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December 13, 2018

Ricky Ray Talks about retirement and his tough summer

Ricky Ray (15) of the Toronto Argonauts in the locker room before the game against the Hamilton Tiger-Cats at Tim Horton's Field in Hamilton, ON, Saturday, September 30, 2017. (Photo: Johany Jutras)

It would be an understatement to say it’s been an intense year for Ricky Ray both on and off the field.

His on-field portion of 2018 didn’t last very long. The quarterback didn’t take a snap in either pre-season game, then in the second regular-season contest suffered a neck injury that was severe enough to keep him off the field for the remainder of the season. Maybe forever.

Then there were the fires.

“They were bad this year,” Ray told Argonauts.ca.

The quarterback was born in the tiny logging community of Happy Camp, in northern California, just a couple of kilometres from the Oregon border. He was raised about 20 km south in Redding, a city with a population of just under 100,000 where he and his family reside in the off season.

It was a city that came very close to being wiped out twice this year by forest fires.

The Carr Fire hit the Redding area in August, killing eight people, destroying 1,000 homes, consuming almost 250,000 acres and causing the evacuation of 55,000 people.

“My wife’s parents were evacuated, my parents were evacuated, my brother was evacuated,” he explained. “I had a cousin lose his house in the fire, I had numerous friends lose houses. Allyson’s (his wife’s) parents lost a building behind the house, sort of a barn, but the house itself was fine.”

In November the Camp Fire killed almost 100 people, wiping out the town of Paradise, a little over 100 km southeast of Redding.

After this horrible year, he and Allyson, who he met when they were freshmen at Shasta High School in Redding, have some decisions to make about football and about where they want to raise their daughters Chloe and Olivia.

It sounds like moving from the fire-ravaged area they call home isn’t an option.

“It feels like home here,” admitted Ray. “Our families are here, ideally it would be nice to have this as home base. We feel safe here.”

Then there’s the whole football career thing. When next year’s Grey Cup game is played, Ray will be 40 years old. Even though 40 is the new 30, the wear and tear of almost 20 seasons of pro football has taken its toll on the quarterback. Ray has missed 41 games in the last four years, even though he missed just one game in the 2017 championship season.

The most important thing Argonauts.ca wanted to find out about was how healthy he is, and how his neck is healing.

“I’m good,” said Ray. “I’ve recovered for the most part. I have one more checkup at the end of the month, but nothing is bothering me at all. Everything is fine, it’s normal. Every once in a while I feel a little something in there, but it’s very mild.”

That’s a relief. Fans from coast to coast were terrified watching Ray leave the field on a stretcher during the Argos home opener. What looked like a potentially catastrophic injury turned out to be ligament damage, the lesser of several potential evils. There was no disc damage and all of the vertebrae were fine. It was just a slow process spending several weeks in a neck brace, then allowing the injury to heal.

“At the end of the month I have a six-month checkup and another x-ray,” he explained. “We just have to make sure all the vertebrae are lined up right. If I decide I wanted to return to a contact sport like football I would have to get more imaging done.”

Would he have been able to return at the end of the 2018 season if the Argos were in Grey Cup contention?

“It’s a good question,” admitted Ray. “The doctor I followed in Toronto said no contact for six months. I had a couple of other doctors look at it and felt that after wearing the brace it was up to me. There may have been a window to play, but it was something I didn’t want to do.”

Ray’s decision about returning to the sport is essentially his, though he does get input from Allyson.

“She gives me her thoughts and lets me make my decision,” said the Sacramento State product. “She supports me as long as it’s within reason. She’s really supportive and has always encouraged me to play as long as I could.”

Many felt Ray would, or should retire after winning the Grey Cup in 2017. It would have been a fairy-tale ending, capping off a stellar career with a championship in one of the most memorable games in CFL history. In that off-season Ray questioned whether he wanted to leave on that high, or come back to compete after what was arguably the best season of his career.

“Mentally I wanted to do it again,” he admitted, “But I asked myself ‘do I want to go through the day-to-day grind of being a quarterback?’ I also thought about my diminishing skill set that’s taken the deep ball away from me. In the end I loved it so much I felt I could do it.”

If it was a difficult decision before 2018, his thought process right now may be a bit easier, but it’s pointing him in a direction that his fans likely don’t want to him to take.

“Ever since the injury I figured this was it for me,” Ray admitted to Argonauts.ca. “My body was telling me something, between the shoulder injury and the neck. Mentally I can handle it, physically I don’t know if I’m up for it. Winning the Grey Cup, the season we had was one of the most enjoyable seasons of my career, that’s one of the reasons I came back, but this time has been tough with the injuries.”

There’s a chance that if he gets a clean bill of health the pending free agent may decide to return. When he watches a game on television these days the juices start flowing and he gets the feeling that he wants to come back. “That’s what’s slowing down my process,” admitted the QB.

Ricky Ray will be talked about as long as there’s a Canadian Football League. He will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He will be honoured by both the Argonauts and Eskimos as the leading passer in team history and will undoubtedly become an “All-Time Argo.” Everyone who has met him will speak of him as a great player and an extremely humble, classy person. He’ll leave an incredible legacy, we just don’t know yet if he has more to add to it as a player, or if he’ll turn the page on his playing career.

He could become a coach, though he’s not 100 percent sure he’d like it. He may just take some time off after football – whether that’s next year or sometime down the road – and just recharge the battery and be a full-time husband and father.

If it is the end of his playing days, he has nothing to regret. If Ray feels there is some gas left in the tank, nobody should be even slightly surprised if he recaptures some of the magic that led to the 2017 championship.

Either way, we should find out soon.