Sept. 3, 2011
By Steve Grinczel, Online Columnist
The Michigan State left guard blocked one Youngstown State pass-rusher and then stopped another as Kirk Cousins dropped back to pass on the Spartans' first offensive play of the season Friday night.
Then, after the ball was safely in the hands of tight end Brian Linthicum for a 7-yard completion, the nimble blocker charged downfield looking for someone else to knock heads with.
It looked like yet another masterful performance MSU fans have come to expect from that position over the past few seasons with one exception.
Cancer-survivor Arthur Ray Jr. was doing the blocking instead of preseason All-American Joel Foreman. It was the first time Ray lined up for a real football play since Jan. 4, 2007, when he participated in the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl high school all-star game in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"I've been waiting for this moment for so long, it was just a great feeling," Ray said after the Spartans dropped Youngstown State, 28-6. "Actually, I had butterflies for about two hours before the game. Man, I missed that feeling for so long."
Two months after signing his letter of intent February 2008, Ray was diagnosed with a tumor in his lower left leg and underwent surgery to remove the growth and repair the bone with a graft. Ray didn't enroll in school until the spring of '08, but contracted an infection and was forced to go back home to Chicago for more treatment. Ray underwent three additional bone-graft operations and spent two years on crutches while steadfastly holding onto the hope he would someday play for the Spartans.
He was cleared to take part in 11 practices last spring, and took two snaps in the Green-White game on April 30, but his day finally came after Foreman, a fifth-year senior co-captain with 36 starts in 38 career games, approached head coach Mark Dantonio with a remarkable proposal.
"I said, `It's your football team, what do you want to do?' " Dantonio said. "And he wanted to do that. I wanted to make sure our players understood it wasn't Mark Dantonio being a nice guy. It was Joel Foreman being selfless, and I think that's a big step when you have people like that on your football team who care about other people.
"That's what we're talking about when we talk about chemistry, leadership and those types of things. That was a neat thing to see."
The last thing on Foreman's mind was having his string of 22 starts snapped, and he kept the idea under wraps since he came up with it during spring ball.
"This is something I wanted to do for a long time," Foreman said. "Watching him run up and down the stairs this summer (in Spartan Stadium) was an inspiration to me. I'm going have 40-some-odd starts by the end of my career. No one's probably going to remember the exact number. I wish I could do more for him, to be honest.
"I know he probably thinks it was powerful for him, but it was just as powerful for me to watch him out there. It's something he deserves and something he earned. It's not something I did."
And though largely symbolic, Ray's first play as a Spartan was a triumph of the human spirit. As the MSU Marching Band played the National Anthem, Ray swayed back and forth while standing next to Foreman, his 2007 recruit-classmate.
Ray was told of the decision at the pregame meal.
"During the walk (to the stadium) it was very emotional to me," Ray said. "I thought of my days on chemo and that first doctor's visit when I found out the news and it all came to this great moment.
"If anybody's a walking miracle, you're looking at him. A lot of people told me to turn around and do other things, and I really never listened to them. Football's always been my heart and my passion, and if I proved anything today, and throughout camp, it's that I can still play this game."
Ray gave his performance a favorable grade.
"I blocked good. It was just our normal gap protection, so it doesn't take that much," said Ray, who was proud of his two-for-the-price-of-one pass protection. "If they're going to put me out there, I'm going to try to bang as many people as possible."
Ray, who returned to practice Tuesday after a period of rest, said he's pain-free and ready to take the next step.
"This is just the beginning," he said. "A lot of people didn't think I'd get to this point, but I'm ready to keep going. This is just like me getting off the crutches, and me taking those first steps running. I'm looking forward to the future."
During the game, Ray wore a wristband containing the photographs of two Lansing-area youths who battled the same type of cancer: Brandon Gordon and James Stanley.
Gordon, a DeWitt High School student and hockey player who contracted the cancer in his hip, never recovered and died in February 2009. Stanley, who is a junior at Holt High, cheered Ray on from the press box.
"He feels like an older brother to me," said Stanley, a volunteer member of MSU's athletic communications game-day stats crew. "He's doing everything he can to be out there every day. Him playing today showed me and himself that he can do it."
Stanley missed three years of school while recovering.
"To see him out there makes it all worthwhile to me," Stanley said. "He completes everything that I can't. His cancer was two inches below his knee, so he was able to not have knee-replacement. Mine was two inches above and I got a knee-replacement, so I'm not allowed to play in any contact sports."