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April 22, 2012

L.A. and the Ready For Prime Time Players

    Mark Dantonio’s first spring game at Michigan State was rocked by stunning news on recruit Arthur Ray Jr. Five years later, the story has changed significantly. But Ray returns often to that time in his life for inspiration as he tries to take that final – and very difficult – step.

    Adrian Ray believes everything in this ordeal “was placed in front of L.A. for a reason,” including the fact that, at 17, he had to do his chemotherapy sessions in the pediatric ward. There he met young children who had been dealing with cancer for years. He became close with two, in particular – Stephen, who had lymphoma, and Chris, who had a brain tumor.
    Stephen died a couple years ago at age 16. L.A. called last fall for Chris to invite him up to an MSU game. That’s when he learned Chris had finally succumbed to the brain cancer, also at age 16.
    “That’s the things I think about when I’m on the field,” L.A. said. “Because of that, I really value this. I really understand my opportunity. That’s why when someone says to me, ‘OK, Art, this is your spring, we need to see what you can do,’ I’m like ‘Great, great, I welcome this.’ I’ve been waiting for this so long. I’ve got so many people that I carry on my back and this is a great opportunity. Not only cancer patients but just a lot of people in general wish they were in my position. And for me to get blessed with this second chance, I never take a step, a snap, a rep for granted. I give it my all because I know I’m being watched, one.
    “And two, I remember sitting in the hospital with Chris, Stephen and my other friend A.J., he had sickle cell. And we’re watching Michigan State vs. Wisconsin. I’m on chemo, I have no hair, no eyebrows. It was the game when Nemo knocked out the receiver. And I’m watching it and I’m like, ‘Man, I’m gonna get there.’ And they’re all like ‘Yeah, Art, you’re gonna get there.’ And I’m in the middle of chemo. It took me five years from that point, thinking about it now, to get here. But I got here. And I’m not done. I feel like I’m ready to live my dream, and whatever I need to do to take that step, I’m gonna take that step.”
    The weird thing about this story is that some of the reporting on it was done last summer, with visits to Frank Lenti at Mount Carmel and to the Ray household on the south side of Chicago. But the timing wasn’t right until now to explore the idea of L.A. making a real run at football. I planned to spend a half hour or so talking with the Rays (whose younger son, Anthony, may be following in his dad’s footsteps as a baseball star at a different athletic power in the Chicago Catholic League, St. Rita). I ended up hanging out for three hours.
    In spending that time with them, it was easier to see how L.A. (whose nickname comes in handy with so many Rays quoted in one story) has been able to handle everything and stay upbeat about it. Arthur Sr. was a baseball star at Northern Illinois before a minor league career that lasted from 1979 to 1986. He said he had a consistent 93 mph fastball and a curveball, but not enough command and he should have developed a slider earlier. He spent time with the Blue Jays, Pirates and Mets organizations and pitched a one-hitter at the home of the Durham Bulls, but never made “the show.”
    He finally came back to Chicago and worked in a Lawrence Foods manufacturing plant with his father (now he’s at Vantage Oleochemicals) and met Adrian, who was back from Jackson State and New Orleans. They got married, bought a house in a nice south-side neighborhood, had two boys, found the money to help L.A. realize his dream of playing for Mount Carmel, then dealt with the shock of his situation (no cancer history on either side of the family) as best they could. It helped that Mark Dantonio gave immediate assurance that L.A.’s scholarship would be good, and that Dan Roushar went with the Rays on some of their early medical visits. Adrian, a poker dealer at a casino in nearby Hammond, Ind., picked up another job at Walmart. Arthur Sr.’s insurance took care of some of the medical costs (that $265,000 bill after the first surgery was an eye opener), MSU raised more than $40,000 for him and the Rays realized after the fact that his last surgery was comped.
    The Rays made it through financially and they made it through emotionally – no simple trick when you consider some of the things their son endured. Dantonio and his wife, Becky, were there for the tumor removal surgery along with Javon Ringer and Otis Wiley. Dantonio came in the day after the surgery and actually saw the bone in L.A.’s leg. It was still exposed for the reconstruction to come. Part of a live bone from an organ donor was used, along with some muscle from his other calf.
