It was a high point for Ricky Ray and the Edmonton Eskimos.
On Nov. 16, 2003, the Eskimos won the Grey Cup, beating the Montreal Alouettes 34-22 in Regina. Ray, then 24 years old, had burst onto the scene the season before. The man who had once made a living delivering potato chips had become one of the best quarterbacks in the CFL.
But even as the Eskimos celebrated their championship, fans knew it might be the last they saw of Ray.
“I went and did a workout at the Denver Broncos facility for a handful of teams,” recalled Ray of that off-season.
“You do some drills, you warm up, then you basically just throw some routes to some receivers. They want to see you make different types of throws, see what your footwork is like, what your timing’s like, and what your accuracy is like.”
Ray, who is at home in California during the pandemic, said he couldn’t turn down a chance to make it in the NFL, the league that featured most of his heroes growing up.
Ray signed with the New York Jets, where his star status from the CFL didn’t carry much weight.
“When it came to being with the coaches, I don’t think they really know a lot about me.
“They were more focused on getting Chad Pennington ready. They had another kid there, Brooks Bollinger, who they drafted from Wisconsin, who they were focused on grooming as well. It was almost like when I went to the CFL. I was kind of unknown, just tried to do my job the best I could and impress them.”
Ray got some playing time in the pre-season. He was briefly number two on the depth chart when Bollinger was injured. This was in August of 2004. But even though the regular season started, Ray already got a sign that he wasn’t in the Jets’ long-term plans.
“That next week, Quincy Carter got released by the Cowboys. We picked him up to be a veteran backup for Pennington. When they made that move, I got bumped down again,” said Ray.
“I kind of knew it was going to be tough to even make the team. But they put me on practice roster for half the year.”
Then with injuries to Pennington and Carter, Ray dressed as the third quarterback for a few regular season games and two playoff games. Despite that, there were limited opportunities to prove himself, or even improve.
“It was difficult in the sense that you really didn’t know how you were doing.
“When I was in the CFL, I was playing every week. I was contributing to the team. You get a lot of feedback from your coaches,” said Ray. “In the NFL, I’m only getting very limited reps. Say we had 20 plays (in practice), I might be getting the last three reps of each of those periods. In the CFL as a starter, you’re getting 15 of 20 reps.”
After the season, Ray’s agent asked the Jets for his release.
“Going into the next off-season, I knew I had a chance to play in the CFL. If I stay in the NFL, I’m really just trying to make the team,” said Ray.
You probably remember the rest. Ray came back to the Eskimos.
In 2005, they won the Grey Cup again. Ray was named the game’s Most Outstanding Player.