On the top shelf of his locker, Ryan senior receiver Kevin Ray has a brown leather ball covered with his teammates’ signatures.
The ball is a special one. It’s a game ball from Ryan’s 28-24 victory over Lewisville, when Ray stepped in as the fourth-string quarterback and led Ryan to a road win it needed.
Otherwise, Ryan (6-4) might not be playing today at 2 p.m. at Southlake’s Dragon Stadium, facing Cedar Hill (7-4) in the area round of the Class 5A Division II playoffs.
Earlier this season, Ray could have emptied out the locker and left the team. All summer he had trained to be the starting quarterback, the position he held last season on the junior varsity team. But the coaching staff decided to put Ray at wide receiver.
Ray’s willingness to move for the sake of the team has been something Ryan head coach Joey Florence has drilled into his team since August. Largely because of that mind-set, a Ryan squad currently without a Football Bowl Subdivision recruit will try to return to the regional semifinals for the second straight season.
“There’s no selfishness on this team,” Florence said. “There’s no individuals, and when you play as a team, you can beat anybody no matter what the situation is. That’s what these kids have done all year long. We’ve gotten rid of the individuals. We don’t stand for it.”
Last season, there were six FBS-caliber recruits on Ryan’s roster, with five signing to play college football at the highest level; Trey Mohair originally signed with Texas-El Paso but opted to play basketball at Southern Nazarene.
The 2011 team, despite all of its talent, seemed to underachieve in reaching the Class 4A Region I semifinals and losing to Waco Midway, a future state finalist. After last year’s playoff exit, Florence crafted this year’s motto of “others before self,” preaching team unity.
That game ball sitting in Ray’s locker is something Florence said he’s never given out, something that detracts from the team-first mentality he expects out of his players. But he made an exception Oct. 26.
Starting quarterback Mitchell Bridges suffered a right knee injury early in the second half, and backups Xavier Gray and Preston Compton were unavailable. Ray did just enough, completing five of his eight passes for 64 yards in the win over Lewisville.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” Ray said. “I was ready. I’d been ready. Coach told me at halftime to just be ready if anything happens to Mitchell.”
Ray started the next week against a highly touted Coppell defense. He completed six of 11 passes for 59 yards and two interceptions.
The 5-10 senior has returned to his role as a starting wide receiver. He’s third on the team in catches (15) and receiving yards (153).
Florence was adamant in saying most players who don’t get what they wanted would quit the team. Ray was one of those.
Ray, dissatisfied with riding Ryan’s bench on a basketball team that made it to the Class 4A state tournament last season, quit. It’s a decision he said he regrets.
He quit so he could work on football and contend for the starting quarterback job. He didn’t get it. This time, he didn’t quit.
“You don’t get really get anything good out of quitting,” Ray said. “I just tried to sit it out, wait, see what happens.”
Florence said he still believes football is the best team sport there is, and that extracurricular activities are there to teach kids life lessons. The lesson Ray learned this year is the same lesson Florence learned as a freshman at Rockwall.
After not starting the first four games at quarterback, Florence contemplated quitting. Florence’s father, Mickey, a head coach himself, gave very stern instructions to Florence if he decided to quit.
“My dad made it real simple,” Florence said. “He said, ‘That’s fine, son. You get home tonight, and your stuff will be out on the front porch and you can find yourself another place to live and go to the courthouse and get your name changed. Because we don’t quit.’”
Ray earned the respect of his head coach by not quitting and by putting the team first — a trait Florence said he wishes more youngsters had.
“You start something and you’re supposed to finish it,” Florence said. “I don’t see that very much anymore. I’ve got a lot of parents and kids, if they don’t get their way, if they can’t start right away or get what they want, then they quit.”
That game ball sitting in Ray’s locker is as much a testament to Ray’s performance on that day as it is his determination to ride things out when they didn’t go his way. It’s also a testament to the self-sacrificing commitment that’s helped Ryan advance in the playoffs.
“I keep it in my locker,” Ray said. “I haven’t taken it home yet.”
BEN BABY can be reached at 940-566-6869. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.