    Shortly after L.A. got back to MSU in January of 2008, Dr. Doug Dietzel detected the infection in the leg. L.A. went back to Chicago and the reconstruction had to be completely done over. The live bone was removed and a plastic “spacer” was installed temporarily. They got another live bone and used the tibia on his left leg. He spent eight weeks at home getting IV antibiotics. There were more problems. More surgeries. His last one was the worst of all. He refused it at first. He refused it for a while. He finally relented. They took bone marrow from his pelvis and put it in his leg.
    And this guy plays college football right now. He might be good enough to start at a lot of places.
    His family is a big part of that.
    “No way I do this without them,” L.A. said of his parents. “They kept my head up through a lot of bad times.”
    If the story ends here, with L.A. whipping cancer, inspiring a lot of people, getting back to football shape and helping MSU in practice and on the bench, it’s a great one. I get the sense his coaches are skeptical that he’ll be able to make a significant impact on the field, and part of that has to do with some of the other players at his position in the program. Part of it has to do with the progress he still has to make in terms of fluid movement. You consider all that and start to wonder if there’s a chance. Then you talk to L.A. and stop wondering.
    Cutting room:
    L.A. on how Jerel Worthy helped him get better: “Me and Jerel, we had some battles. We both got the best of each other. I looked at it like, ‘Here’s a great player, and what better way for me to prepare to play at this level than to go against a great player, day in and day out?’ He definitely got me ready.”
    Bill Burghardt on his work with L.A.: “When I first had the privilege of working with Arthur I remember him crutching down to the athletic training room and he would do walking, shuffling and swimming in the swim machine down there.  Arthur had control over how intense he would go and for how long.  The amazing thing was that his drive would keep him going longer and harder in that pool than I would have programmed for him.  He continued this work habit of always doing more, whether it was in the pool, the weight room or on the field, and he did it with humor and a smile every day for the entire time I was with him.”
    More from Burghardt on L.A.:  “His will, desire, and drive to never give up and to get back on the football field is the very soul of athletics.  He plays not to make a fortune, make someone else happy, or to get through college and make it to the next level. Arthur practices and plays because he truly loves the game.  That love continues to inspire players, coaches and myself to this very day.”
    Arthur Ray Sr. with a recollection from the minors: “They thought Dwight Gooden wasn’t gonna progress.”
    Arthur Ray Sr. on the night Dantonio and Roushar came for a home visit, ate dinner and won everyone over: “They just acted like they were at home, walking around the house, looking at pictures on the fridge. Man, we were in love with those guys. It was like, we felt good about them as people. We were right there with them.”
    Mark Staten on Ray’s progress: “He’s got all this ability. You just wish he would have been able to take it from the first year, you know? You’re working through some things mechanically that he was not able to work through since his freshman year. But it’s great to have him out there. We’ve just got to see. He knows this is an important spring to see if he can do it. And can do it on this level consistently.”
    “The jury’s still out. He’s working hard. There’s things that, as we’re watching film we point out, just as we do with everybody. And we’ve got to see him be able to do those things. Trusting that leg to turn on it, trusting that leg going up to the second level and getting low and bending his knees. Think about it, he had part of his leg removed, and all that damage in there. I’m praying for him and hoping for him.”

    ALSO TODAY, a look at another one of those 2007 signees -- Kirk Cousins, who is feeling good after a mentally taxing pre-draft period. He should be one of several MSU names called next weekend, after just four were drafted in the previous three years. Here's some analysis of 10 Spartans who hope to get a shot in the NFL, and here are three of the program's biggest draft overachievers and underachievers.

    Finally, Adreian Payne reports via Twitter that he is OK after a highway car accident. He tweeted this picture of the damage to his car.

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Joe Rexrode
MSU Sports Reporter
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