The CFL’s unlikely underdog story: Ricky Ray’s journey to greatness

by | May 10, 2024 | Sports

On a frigid November night in 2002, 60,000 eager football fans packed Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium to watch the final game of the season.

The Edmonton Eskimos (now Elks) were squaring off against the heavily favoured Montreal Alouettes on the biggest stage in Canadian Football.

It was a major moment for the Eskimos. The glory they experienced in the 70s and 80s was a distant memory; they had not punched their ticket to the big game since 1996, putting them in the second-longest Grey Cup drought in franchise history. 

The Eskimos, led by rookie quarterback Ricky Ray, had scrapped their way back late in the fourth quarter and were on the verge of a comeback to seize their first Grey Cup win in almost a decade. 

As Edmonton breaks out of the huddle, a sense of optimism begins to creep into Commonwealth Stadium. The clock winds down. Staring down the Alouettes’ ready-and-waiting defence, Ray snaps the ball. 

The crowd hollers; the tension in the stadium is electric. Ray trots back in the pocket and rolls to his left, searching for an open receiver. The Alouette defence breaks through his offensive line, and Ray spots Terry Vaughn at the goal line. The game is in Ray’s hands. He fires the ball, carrying with it Edmonton’s championship aspirations. Edmonton fans, on their feet mere seconds ago, sit flat and silent in their seats as the Montreal sideline empties onto the field. 

Battered in defeat, the Edmonton Eskimos and Ricky Ray walk off their home field, covered in confetti, forced to watch the Montreal Alouettes celebrate their victory on the Eskimos’ home field. 

Although he didn’t know it at the time, Ray and the Eskimos would be back. This loss would alter the course of Ray’s career forever, catapulting him from rookie to a four-time Grey Cup champion. But where did this rookie come from? And how did a kid from Happy Camp, California, who had never played Canadian Football, lead the Eskimos to their first Grey Cup appearance in six years?

An unconventional journey

After playing the past two seasons at Sacramento State, Ray would go undrafted in the 2000 NFL Draft, not signing a contract out of training camp. At the time, Ray took a job with Frito Lay’s, delivering chips to pay the bills. The job followed Ray throughout his career, as teammates coined the nickname, ‘Frito-Ray.’ 

But an opportunity to try out for the CFL with the Edmonton Eskimos changed Ray’s path forever. The then 22-year-old left behind everything he knew and loved in California to head north for Edmonton.

“I mean, to be honest, I didn’t know a whole lot about the CFL,” Ray said in an interview with the Nugget. “I knew there was a league. Sacramento had a team for a little bit …. I knew about that.”

“I just was looking for an opportunity to keep playing professionally.”

In a Zoom interview with the Nugget, Ray recalls his first few weeks with the Eskimos during training camp.

As the team prepared for the upcoming season, Ray found himself in a unique situation. Unlike his teammates, Ray had to start at the beginning: he needed to learn how to play Canadian football. 

“I got up there right before training camp, about a week before training camp started, and just trying to get settled in and trying to figure out what to expect,” explained Ray. “I didn’t know a lot about the game, the different rules, all those sorts of things.”

“I was just trying to get comfortable with that the week before training camp.”

After camp, Ray made the roster as the second-string quarterback, meaning he’d only get to play if starting quarterback Jason Maas got injured.  The rookie sat on the bench for a month, waiting for his moment in the sun. But in Week 5, Ray finally got an opportunity during a home game against the BC Lions. Maas had partially separated his shoulder, so Ray was slated for his first CFL start, playing against future hall-of-fame quarterback Damon Allen.  

Despite the odds stacked against him, the rookie outplayed Allen, tossing four touchdowns and 277 yards en route to a 37-27 victory over the Lions. This game was just the beginning of Ray’s dominance that season. With Ray starting, Edmonton won 9 of their next 13 games, and Ray threw for 2967 yards and 24 touchdowns. The Eskimos clinched the West Division, earning a spot in the Western Final against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

Ray flourished under the lights of Commonwealth stadium, and the team defeated the Blue Bombers 33-30, securing their spot in the 2002 Grey Cup. But that loss was particularly hard to stomach, especially on home turf. 

“It was tough, man. After that game, It wasn’t a good feeling,” Ray recalled. “Going into the offseason, knowing we had an opportunity at home in front of our home crowd to win the 2002 Grey Cup and just coming up short … it was a tough couple months after that game.”

Ray came back in the 2003 season with one goal in mind: to get back to the Grey Cup and finish the job.

“It was a good feeling going into training camp … we felt like we had a lot of experience. We added some key guys like [Mike] Pringle and had a good group of guys coming back,” Ray said.  “I felt like it was our chance to get back to the Grey Cup and hopefully win it that year.”

