Fans draped themselves over a fence backstage after the Toronto Argos pep rally at the Nissan Family Zone at Yonge and Dundas on Tuesday evening.
“Ricky! Ricky! Ricky!” they chanted.
Three weeks before — despite being involved in one of the most publicized and controversial trades in CFL history — Ricky Ray could probably have walked several blocks down Yonge St. without being recognized.
But all of a sudden it’s just like it was for him 10 years ago when he fell off that potato chip truck in Edmonton.
In a way, what we’re dealing with here at the 100th Grey Cup is the return of Frito Ray.
Ten years ago, Ray was a 22-year-old who played for Rick Worman in the lower level of indoor football and got a break when The Worm — as he was known in his own CFL quarterback career — called Eskimos’ coach Tom Higgins.
“Rick phoned and said, ‘Tom, this kid is for real.’ And he was for real,” said Higgins, now the CFL’s head of officiating.
Ray played two years with no notice at Sacramento State, managed to hook on with the San Francisco 49ers as training camp fodder, and ended up playing for the Fresno Frenzy of Arena Football2 at $200 a game ($50 bonus for a win).
Meanwhile, he wasn’t quitting his day job delivering chips when the call came from Canada to try out for a job that was going to pay him less than the $41,500 he was making delivering chips.
“I never thought I’d be playing football again — I thought I’d be working at Frito Lay,” remembers Ray.
The guy had sizzle. On Labour Day, he threw a 15-yard pass to himself. It’s the same kind of sizzle he’s had in his last four games coming off a month out of the line-up with a knee injury.
In getting the Argos to the Grey Cup, Ray has thrown for 11 touchdowns, ran a quarterback draw play for another while throwing only one interception. He was 67 for 93 for 927 yards in his three games leading into the East final in Montreal where he topped that by completing 28 of 37 for 399 yards.
Suddenly, here in the city that normally works hard at ignoring the Argos, Ray is being rediscovered as if he was a brand new sensation sweeping the nation.
It’s almost like he’s writing the same story all over again.
Jason Maas sees it.
“There are a lot of parallels,” said the Argos’ quarterback coach who was the starting quarterback Ray replaced, due to injury, four games into that 2002 season.
“He got to the Grey Cup in his first season with the Eskimos with the Grey Cup being held there that year. He’s in the Grey Cup in his first season in Toronto with the Grey Cup being held here this year. And, while it’s kind of kicking in now here, there’s kind of the same sort of buzz around him now that there was back then,” said Maas.
The remarkable thing is that during that process, the two became best friends.
“It started with it just being so easy to talk to him. He was so honest. He was so hard-working. There was just something about the guy,” said Maas as he watched virtually everybody at the East team media breakfast at Ruth’s Chris Steak House at the Toronto Hilton Hotel on Wednesday morning take turns interviewing Ray, who sat there with all the time in the world for everybody.
“The way he handled it made him very likable. And he’s been so remarkable in staying that same guy with everything he’s gone through in his career.
“He hasn’t changed one bit. Whether he was winning or losing, an all-star, a Grey Cup MVP or not, he’s been consistent in every way, including the way he treats people.”
Ten years older and with almost as much hair on his Movember moustache as he now has left on his head, Ray is enjoying a replay of how he came in, back in 2002, as the feel-good story of the year in the CFL.
“It’s kind of strange for me,” said Ray as he sat holding one-year-old daughter Chloe on his knee at the end of the Tuesday evening pep rally.
“On one hand, it really does seem like yesterday I was in that first Grey Cup in my first year with the Eskimos. But on the other hand it seem like so darn long ago I was in a Grey Cup,” said the QB who had five different offensive co-ordinators in five years, minimal protection from his offensive lines and very few weapons in one-dimensional offences since his last Grey Cup appearance in 2005.
Now that he’s back in the Grey Cup, it’s OK for Ray to look back at where he came in when he was in the championship game every year. “I didn’t even know if I was going to make the team in 2002,” he remembered as he thought back to coming to camp as a sort of fourth-string prospect with absolutely no notice.
“Keith Smith got hurt,” recalled Ray of the second-string guy behind starter Jason Maas. “I ended up No. 2 out of training camp. Then in the fourth game Jason went down and I’m starting.”
Ray, who goes into Sunday’s Grey Cup against the Calgary Stampeders having thrown for 300-plus yards in all three Grey Cup games he’s played, with MVP honours in the 2005 overtime classic against Montreal, should be 3-0 in Grey Cups.
The 2002 game is generally remembered for Higgins’ misguided gamble, but Ray remembers it as a game he should have won.
Edmonton had a 25-7 edge in first downs, a 417-300 edge in total offence and a 35:15 to 24:45 edge in time of possession. How do you manage all that and lose 25-16?
“We definitely had opportunities to win that game. But we had a touchdown called back and I threw one over the head of my receiver who had a free trip to the end zone. Man, we had opportunities. We really should have won that Grey Cup game.”
Ray remembers the Grey Cup the following year in Regina as “kind of a week for redemption, a second chance to win the Grey Cup against that same Montreal Alouettes team.”
But there was an incident during Grey Cup week that defined Ray as much as the game he played that Sunday.
Ray shocked some long-time Grey Cup celebrants when, with fiancee Allison on his arm, he climbed on a public transportation bus at the bus stop in front of the place where they held the CFL Awards ceremony.
That was priceless.
When you’re a fan on the bus, you don’t expect to see the starting quarterback in the Grey Cup climb on wearing a tuxedo. There was Ray, his fiancee, public relations man Dave Jamieson and photographer Dale MacMillan.
MacMillan was the only guy with change in his pockets.
People cheered when Ray came on.
It was one of those moments that said Ray was a CFL player, a guy-next-door, the same type of guy he is today, a guy who doesn’t need a limo.
“Yeah, it didn’t bother me at all. All the official transportation had departed, but, hey, here comes a bus. Let’s catch it,” said Ray after the rally.
“What I remember was that I was carrying this little trophy about this high,” he said, holding his thumb and finger about four inches apart.
“They had a sponsor for the Player of the Week that year who gave the trophy to the guy who had been voted winner the most during the season. All the other guys who were presented CFL awards had really big trophies.”
Two days later, Ray had a really big trophy: The Grey Cup.
In 2005, the year after spending a season in the NFL, Ray was back in the Grey Cup game again, like it was just something he did in late November every year up here.
Well, not quite.
“That was a tough season. I got benched in the playoffs,” he said of giving way to Maas twice and watching his buddy get the Eskimos to the Grey Cup.
Ray won it in the overtime classic, once again against the Alouettes. He was named MVP. Since then, it’s been a roller coaster ride for both Maas and Ray.
“I can’t tell you how special this is for me,” said Maas.
“I’m coaching someone I played with, am friends with, someone who stayed the same guy whether I was No. 1, the back-up or third string. I want to enjoy this. Coaching him at the Grey Cup is even better.”