TORONTO — Ricky Ray shrugged.
“Everybody has their story,” he said.
He was sitting in a booth inside an upscale steakhouse in downtown Toronto one morning this week. Television cameras jockeyed for a clearer view by his table. Two blocks away, the skating rink at City Hall had been converted into a football field; another attraction in a weeklong festival built around the 100th anniversary Grey Cup, a game that will feature the Toronto Argonauts and Ray, their starting quarterback.
That is the glamorous part of Ray’s story, to go with the two Grey Cup titles already on his résumé. The foundation of his story, the part he was shrugging off out of modesty in the steakhouse, is not glamorous. Not unless delivering potato chips is glamorous.
In June 2001, having graduated university without drawing any interest from any level of professional football, Ray was on the path to being a regular, low-key member of the nine-to-five set. He accepted a job in a management-training program with Frito-Lay, earning a salary of US$42,500 that first year, and with a wake-up call before 5 a.m., that first week.
With another employee in the truck, he made deliveries to all three stores on their route around Sacramento, Calif., heading down the path to being they guy who watched sports on television, instead of playing them.
And then, a phone call.
The San Francisco 49ers were suddenly short of able bodies. They called Ray to provide an extra arm in training camp. San Francisco released him not long after, but his foot was back in the door. Soon, he landed work with the Fresno Frenzy, an Arena league team.
He earned US$200 a game.
“Going through that experience made me realize, ‘You know, I should probably give it a little bit longer,’ ” he said. “I think I kind of just gave up a little bit too quick coming out of school. That lucky break made me realize I should stick with it for a year and just give it a shot.”
It has been 11 years and counting.
You’ll always have a chance to win with a guy like that
A recommendation from former CFLer Rick Worman led Ray from the hinterlands of Arena football — Fresno played in lower-rung and lower-case af2, not in the main Arena Football League — to Canada, and the Edmonton Eskimos.
Ray emerged as a starter in that first season, ahead of incumbent Jason Maas, and led the Eskimos to the 2002 Grey Cup. They lost that year, but he led them to another the next season — earning a win, and adding another victory in 2005.
“That’s crazy how life happens,” Argos receiver Maurice Mann said. “And I’m so happy that happened for him, because Ricky is my all-time favourite quarterback.”
Did Mann know what they used to call Ray, the deliveryman-turned-quarterback?
“Frito-Ray? I mean, I wish the chips were actually smooth, because Ricky is so smooth,” Mann said with a smile and a laugh. “He’s calm, cool and collected. Frito-Ray is cool.”
Ray is now one of the most prolific passers in Canadian Football League history, ranked sixth on the all-time yardage list (44,590). On Sunday, when he leads the Argos onto the Rogers Centre field against the Calgary Stampeders, Ray will become only the 10th quarterback in league history to start in four Grey Cup games. (That list includes Doug Flutie.)
“I appreciate him more now as a coach,” said Maas, now Toronto’s quarterback coach. “A guy who can throw in the wind, throw in the rain, throw in the snow, throw in the mud, who can throw a deep ball better than anybody, who will stand in there and take hits, who will play through pain … You’ll always have a chance to win with a guy like that.”
The Eskimos begged to differ, and traded Ray last year after nine seasons that would, on their own, warrant consideration from the Canadian Football Hall of Fame. A knee injury forced him to miss time during the regular season earlier this year, but Ray resumed his usual roll in time for the playoffs.
He rallied the Argos from an early deficit to steamroll the Eskimos in the East Division semi-final, then threw for a personal playoff best 399 yards to upset the Montreal Alouettes in the East Division final last weekend.
It beats delivering potato chips.
“Definitely, this is a job, but it doesn’t feel like one,” Ray said. “I mean, we get to come out and play football, a game that we’ve been playing our whole lives and just have fun with it.”
And Ray, in turn, has made it more fun for the franchise’s merry band of long-suffering fans.
“Most people work nine to five, five days a week, and we get to come in here for 4½ hours a day; watch some film; lift weights; go to practice and then we get to play on the weekend,” Ray said. “It’s just a dream come true for a lot of us.”