ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — There’s tough, there’s NFL tough and then there’s Shane Ray tough.
On July 27, during the Denver Broncos’ first practice of training camp—and thus the start of the 2017 season—the 2015 first-round pick got tangled up during a routine drill. When he got his left wrist out of an uncomfortable situation, something didn’t feel right, but he thought nothing more of it the rest of practice. He thought it was just another nick sustained playing the game he loves.
“I just thought it was a sprain,” Ray said as he strayed from his typical smile to a stone-cold serious face. “Not even trying to be a tough guy or nothing like that, I literally thought that it was a sprain and that in three days I would be fine. I swear.”
In a league where every player admittedly plays through some sort of pain every single game, the third-year pro didn’t think twice about the injury for the rest of that day. It was just the first of many nicks he was going to endure during the 2017 season, he thought.
“When the injury happened I was like ‘Let me gauge this pain level. Is it so painful that I can’t play or is it like it just hurts?’ Because if it’s like it just hurts, then I can play—which is why I continued to practice,” he said, walking BSNDenver through his thought process back in the dog days of summer. “I was like ‘This just hurts. I’m good, I can play through hurt.’”
The next morning, however, the same wrist that popped the day before was sore. But soreness, especially bearable soreness as Shane explained, isn’t a reason to stay off the practice field.
Before the second practice, the self-appointed doctor became a self-appointed trainer and had the Broncos’ staff tape his wrist, then place a brace on top of the tape job and then tape over the brace that covered the first layer of tape—essentially mummifying his left upper extremity from the middle of his forearm to the start of his fingers.
Moments later, during the second practice of camp, however, his professional tape job failed in keeping his wrist together.
“There was one particular rep where I rushed with Menelik [Watson]. Me and Menelik had a big impact. I used my hand, and I just remember after the rep when I was jogging away that my hand was throbbing and I was like ‘Dang this hurts.’ So I told the trainer, ‘Hey come cut this off. Come cut all of this stuff off that you just put on.’”
“They cut it all off, and I looked at my hand, and right here I had a knot,” he added pointing at an area between his pointer finger, thumb and wrist. “I thought it was like if you get punched or something and it bubbles up. Come to find out that was my tendon and it had snapped and rolled up in my hand.”
“No, you are actually injured. We have to fix it,” doctors told Ray once they fully evaluated the extent of his injury. “Of course, as a football player you want to be tough, but it gets to a point where your body just can’t do that if your wrist isn’t together, if your hand isn’t together. It just can’t function. That’s all it was for me, man. I was more upset that it happened when it happened.”
Two days after Ray’s wrist seemingly exploded on the inside, he was unconscious on an operating table as the surgeons put his wrist back together piece-by-piece. They didn’t know the extent of the damage until they opened him up.
“My bones that held my wrist into the socket were completely spread apart. That’s why I had to get screws to bring them back in,” he said while pointing to the four different areas where doctors had to cut him open. “With the tendons torn completely off my hand, and these bones separated, I had nothing holding my wrist together. When they made the incision to cut this part open, literally my bone just popped out of the socket.”
Remember the tendon that looked like a “knot” that formed in Ray’s left hand during practice? That was it’s own production during the surgery.
“They had to go and get [the tendon] and pull that back out [to the wrist]. They had to force two of my tendons together, cut it and put it in an anchor system. They have it anchored here, and here and then they brought the screws and screwed everything back into place,” Ray said. “So my wrist was dislocated for two days, and I was practicing. I kept hearing a popping noise, but I didn’t realize that oh yeah, 'you blew your whole hand and wrist out.'”
While Ray’s screws don’t pop out of his skin like Frankenstein—although they can be felt through it—the scars from the multitude of stitches around his left arm and wrist give him the natural scars needed for a Frankenstein-type Halloween costume. Unfortunately for Ray, he “actually had to feel the pain.”
What first seemed to be an injury that would keep him out six-to-eight weeks turned into nearly double the initial diagnosis as Ray was placed on the injured reserve for the first seven weeks of the season. Monday, however, marks the end of his hiatus when the Broncos play Ray’s hometown Kansas City Chiefs on national television.
“I’m about as fresh as it can get. My legs feel good, I’m taking care of my body,” Ray said with pure excitement on his face as he returns home to begin his season. “I’m at an advantage even though I’ve got one arm. I’m just looking forward to the opportunity to be able to go out there and show what I’ve been doing in here before I got hurt. Just got to get on the grass.”
“I just went even harder on the physical things that I could do—strengthening my legs and my core in the weight room,” he said, passionately pumping his medically cleared left wrist. “I still get body work three times a week. I still go get stretched. I still see a chiropractor. I still have my chef, my nutritionist. I still have all of that running at 100 percent because I said, ‘I’m hurt right now.’ But if I stop this, then when it’s time for me to come back I won’t be where I need to be, and I don’t want to be behind the curve.”
On Halloween Eve, Ray returns to his hometown as the Broncos starting outside linebacker opposite Von Miller with his built-in Halloween costume on his left wrist. Outside of seeing his first playing action of the season, all he’s looking for is a Broncos win over their division rival.