Did you know that Ricky Ray never won a Most Outstanding Player Award during his illustrious 16-year career? He won four Grey Cup championships, had four 5000-yard seasons, made three CFL All-Star teams but the honour of being named as the league’s best player has eluded him.
This is not meant to condemn the voters and if you look back at each individual winner for each year the case for that specific player makes sense. I always enjoyed watching Ray during his Edmonton days and his most dominant years came in Alberta, but I never truly appreciated him until he was traded to Toronto in 2011. With Ray a part of the 2022 Canadian Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony happening this Friday, I wanted to pay tribute to a player deserving of all the accolades, who despite never winning an MOP was one of the most impactful players in the past two decades.
» Tickets now on sale for CFHOF class of 2022 induction ceremony
» CFHOF welcomes distinguished class of 2022
» HOF-Bound, Act II: Ricky Ray’s years in Toronto
» O’Leary: Ricky Ray’s Edmonton years were HOF-worthy
Let’s start with the end. Ricky Ray is no different than the majority of football players in that they don’t get to decide when to hang it up. In the physical world of professional football, you rarely see players get to ride into the sunset on their own accord.
I got to see Ray’s final moment in the CFL, and I wish I hadn’t. It was the 2018 home opener, a Grey Cup rematch against Calgary. In the third quarter, Ray was hit hard by Ja’Gared Davis and Cordarro Law and soon everything and everyone went silent when Ray did not get up. Ray had to be taken out of the game on a stretcher and with his head immobilized. He would recover from the injury but in May of the following year one of the game’s most prolific passers would call it a career. I wrote at the time I was glad he had decided to move on to the next stage of his life, but I would be lying if I said there weren’t plenty of moments where I missed seeing him on the field.
To fully appreciate his career, you have to remember the impact he had on the football fortunes of the Toronto Argonauts and just how shocked the entire football world was in December of 2011 when then-Edmonton GM Eric Tillman sent Ray to Toronto in exchange for kicker Grant Shaw, quarterback Steven Jyles and a first-round pick that would be used to select offensive lineman Austin Pasztor.
At the time Ray had already put up over 40,000 career yards with 210 touchdowns compared to just 130 interceptions. He had won a couple Grey Cups and had earned MVP honours for his second championship in 2005. The feeling in Toronto was, “wait a minute, we’re getting THAT guy?” Ray represented the first elite level quarterback for the Double Blue since Damon Allen, who had retired in 2007.
I understand the thinking that you must be wary of signing 32-year-old quarterbacks to long term deals, especially ones who had been hit as much as Ray. But Ricky’s skills were not exactly in decline. He had led Edmonton to an 11-7 record in 2011, tied for the CFL’s best record and individually his production was strong throwing for 4,594 yards with 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Ray would not disappoint as he was a big part of that remarkable 2012 turnaround that saw Toronto go from 6-12 in 2011 to defeating the Calgary Stampeders 35-22 in the 100th Grey Cup. To be fair, Ricky’s arrival did not exactly turn Toronto into a juggernaut team the way Doug Flutie did back in 1996. The team went from six to nine wins and the offence only improved by 48 points, up from 397, the second fewest scored in 2011.
The big difference was Ray’s experience, his ability to stay calm in tight games. Toronto went 7-2 in one-score affairs and went 5-0 where the final margin was no more than a field goal. Toronto had gone from a youthful triplet of passers in Cleo Lemon, Steven Jyles and Dalton Bell to a guy that had been there and done that. That playoff run saw Ray beat his former team 42-26 on the strength of a ridiculous 31-point second quarter, outduel Anthony Calvillo in the Eastern Final and then smartly guide the ship in the Grey Cup as running back Chad Kackert went off for nearly 200 total yards.
Two Ricky Ray moments stand out for the Argonauts’ march to the 2017 Grey Cup. Ray was the centrepiece of a 10-play, 68-yard touchdown drive with under two minutes to go to beat the Saskatchewan Roughriders 25-21 in the Eastern Final. Go back and watch his picture-perfect pass to running back James Wilder Jr. on third and five and you will see Peak Ray exuding such calm in a moment of pure chaos.
Then in the Grey Cup, the CFL’s shortest passer in terms of depth uncorks a 30-plus-yard pass on second-and-10 from his own 10-yard line to DeVier Posey for a stunning 100-yard touchdown pass in the snow to tie the game at six in the second quarter. Ray was never that sexy mad bomber looking to bludgeon secondaries with deep passes, but he certainly knew when to pick his spots.
I don’t want this piece to be all about Toronto. That would be horribly inaccurate, as he did more winning in Edmonton. One interesting aspect of Ray’s career is that he is currently the all-time passing leader for BOTH the Edmonton (40,531 yards) and Toronto (20,205) organizations. Also, did you know that Ray once ran for 135 yards and one touchdown on 12 carries in a 31-28 OT win over the BC Lions in 2010!? How much fun did the entire Edmonton offence have the following day reviewing that game film!
The lasting memory I have with Ray in Edmonton was the 2005 Grey Cup and that is not just because of his individual numbers (359 yards, 78 per cent completion, two touchdowns with no interceptions) that helped lift Edmonton over Montreal 38-35 in overtime.
What I admire was Ray’s resilience on that day. Leading up to the Grey Cup Ray had gone seven games without a touchdown pass and during their playoff run Danny Maciocia had pulled Ray in favour of Jason Maas in both of Edmonton’s wins. Ray, ever the professional, took it all in stride.
Down 25-20 late in the game on a third-and-four, Ray connected with Derrell Mitchell for a 34-yard gain. Soon after, Ray would score from one yard out and hit Jason Tucker on the two-point conversion, giving Edmonton an important 28-25 lead. Ray would add another touchdown pass to Tucker in overtime and after a wild defensive stand it would be Edmonton coming out victorious in one of the most thrilling Grey Cups in history.
What a football life Ricky Ray has lived. From Shasta College, a community college in Redding, CA, to early success with Edmonton to revitalizing the Argonauts, Ray is more than deserving what is coming this Friday. Congratulations.