DENVER — It doesn't take long to notice the intensity in Denver Broncos first-round pick and pass-rushing specialist Shane Ray. When he speaks, it's with a tone of unwavering pride and confidence in his future.
It's an attitude he credits to his mother, Sebrina Johnson, a woman who made it through divorce, a change of careers and bankruptcy to raise her son right and build a comfortable life—earning two master's degrees and moving from the rough neighborhood of Ray's youth to a big house in the suburbs.
Bleacher Report caught up with Ray early in training camp to talk about his mother's impact on his life, taking pride in his past with a series of tattoos and taking responsibility for a misdemeanor marijuana citation that cast a shadow over him heading into the draft.
Bleacher Report: Have you worked much on inside pass-rushing situations, such as lining up against the guards or the center on occasion?
Shane Ray: We've just been working on our base package for right now. But I'm sure we'll get to that. I have no problem rushing from inside.
B/R: Did you do it in college?
Ray: Yeah, every once in a while. I did it all. Sometimes when I lined up in 3-technique, they ran at me. I shed the guard and went and made the play. Sometimes they sat on me; I beat 'em, got the sack. So, for me, it doesn't matter. I feel guards don't have as good of feet as tackles anyway. You put me wherever. I'll make the play.
B/R: You're not a man short on confidence.
Ray: Not at all (chuckles). I'm confident in what I can do.
B/R: You get that from your dad, who was briefly in the NFL?
Ray: Nah, from my mom. My mom told me whatever I put my mind to, whatever I say I'm going to do, I should go do it. So, with my confidence level, nobody can tell me something I can't do. If I feel I can beat somebody, if I feel I can be dominant, then I speak that. I speak that to the end of existence, because that's what I truly believe. I go out there and work hard to execute that.
B/R: Other than football, has there been something in your life that has told you that you were capable of doing anything you put your mind to?
Ray: My life. I came from a rough background. I came from a lot of days where I had nothing and was looking down and didn't have any confidence in who I was.
My mom, being the strong woman that she is, showed me that—she worked hard to give me something even when we had nothing. So just looking back at the sacrifices my mom made and then at football, the two don't even compare. If my mom could have this kind of strength in raising me by herself, then I should be able to come out here on the football field and have that same level of confidence and dedication to do what I can do.
So when I come out here, it's not being cocky; it's I believe in myself. I believe in everything I'm going to do on this field, and everything I say I can do I'm gonna do. But the key thing that separates just saying it is working hard to be able to do it. Anybody can come out here and say, "I'm going to do this and this," and then get dominated. But if I say I'm going to do something, I'm going to work hard to do it.
B/R: What did your mom do to support the family?
Ray: Early in my years, my mom worked for AT&T. Then she became a chef at a restaurant, and then she worked in an IT department, and now she works in management at Blue Cross/Blue Shield. She's good. She worked her way up the ladder, so I don't have to worry about her.
B/R: So she's not looking for you to help her out?
Ray: Not at all. Where we used to live and where we live now, she did that. We're out in the suburbs in a big, old house. That had nothing to do with me. That had to do with her work ethic. I remember staying in apartments with no beds, no food, trying to make it off food stamps, no nothing. Where my mother is now? It's unbelievable.
B/R: How big is her house?
Ray: She probably has like a 5,000-square-foot house. A five-bedroom house. She did it all by herself, coming up from the bottom.
B/R: So she doesn't take any crap, does she?
Ray: Oh no, not at all. That's why when she tells me things, she's always a firm believer in: Speak things to existence and you can accomplish anything. I wasn't always a good football player, but I got tired of being the last kid picked. So I said, "I'm going to do this. I'm going to change my body." She said, "If you say that and you believe that, you have to work your ass off." So from that point on—it was probably my freshman year of high school—I really started making a change mentally. Not even physically, mentally. OK, one step at a time. This is how I have to work. I've carried myself like that all through high school, through college, right up to now.
B/R: So your mom got into it on Twitter with a writer who covers the team. She said it wasn't as serious as people made it out to be, but parents don't usually do that. What's up with that?
Ray: [The writer] basically said in his story that this was going to be a learning year for me, and my mom was like, "You obviously don't know my son. Everything he says he's going to do, he will accomplish." I was like, "Mom, you can't get into it with the media. Sometimes they're going to say things, and you just have to let it go." She was like, "I'm not going to let that slide." ... This is the NFL, people are going to write things. I just laugh about it, honestly. I told her right after, "Mama Bear don't let nothing slide."
