My cousin didn’t believe me when I told him I’d seen a dead body down the road. It was a man, maybe twenty years old. Face down and shot in the back of the head.
I was 12 when it happened. By the time my cousin went to the spot, a crowd of people had gathered and police had taped off the scene.
I told my grandma about it while she was in the kitchen cleaning.
“Grandma, there’s a dead body down the road!”
“You touch it?”
“Mm. Alright then.”
It barely seemed to register with her. She never even put the rag down.
That’s how it was growing up. I was raised by my mom and grandma in Kansas City, Missouri, 64130. Nicknamed the Murder Factory.
I don’t know the exact numbers, but that zip code accounts for something like 20 percent of all inmates locked up for murder in Missouri.
I lived there for 18 years.
When you’re a kid, it takes a little while before you start really thinking about the fact that you’re living in a bad area. It was just home to me. I didn’t know any better. Then I got a little older and I’d invite friends over after school. We’d get to my house and they’d always react the same way:
“This is where you live?”
Then we’d go to one of their houses in Mission, Kansas. Rows and rows of perfectly maintained lawns in front of huge brick houses. When I’d get back home, I would suddenly notice the stuff on my block — like it appeared out of nowhere. Burned buildings. Condemned property. Drug dens. Shady dudes on the corner. And it dawned on me:
So I guess this is the hood, then.
You can only have the blinders on for so long.
Middle school started and I found myself dealing with real serious anger issues as all this stuff seemed to pile up around me. I thought it was unfair that I had to grow up in a bad neighborhood. On top of that, I resented that I was going to have to grow up without a father.
My mom was going through an ugly divorce and we pretty much lost everything. Like, we truly didn’t have shit. Couldn’t afford clothes or school supplies. Eventually we lost our house.
I had to bounce around to all kinds of different apartments and stay with different family members while my mom worked. Then my mom would pick me up on weekends to stay at her friend’s house in Kansas.
It sucked, but I was dealing with it. But then one day when I was 13, something happened that just broke me. My cousin, who was my best friend in the world, got murdered in a random botched robbery. After that, my whole mentality changed.
I guess I just felt like … now it’s real. You can be minding your own business and still get killed out here.
In my head, my options were either to be sad and cry about everything, or get angry and be strong. In my head, I’m supposed to be the man. Men don’t show emotion, I thought. Men fight.
So I started getting into fights. I was suspended all the time. I was always mad. Mad at the world. Mad about everything.
I didn’t become a full-blown criminal, but I got close. Any time I’d get too wrapped up in the street, my family would step in and pull me away. They always kept me from getting in too deep and going down roads I wouldn’t have been able to come back from.
But my mom … she’s the one who led me back to playing football. I had quit in fifth grade. But now, I had two things: I had size. Over the summer, I grew like six inches. And I had a whole hell of a lot of anger.
So one day we sat down and talked about it.
It was a short conversation.
“You’re playing football, boy. No lip.”
That was it.
So I went out on the football field, with all this rage, and all this motivation …
And I sucked. I was chunky and slow. The last one up the hills. I was the kid throwing up in the trash can during practice. I hadn’t played football in three years, so it was stupid of me to expect to go out and dominate.
But the guys on my team became like my new brothers. With my cousin gone, I really needed them. Being out there on the field and competing for something hit all the right notes for me. And I still had all this anger, so I put it all into practicing and getting into better shape. I spent the whole summer in the weight room rebooting my body.
A lot of the guys I played with in eighth grade who became my close friends ended up going to Bishop Miege high school the next year. Miege was a private school, and we definitely couldn’t afford the tuition with my mom’s job. So you know what she did? She started working three jobs.
She worked in I.T., painted houses, and sold homemade cakes with every second of free time she had, just so her fat son could stay off the streets and play football with his friends, even though he hadn’t even been good since fifth grade. She worked so hard. And she believed in me. The only thing she made me promise is that I’d work just as hard as as she did.
“Free college.” She’d repeat it all the time. “That’s why we’re both doing this. For free college.”
Free college. That’s what we told each other. That became my motto. I’d repeat it to myself over-and-over in my head when I was working out. I became more determined than ever.
By the end of my sophomore year, I still wasn’t really making a name for myself. To stay motivated, I had to stay mad. That was easy. I just went on the Internet and read all the scouting reports about me.
I had a three-star rating on rivals.com, and it pissed me off so much I can’t even describe it. You can look it up, it’s still there. I spent so much time looking at the four and five-star guys ranked ahead of me. There were 16 of them.
“I’m better than him. Better than him. Way better than him. I don’t even know this joke.”
“Shane, go to bed!”
All the reports said I was too slow, my arms were too short. Everyone had a different reason why I wasn’t good enough to be a top recruit. That anger fueled me to take it to the next level.
Junior year came and I had 155 tackles and 15 sacks while playing both defensive tackle and end. I could see the road in front of me clear as day. When the season ended I got a call from the University of Missouri.
Boom. Free college, son.
When I got to Mizzou, I would have been so happy if you had told me that in three years, I would break the team sack record and be on my way to the NFL.
If you told me people would be talking about me as a Top 5 pick? Come on, man.
