Shane Ray has 7 1/2 tackles for losses, including five sacks, through three games this season.
Jasen Vinlove/Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri defensive end Shane Ray turned to football to stay out of trouble.
"My mom felt that I needed some structure," Ray said. "At the time, I was just trying to find a way to stay in school after high school."
The national leader in tackles for losses, Ray grew up in a crime-riddled section of Kansas City. He lived with his mother, Sebrina Johnson, who pushed him into the game.
Football demanded responsibility, and Ray quickly adapted, developing a work ethic that led to college scholarship offers once deemed unimaginable. He chose Missouri over Notre Dame to stay close to home.
"My mom is my best friend," Ray said. "She’s my everything. It’s just been her and me basically my whole life. She’s sacrificed so much to make sure I was successful in school and football. You can’t have a better mom than that."
Although not as close to his father, Wendell Ray, he has worked on improving their relationship since arriving at Missouri. The elder Ray was a defensive lineman for the Tigers and was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 1981.
Ray’s determination has stood out in high school and at Missouri.
"He was a train-wrecker kind of player," defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. "You watch him play in high school, it’s like, ‘Man, this guy plays really hard. This guy plays with reckless abandon.’ That’s how he plays. He’s got unshakeable confidence."
After redshirting in 2011, the junior backed up Kony Ealy and Michael Sam the last two seasons, playing in 26 games and making 11 1/2 tackles for losses, including 4 1/2 sacks. Ray says the turning point for any player occurs when he can utilize what he has learned in practice in games.
"Shane’s always trying to learn," defensive end Markus Golden said. "I don’t even look at him as a teammate. That’s a brother. When I first moved to defensive end, that’s who taught me a lot as far as all the plays."
Ray has 7 1/2 tackles for losses, including five sacks, through three games this season. A bit undersized at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, he was honored as the SEC defensive player of the week. He recorded four tackles for losses in a 38-10 victory over Central Florida last week.
Golden has 6 1/2 tackles for losses, including four sacks, giving the 18th-ranked Tigers (3-0) one of the country’s top duos at defensive end for the second consecutive season.
"They were dominant players a year ago," coach Gary Pinkel said. "I had some NFL scouts come in and saying, ‘Those two guys (Ealy and Sam) are pretty good, but the two behind them, shoot, they might be better.’
"Don’t tell Kony and Michael I said that."
As the awards trickle in and the spotlight grows, it would be understandable for Ray to start envisioning his dream scenario of playing in the NFL. But, he says, he would rather focus on this week’s opponent, Indiana (1-1).
"Anytime someone gets older, they mature," defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said. "You see a lot of difference in kids. It’s kind of cool. One of the good things about college is you see the kids kind of grow up in front of your eyes."