B/R: All the ink you have, it all means something?
Ray: Yeah, definitely. My tattoos all have a story, something that means something from my life, something I embody.
My tiger [on the right arm] is the Missouri Tiger. I take a lot of pride in being from Missouri. When I started getting offers [for college scholarships], my biggest thing was: Do I want to go somewhere else and play for somebody else's state? Or do I want to stay close to home and represent where I'm from and have people back home be able to watch me play and know that's where I'm from? So that's where going to the University of Missouri came into the picture. I wanted to stay home and prove that we have really good athletes in the Midwest, because when schools recruit, they look at Texas, California and Florida. They don't look at the Midwest, because they don't think we have good-caliber football. I took a lot of pride in that.
My nickname is "Sting Ray," so I have that [also on the right arm].
Kansas City is home, where I grew up—5600 [another tattoo] is the area where I grew up there. When I got to college and wore No. 56, that meant a lot to the people back home. When they see me being successful, they all get on Twitter and put hashtag 56 and 56 for life.
Me having that pride of where I come from and being a good example to people from there, that's another thing that means a lot to me. Philippians 4:13 [on the left arm] with my Jesus—back when I was in little-league football, we would say before every game, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." That's something that stuck with me throughout life. Man, I can go on and on.
B/R: OK, but all these tattoos get misinterpreted, especially by middle-aged white guys like me. When people don't know your story, they leap to conclusions about whether you're a thug based on all the ink. How do you respond to that?
Ray: It's a misinterpretation. People see all the tattoos and come to the conclusion that, "Oh, he's a thug." But my tattoos...when you think about a tattoo, it's a sacrifice. You're going through pain to get the ink and to get something that is everlasting. So when you get something that really means something to you, it's different. I know there are people getting stuff out there that's just junk to put on their body. When you get art that means something and relates to your past and your upbringing, it's a whole different thing.
B/R: So you're not going for the tribal tat?
Ray: Oh no, not at all. What I'm putting on my body has a relevant meaning to my life. I'm willing to sacrifice pain to have something everlasting in my life.
B/R: So the other side of this is that if you have that much ink, you're pretty much required to stay in shape, right? You don't want to see that stuff fall.
Ray (laughing): Yeah, I did think about that. My thought process is that when I'm 60 years old and I'm tatted up, I'll be like, "Hey, I'm 60. It is what it is." There's not much I can do. If I get fat and have wrinkly tattoos, there's not much I can do. I'll be like, "Hey, I'm 60 years old, what do you want from me? I made it this far."
B/R: So the incident in the offseason before the draft when you were cited for a traffic violation and having marijuana in your car...that obviously hurt your draft status. You lost money as a result. But I would think it also hurt some of the things you're talking about standing for. How did this weigh on you?
Ray: The first thing I have to do is remind people that I'm young. I'm 22 years old, and unfortunately my thought process with the whole situation—it wasn't smart. I put myself in a situation I could have avoided, and the aftermath of making a bad decision affected me hugely. It cost me a lot of money.
But more than money—and that was a big deal—is that I had to realize I had to fight for my public image. Immediately people jumped on the bandwagon of trying to bash, saying, "He's this idiot, he's this kid." They tried to use my background, just jumping on me and giving me all kind of negative to the point I felt like, "Wow, I'm the same kid who a week ago when you were watching Draft Academy, you were saying how impressed you were with where I've come from."
But you forget that everybody makes mistakes and because of my spotlight and where I was, you immediately try to trash me. So the biggest thing I tried to realize for myself is that I didn't let the media and the negative thoughts about me define me. Instead of hiding and not going to the draft and not facing the media, I went to the draft, I addressed my issues like a man.
Yes, I was driving around and there was weed in my car. It wasn't for me. It wasn't mine, which is true. But I got caught in a situation and it cost me. Now, I'm moving past that like a man and moving on with my career. You can either love me or hate me for that, but you can respect me as a man for learning from my mistake. I took my punishment, and now I'm moving on with my responsibilities.
It goes back to me going back to where I'm from and saying, "Look, I made this mistake. You guys don't do this same thing." I'm still trying to make a positive image for myself in my neighborhood. It was a process, but it made me realize I have to make better decisions about what I'm going to do with my career.
