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April 7, 2011EAST LANSING - A journey of more than a thousands days, several surgeries, hours of chemotherapy and physical rehabilitation for Arthur Ray finally yielded tears of joy, Wednesday, on the Michigan State football practice field.
It was Ray's first practice as a Michigan State Spartan, four years after being diagnosed with bone cancer in his shin.
It was Ray's first time in a helmet and shoulder pads since his senior year at Chicago Mt. Carmel High School in the fall of 2006.
Ray said he was in class at Michigan State on Wednesday when head coach Mark Dantonio told him he was cleared to practice.
"I just cried tears of joy," Ray said. "I called my mom. It's the best feeling in the world right now."
Ray was cleared by doctors to practice in January, but needed final approval from the NCAA on an eligibility matter. Michigan State declared Ray a medical disqualification for 2010, which meant his scholarship would not count toward the NCAA allotment of 85. In a rare move, Michigan State petitioned the NCAA for a reversal of Ray's medical disqualification status in January. Wednesday morning, the reversal was granted.
Word spread quickly throughout the Michigan State football complex.
"I was in with a tutor and Arthur walked in and said, 'I'm ready,'" recalled sophomore linebacker Denicos Allen.
"I said, 'What are you talking about?'
"He said, 'I'm strapping up.'
"I was kind of shocked," Allen said. "He said it was something like a thousand and three hundred and some days since he had strapped up. I was like, 'Wow.'"
"It's been an inspirational story," said senior quarterback Kirk Cousins. "It was weird to see him in uniform because I hadn't seen him in a helmet, I haven't seen him in a jersey, ever. So to see him out there running around with knee braces on and a helmet, the No. 73, I thought, 'Who is that guy?' And then when you realize it's Arthur Ray it's a neat thing to see."
Ray and Cousins signed with Michigan State in February of 2007, as part of Dantonio's first recruiting class. Ray sat out for more than two semesters of school in order to battle the illness at home. He will be listed as a fourth-year senior this fall.
He spent nearly two years on crutches and encountered occasional setbacks, such as infections to the surgically repaired area.
"Just looking at his leg, you can see that he has been through a lot," Cousins said. "It's quite a story. I remember hearing about it when I was still just a commitment and had signed and was waiting to come to Michigan State and heard that a fellow future teammate who had signed had bone cancer and was going to need surgery for that. That was numbing to hear.
"There have been times in workouts or in games or tough practices during two-a-days when you start to drag, you start to get worn out and you start to get the poor-me's, and then you look over and see Arthur working hard on the sideline, and you know that he would give anything to be out there. That has been a driving force for our team to stay motivated and stay hungry and to have him out there will only help that."
Ray practiced in "shells" on Wednesday, meaning a helmet, shoulder pads and shorts. The rest of his teammates have been in full pads since April 1.
Ray was ranked the No. 9 high school player in Illinois and the No. 18 offensive guard prospect in the nation by Rivals.com in '07. He worked as a center on Wednesday.
"It was the greatest feeling in the world," Ray said in a series of statements released by Michigan State, Wednesday evening. He was not available for interviews.
"It felt so good because it just represents so much now," Ray said. "I just feel like I have to represent everybody that's still dealing with bad things, like chemo. I still remember some of my guys that are still in the hospital."
'Now the question will be his confidence'
Aside from applause from his teammates, there was no dramatic ceremony when Ray trotted out to the grass practice fields at Michigan State field for the first time.
"No, he doesn't want it like that," Dantonio said. "He would prefer that we would just get on with business. He didn't want any of that. So we are just trying to move forward. It's understood with everybody here within this program that it's special day for him."
It was just the way Ray wanted it.
"I had a great one (reception), phenomenal," Ray said. "Coach (Dantonio) announced it, and everybody clapped. It's good to have the support."
Ray is listed at 6-foot-3, 300. When he participates in full physical contact later this spring, he will do so as a third-stringer.
Ray is in good physical condition, but after missing four years of football, odds are against Ray rising into the two-deep this season. But Ray hasn't let slim odds discourage him in the past.
"I'm using spring ball to get my feet back underneath me," Ray said. "I went out there today and did a few drills, a little bit of hitting. It felt great. I'm not that far off, I just have to keep working."
"I think more than anything it is a starting point to be back on the field," Dantonio said. "We want to try to work him in very, very gradually and see how he does in individual drills and allow him to get confidence in himself, and allow ourselves to get confidence in him to where he would not be at risk.
"He is an outstanding young man and he has persevered. It was emotional to see him out there."
After spending the first year of his battle with cancer at home, Ray enrolled at Michigan State in the spring of 2008. But an infection caused him to withdraw from school and return home again. He re-enrolled at Michigan State later that year. The fall of 2008 marked the first semester that he completed at Michigan State.
He was cleared to begin jogging last fall.
"It has been very slowly-but-surely over the course of the last year and finally his doctors cleared him (in January) and said, 'Hey, you can play football again,'" Dantonio said. "Now the question will be his confidence and how long he has been out of football and those type of things. But he has kept his body in shape. He looks like a player out there, physically. You have to play at this high level, so that will be the next challenge.
"He has been at every practice, doing something in some capacity, on the sideline or staying in shape," Dantonio added. "The majority of what he has done has been to sort of recuperate and begin to come back, and physical conditioning. It has been a long journey.
"I think it gives hope to everybody who is in any kind of tough situation in their life that if you just keep pushing, push through adversity you've got a chance."