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ROB VANSTONE: Ricky Ray's touch set him apart

Ricky Ray, shown throwing a pass for the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL's 2017 East Division final against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, announced his retirement Wednesday.
Ricky Ray, shown throwing a pass for the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL's 2017 East Division final against the Saskatchewan Roughriders, announced his retirement Wednesday.

In terms of arm strength, one of the CFL’s all-time class acts was not blessed with a Ray gun.

Ricky Ray’s playing career will not be remembered for passes that left a vapour trail while travelling 70 yards in the air, although he could (and did) make every throw that was required.

Instead, people will recall Ray’s remarkable touch — when it came to throwing the football or simply in terms of dealing with people.

Ray, who announced his retirement Wednesday, never carried himself like a Canadian football superstar. The label fit, of course, but he was never inclined toward self-congratulation.

Not once did he make an outlandish or controversial statement during 16 CFL seasons. Yet, people in the media loved dealing with him, because he was endlessly accommodating and thoughtful.

The mind rewinds to November of 2003, when Ray and the Edmonton Eskimos met the Montreal Alouettes in a Regina-based Grey Cup.

A few days before the game, I approached Ray in the Eskimos’ dressing room — which was usually the Roughriders’ quarters — and ended up being on the periphery of a massive media scrum.

I waited for all the other interviewers to complete their lines of questioning until just two people — Ray and yours truly — were standing there. He then spent another five minutes answering my questions, even though the session must have been endless.

Nowadays, quarterbacks typically stand behind a lectern and the process is highly formalized. Back then, in a less-structured environment, Ray faced waves of reporters and was patient with each and every one of them.

Ray proceeded to throw two touchdown passes, both to Jason Tucker , as Edmonton defeated Montreal 34-22. That was Ray’s first of a CFL-record four Grey Cup victories as a starting quarterback.

On two other occasions, his brilliance prevented the Roughriders from reaching the Grey Cup. He guided Edmonton to a 30-23 victory in the 2003 West Division final and, 14 years later, piloted the Toronto Argonauts to a 25-21, come-from-behind win in the East championship game.

In the latter contest, the Roughriders were one play away from advancing to the league final. One stop, in a third-and-five situation, would have sealed the deal.

Ray proceeded to find tailback James Wilder Jr., isolated on linebacker Sam Eguavoen, for a 22-yard gain that set up the winning touchdown.

Eguavoen’s coverage was actually quite good, but “quite good” seldom sufficed for a defender who was faced having to stop Ray. Despite the challenge presented by a 54 km-h wind, he placed the ball where only Wilder could make the catch.

What else could one have expected from a quarterback who just retired with the highest completion percentage — 68.2 — in CFL history?

In one year (2013), Ray completed 77.2 per cent of his throws.

But what set him apart, at least in this scribbler’s assessment, was the unrivalled finesse. The ball seemed to settle into the receiver’s hands. It was like watching an experienced pilot make a perfect landing.

Appropriately, Ray will land in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame the moment he becomes eligible. His selection will be automatic.

He was too automatic for the Roughriders’ sake. On third-and-five, there was little doubt that he was going to complete that pass, at that crucial juncture, while demonstrating that touch.

rvanstone@postmedia.com

twitter.com/robvanstone

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