B/R: So how frustrating is it to be a young man who wants to go out and live your life while dealing with the spotlight?
Ray: This is a great career, but you know that you're constantly being watched. Unfortunately, you can't go out and do things with your friends like you would like to do. You can't go out to the bar and get drunk, because people are going to be watching you. It holds you to a higher standard than if you're just a regular person.
So the thing I had to learn very quickly is that while I'm living this, I can't be the old me. I can't go out and party and do things I would do then if I wasn't a football player. I have a different type of attention. Even with the situation I had, it reassured me that, Hey, you can't do certain things in life anymore. You have to put yourself in good situations all the time.
I could be out anywhere. I talked to the Pouncey brothers, and they told me they were out at a party at a club and they weren't even in the fight. But because they were by it and because people said they were there, they were fined. I can't afford to put myself in that situation to put any more negative attention on me. It's hard, but I accept that. It's on me. After what happened to me, I don't take risks.
B/R: What did your mom say?
Ray: My mom said what every mom would say. She said, "Why can't you listen to me?" It's hard sometimes. You think you're a grown man, and you say, "No, I'm good, Mom. I got this." But she just let me know that she was there to support me and although she was disappointed in the situation I put myself in, she was proud that I handled it like a man. Instead of running from the cameras and running from the media, I addressed it. So that's the special thing about my mom. It takes certain things to happen sometimes to make you realize you really don't have it under control.
B/R: You had one of the most unique college football experiences with Michael Sam as a teammate. The thing that impresses me most about that situation is that so many people knew he was gay, but the news never got out in the general media. Why is that?
Ray: At the end of the day in this sport, all you have is the guys in the locker room. Everybody comes from different backgrounds, different situations, different lives. So our situation is that when I got there, it was no secret that he was gay. The misconception is that he came out to the team one day and it was a big surprise. No, we all knew. But if you're in battle and you abandon your teammate or your partner, what kind of man are you? With Michael's situation, although not everybody agreed with his lifestyle or felt comfortable with it, we're not going to sell you out to the media just because he was different.
B/R: Did it take a lot of discussion to get through that?
Ray: No, it was just the locker room. For us, it was just like, You come in every day and you get your work in and you get your job done. What do I have to say to you? I'm not going to say anything negative about your preference or what you want to do. As long as you're coming in and helping the team work and win, I have no issues. That was the role everybody took. So even though not everybody accepted his lifestyle, Mike was out there making plays, and you have to respect he's doing his job. As teammates, we're not going to sell you out to the media. If you want to tell the media that you're gay, you do that. It's not going to come from my mouth.
B/R: I imagine that was an interesting learning experience.
Ray: Definitely. Never in a million years did I think I would be in that situation, but you learn. You learn.
B/R: Any good stories of dealing with Peyton Manning as a teammate?
Ray: Peyton, yeah. Me and Peyton had a golf outing, and I was terrible. I was sitting there thinking, "Wow, this is Peyton Manning, and I'm playing golf with him for the first time." I was really star-struck. And he's really good. He can golf, and I definitely felt I was getting the short end of the stick on that particular day because I wasn't looking anything like that.
B/R: Does he talk a little trash when he golfs?
Ray: Peyton likes to joke around. Everybody wants to know, "Who is Peyton Manning?" Really, he's just a regular guy. We joke around, he comes in to work and he's one of the most professional people I have ever seen. He has a routine that I don't know if he knows that I watch him—I'm not going to tell him I watch him—but his routine, he's a true pro. You have a guy like that and the type of respect that he commands and how he acts around the facility—it's like, "Wow, if I can be blessed to have any kind of career like this, this is how I need to be."
B/R: What's the one thing that you notice where you say to yourself, "That's different"?
Ray: Peyton drives the same car every day. He comes in to work dressed in a polo shirt, slacks or pants, he has his satchel or bag, he goes and grabs the newspaper. Every day. I was in the training room rehabbing my foot—every day I would see Peyton come in; he has his bag, he might read the newspaper, he's dressed the same way every day. It's a routine, it's professional. I was like, "Wow, there's not a day he has come in in sweatpants. Not a day he has come in any different." It's the same every day. He always has his iPad. He's studying. He's a true pro.
B/R: He's focused.
Jason Cole covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.