The season started with an opportunity for revenge; a week one rematch had the Alouettes and Eskimos facing off at Commonwealth once more. However, Edmonton came up short yet again, falling 34-16.  

“There was a lot of frustration,” explained Ray. “Guys were disappointed, frustrated that we couldn’t beat those guys [Montreal] after they beat us at home in the Grey Cup. And to lose to them again at home. It just was not a great feeling.”

The pent-up frustration from losing to Montreal lit a fire for the Eskimos, as they went on a tear, winning seven of their next nine games. 

Flying high after defeating their rivals to the south in the infamous ‘Labour Day Brawl,’ Ray and the Eskimos had their sights set on a Week 16 matchup against Montreal.

Coming into the week, Edmonton had lost to the Alouettes in all four previous matchups. But this game would be different. The Eskimos came out of the gates on fire and jumped out to an early lead, never looking back as they defeated Montreal for the first time since 2001. 

“That was another big moment in the season,” stated Ray. “I think we were slowly figuring them out and getting a better game plan for them and being able to execute against them.”

“So, beating those guys in October really gave us that confidence that we knew we can beat them if we saw them again.” 

A rematch for the ages

The Eskimos finished first in the West Division for the third consecutive year. After defeating the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Western Final, they earned a Grey Cup rematch against the Montreal Alouettes. 

“I just remember being in Regina, preparing for that game. And guys were loose. We had a good confidence about the team. We felt like we had a good game plan … It felt like it was our year to do it.”

With temperatures of -5 C at kickoff, both teams were in for another frigid night of football. Ray faced off against future hall-of-fame quarterback, Anthony Calvillo, in a head-to-head matchup that would change Ray’s career forever.

Edmonton started the game with a bang. They managed a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, but two touchdowns from Montreal shortly after tied the game. The teams traded touchdowns, but Edmonton snagged a late field goal, bringing the score to 24-21 going into halftime.

The Eskimos’ defence prevailed in the final 30 minutes of play, holding the Alouette offence to one point. Meanwhile, the green and gold continued to pour on the offence against Montreal, scoring 10 points in the fourth quarter to clinch Edmonton’s first Grey Cup victory in 10 years.

“It was pretty awesome getting to go up there on the stage and see our guys hoist the Grey Cup. It was just so much fun,” recalled Ray. “Now that I’m retired and done playing, you look back at those times and say, man, that was a special time.” 

After finally capturing his first championship and bringing the city of champions its first Grey Cup in a decade, Ray was enshrined into Edmonton football greatness forever. But this win was just the beginning of his storied career.

A few months after the win, Ray finally got his shot in the NFL as a backup with the New York Jets in 2004. Shortly after the season ended, Ray returned to the Eskimos in 2005 to win his second Grey Cup with Edmonton, this time earning Grey Cup MVP. He was traded to the Toronto Argonauts in 2012, where he added two more championships to his resume in 2012 and 2017. In 2018, at the age of 39, he hung up his cleats for the final time. 

Ray stands with his family as the Edmonton Elks add him to their Wall of Honour in 2019. Photo via Edmonton Elks, goelks.ca

During his time in the CFL, Ray accumulated over 60,000 passing yards – the fourth to ever do so – and is fifth all-time in passing touchdowns with 324. At the time of writing, he’s the only starting quarterback in league history to win four Grey Cups. 

Forever remembered for his accuracy and hard-nosed personality, Ray embodied more than just a story of turbulence and adversity, but rather a moral of never giving up on your dreams. His number 15 is now retired by the Edmonton Elks, and his jersey will forever hang on the walls of Commonwealth Stadium.

Now, two decades after the 2003 win, Ray’s on a different journey than some of his old teammates, who have migrated into management roles across the CFL. He could see coaching in his future, but not for a while. 

“I do miss being around football. You know, being in the locker room, kind of being in that environment,” Ray explained. I’ve thought about it since I’ve retired: maybe getting into coaching or, you know, maybe on the scouting side or something.”

“Right now, I’m still enjoying being around my family … but definitely, in the back of my mind, it would be great to have a chance to kind of get back into football at some point.”

Even though Ray’s playing days are behind him, the memories he made as an Eskimo will live with the four-time Grey Cup champion quarterback forever. 

“Guys just love playing in Edmonton … I remember early on, getting up there, and Jed Roberts would come together with the team, and our breakdown would be BONE. Which at the time was ‘Brotherhood of Nasty Eskimos.’ That’s what it was. It was a brotherhood.”

“It’s something I feel so lucky that I got to be a part of for nine years in Edmonton.”

cover image via Chris Tanouye/CFL.ca

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