But after we won the Citrus Bowl and I declared for the draft, that’s the path that was in front of me. It was right there. The only thing was, I had injured my foot during the game. I didn’t really think much of it at the time. But it was so bad that I missed the combine because of my foot, and then when I worked out at pro day, it was still so banged up that all my times were terrible. I was overweight and hurting so bad. I think I ran the three-cone drill slower than any guard in the draft.
That’s no typo. I said guard.
Alex Menendez/Getty Images
My agent told me I might slide in the draft, but I didn’t want to believe it. Did teams really think that I was slower than 300-pound linemen? Like, really? I just broke the Missouri sack record! How does that make any sense?
Then, just days before the draft, I got cited for possession of marijuana.
I messed up. I own it. I knew I had made such a stupid mistake. From the beginning, I tried to hold myself accountable. What I didn’t know is how many people would let a single mistake like that be the only thing that defines my character.
I started reading all sorts of crazy articles about me. It was like …
Shane Ray comes from a bad zip code and was once caught with weed. How many people has he murdered?
You probably think I’m exaggerating. But I got flooded with all kinds of questions from teams about dealing drugs and committing crimes.
My agent told me I might slip again.
It was so disappointing. I had put in all this hard work, and my mom had sacrificed so much to get me to this point, and now here I was at the finish line … and it looked like it might all fall apart.
I tried to stay focused and positive, but I really, really didn’t want to let my mom down after coming this far.
Draft day was all kinds of emotional. It didn’t start off well. From my calculations, my best chances were ending up in Jacksonville, Atlanta, or Pittsburgh, because those were the three teams I had talked to the most before the draft, and three teams that definitely needed someone on the outside.
I spoke a lot with Jacksonville and Gus Bradley, but Jacksonville had the third pick in the draft. I knew because of what happened, I should be realistic.
Pick 3: “The Jacksonville Jaguars select …. Dante Fowler Jr.”
Inner voice: That’s great. Dante deserves it. Nothing but respect for Dante. I figured I wouldn’t be picked here, anyway.
I smiled and kept cool for the cameras. My mom was with me and helped me keep it together. I figured it wouldn’t be much longer. I had spoken a lot with coach Quinn in Atlanta …
Pick 8: “The Atlanta Falcons select … Vic Beasley.”
Inner voice: Wow. Thought I’d go here. But Vic’s my guy. Love Vic.
I’m salty, though. I’m hella salty and I can’t help it. I talked to Atlanta almost every day up until the day of the draft. I’m also starting to get texts from friends now, like, “Hey, Aaron Rodgers almost fell to the end of the first round and look how he ended up!”
I watched 10 more picks go by. After every pick I knew the camera man was zooming in on my face to try and see how upset I was. My mom noticed me stewing, but she wasn’t having any of it.
“Don’t you even think about leaving.”
“If I’m not off the board by 22 I’m walking out of here. You watch me.”
Of course I was happy for every guy getting drafted. I know these guys. They’re my friends. But I was starting to feel like this stupid, one-time mistake, this minuscule thing compared to everything I’ve been through, and everything I am as a person, and what I brought to the table as a player, was going to ruin everything I worked so hard for.
Pick 22: “The Pittsburgh Steelers select … Bud Dupree.”
Are you serious? Man, I’m about to just walk up on the stage and put the hat on anyway.
I didn’t know what to do. I was mic’ed up, so I ripped the microphone off. My Mom and grandma pinned me between them with their seats so I didn’t really have anywhere to go.
I thought my last out was Arizona at 24, since I had talked to coach Arians a little bit. Then suddenly my phone rang. It was Denver. More specifically, it was John Elway. He told me they had traded with Detroit for the 23rd pick, and they were about to draft me.
I hadn’t had any conversations with the Broncos until that morning. And even after I talked to them, I didn’t think I was going to end up there.
Now John Elway was calling me?
It didn’t even sink in at first. I was a Bronco?
Ben Liebenberg/AP Images
My entire life changed because of how that day played out. As a defensive end, I got to come in and learn from legends like Von and Demarcus, and I got to win a Super Bowl in my first year in the league. I was lucky with how it worked out. But not every kid who gets a label like I did ends up so lucky.
With the draft coming up, I think about all these kids who have their futures hanging in the balance. It’s crazy, man.
Speaking from my own experience, I have two messages:
One, for all you young guys getting ready for the draft: Do not make a stupid mistake like I did. Enough said.
Two, for all you general managers looking at these kids: Try to realize that some of them come from really, really tough situations. Maybe they were running in the streets for a time. Maybe they made some mistakes. But they’ve also probably seen some shit that you wouldn’t believe.
I still think about that dead body sometimes, and how casually my grandma reacted, and how it was to be growing up in Kansas City in general.
I was lucky to make it out.
I was lucky to be able to grow up with so much love and support from my family. The fact that I’m not dead or in jail is a testament to how much they all cared about me. I was so lucky to have my mother. The strongest, most fearless, most hardcore woman I have ever met. She managed to raise a chunky, slow, angry kid on her own, in the middle of the Murder Factory.
She sacrificed everything. For no other reason than I asked her to believe in me.
In 2016, Shane and his mother created the Rays Awareness Foundation to benefit youth in the Denver and Kansas City areas.