's run in the Illinois playoffs when he was a senior, Ray noticed a lump on his right shin. For a while, he didn't pay much attention to it and went on to play in the aforementioned all-star game in January. Ray then signed his Michigan State letter-of-intent in February.

But the lump still was there, and one day at school, pain shot through him as he walked up a set of stairs. He decided to get the lump checked.

"I didn't know what it was," he says. "The doctors told me it was a hematoma, a collection of blood. I was thinking, 'OK, I'll have a quick surgery, drain that, and I'll be ready to come up [to Michigan State] and work out.'

"A week later, the biopsy came back and it was bad results. It was just bad results all around the board. It was crazy."

It was cancer.

"It was crushing," Ray says. "The doctor, he wasn't nice about it. He was like, 'You'll never play football again. The most you'll do is walk around and run around with your grandkids.'

"I'm 17 years old. I'm not even thinking about kids, let alone grandkids. It definitely was devastating. Me and my family - my dad, mom and little brother - just started crying. It was bad."

Ray was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that often strikes teenage boys. Doctors caught the cancer relatively early, which gave Ray a better than 50 percent chance of survival. Had the osteosarcoma spread to his lungs, Ray's outlook would have been much worse.

It didn't take long for Ray to ask the question that dogs almost everyone stricken with a disease: Why me?

"Why not you?" his mother would whisper to him. "It's OK to ask, 'Why me?' But why not you? When you can answer that question 'Why me,' then say, 'Why not me?' "

At times, the enormity of the situation reduced Ray to tears. Then, the questions danced in his head:

"How will I respond to chemo?"

"Will I play football again?"

"Will I live?"

"You are a good kid," Adrian Ray would tell her son. "You're special. You are a people person. You always have a smile on your face. The cards you were dealt were the cards I have to play, too. So we just have to play them and keep going."

A 297-pound pediatric patient

Arthur Ray Jr. never will forget his first chemo. At 17, he technically still was a kid, so Ray - all 297 pounds of him - was dispatched to the pediatric ward for treatment.

"After my mom left, I was near tears," Ray says. "I was like the biggest kid they had ever seen. Then, this little kid comes into my room with a Nintendo 64. 'Little Chris' was his name. He was 10 or 11. He told me to wake up, that we were going to play."

Little Chris had a brain tumor and had been in and out of hospitals for two years. Ray says that if Little Chris could smile and have fun as he fought for his life, so could he.

Herzlich provides inspiration
If Arthur Ray Jr. needs inspiration to know he can play again after surviving cancer, he can look to former Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich.

After a 2008 season in which he was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, Herzlich was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. Doctors told him he'd never play football again.

They were wrong.

Herzlich had seven months of chemo and five weeks of radiation. He also had a 12-inch titanium rod inserted in his left leg after a tumor was removed. In September 2009, Herzlich was pronounced cancer-free. In September 2010, he started and made five tackles in Boston College's season-opening win over Weber State.

His was a remarkable comeback that has inspired many people. Herzlich knows that, which is why he reached out to Ray earlier this week.

"I sent him a text and he called me," Herzlich says. "We don't have a flourishing relationship, but we can stay in contact with each other and offer support."

That is just what Herzlich's father did during Ray's battle with cancer, sending Ray an email to show Ray that the Herzlichs were thinking of him.

"My dad told him that if he ever needed anything to let him know," Herzlich says. "And [Ray] emailed back, wanting to know different things I did to get back, mostly the recovery process.

"He is done with treatments now and is trying to get back to football. My dad also talked to him about massage therapy I went through and how it took a while for me to get back, and not to get frustrated."

After missing the 2009 season, Herzlich started all 13 games last season and finished third on the team with 65 tackles, including 50 solo stops. Herzlich also tied for first on the team with two forced fumbles, ranked second with four interceptions and four pass breakups and added 3.5 tackles for loss.

Herzlich will be at Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night as a special guest for the opening ceremonies of the NFL draft, looking to add more layers to his already remarkable journey.

"There has been talk [about writing a book or doing a movie about my comeback], but mostly joking around," Herzlich says. "There is nothing in place."

That figures to come later.
"He was one of my first joys in the hospital," Ray says. "Just hearing his story inspired me. Just watching him, that young, go through all of that."

The surgeries and chemo continued for almost two years, and at one point late in 2009, Ray looked to be in the clear. But that's when doctors told him he would need another operation, his ninth.

"It was my lowest point," Ray says. "After that, I was like, 'Man, come on.' Another six or seven months on crutches. I just did not want to deal with it.

"I had it before we played Texas Tech in the Alamo Bowl [after the 2009 season]. I really didn't want to have it. I was healing up really nice. Everything was going really well. I didn't want to go through that surgery."

By then, though, it had become routine. Ray was well-versed at dealing with bad stuff. He had no choice, really. So, he strengthened his faith. Cancer patients will tell you if there's one thing they have, it's time to sit and think. That can be good or bad, depending on how your thoughts are directed.

"It was me, the IV and God," Ray says. "My faith grew so much. When you are in that hospital and everyone leaves ... man, it's just darkness. And you feel like it's going so slow and the world is moving without you. My faith grew a lot."

Ray realized that he was fighting this battle so he could share his experience. The "why me?" riddle was answered.

"I enjoy sharing my story and hopefully it can change someone's life," Ray says. "Maybe someone who isn't a follower of God can change and become one after hearing and talking to me. Because I understand it definitely was a divine power watching over me because every medical percentage said that I shouldn't be doing what I am doing right now."

Adrian Ray never doubted that her son would get healthy again and play football. Time and again, she told him that miracles do come true and that he could be the next in line for a miracle.

"That's why I told him that he has to fight back and hold on," Adrian Ray says. " 'If it's something you really want, and I know you want your life, you have to fight for it right now.' "

Getting his opportunity

Arthur Ray Jr. has a lot to be happy about. He's practicing again, knocking heads, grunting, groaning, sweating ... and living.

"The fact he is out there and able to bend his knees and play is an incredible story in itself," Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins says.

Adrian Ray laughs.

"I didn't have time for tears before," she says. "But now I can't keep them from falling. My heart has been overflowing ever since he called me to say that he had been cleared to play. He was so excited. I was crying with him. I told him to, 'Calm down. Don't get too overwhelmed.' "

Dantonio admits that he had doubts, that he didn't think this day would come. He saw what Ray was going through - the surgeries, the crutches, the limp.

"I saw him first-hand experience nine surgeries," Dantonio says. "I saw him first-hand on crutches and all the different things he had to do. It wasn't like he got off the crutches and could all of a sudden run. He had a limp.

"But Arthur Ray, he always felt he was going to be back. All he wanted was an opportunity, that shot. He would get frustrated at times. He always bounced back. If he had a bad day, the next day was going to be a bit better."

Look at Ray now. Spring drills end Saturday and next comes summer conditioning. Then - who knows? - Ray may run onto the field at Spartan Stadium on Sept. 3 for the season-opening game against Youngstown State. What would that be like?

"That day probably will be untouchable for me," Adrian Ray says. "I definitely will have a loss for words. I probably won't be able to talk to anyone."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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