When Broncos rookie linebacker Shane Ray recently revealed a massive new back tattoo featuring the skyline of his hometown, Kansas City, the backlash in Denver was predictable. The trouble was floating up there among the clouds, with that pair of bedroom angels, just above the logo for MLS' Sporting KC and the Royals crest: Was that really a Chiefs' arrowhead?
Unapologetic, Ray took to Instagram, writing: "For everyone that is salty because I take pride in the city that made me who I am today, you weren't with me then and [it] won't bother me if [you're] not there now."
Roots forged through struggle are stronger, so this might be a good time to point out that Ray grew up in a K.C. neighborhood known as "the Murder Factory"; that a rare meeting with his father, Wendell, a one-time Vikings' pick, came through county jail Plexiglas; and that last year he himself was victim of the reflexive media pile-on after what they call in this business an "off-the-field incident."
Just days before the 2015 draft, the former Missouri star was pulled over for speeding and found in possession of a small amount of marijuana. Originally projected as a top ten pick, he dropped all the way to 23rd – where the Broncos snapped him up on their way to winning Super Bowl 50. In short, it's been quite a rookie-year ride for the 22-year-old, and Rolling Stone recently spoke to him about the learning curve of an NFL rookie, battling in the shadows of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, how he spent his (very brief) offseason and, of course, that tattoo.
So, you got a tattoo. Some Broncos fans weren't too happy about it.
I knew initially some fans would get upset. But it's where I'm from, it has nothing to do with the decisions I'm making on the field or how I will play against the Chiefs. But it wasn't just their logo I had – I had our soccer team, baseball team and Gates Bar-B-Q. It's about what makes Kansas City and its landmarks. A lot of people understood, but there are always going to be people who have something negative to say. My city made me, and I'm one of the few people who came from where I did to be successful. I take pride in that.
It's huge. How long did it take?
It took three days to do the entire tattoo. My homegirl Kat Tat from 9 Mag Tattoo did it. She's on Black Ink Crew: Chicago. I'd been planning this piece for years, but never had the time to do it, so figured this offseason would be the perfect time.
What's life been like since winning Super Bowl 50?
Kind of like a whirlwind; everybody who knows you just wants to contact you. It's pretty crazy – my phone hasn't stopped ringing. It's a new experience, but it's all very enjoyable as well, just appreciating the accomplishment and being able to share it with people.
Do people treat you differently now that you're a Super Bowl champion?
You know, I really haven't been able to gauge it. I feel like it's kind of the same right now, just because I am a rookie, so honestly I just kind of take it day to day. Not too many people have been different. Things have just been more exciting – people wanting to talk to me about football.
Being a rookie in the NFL, you're learning something new every day, fighting for playing time. What was it like for you on a day-to-day basis?
Honestly, that's exactly what it's been like – just a day-to-day thing. I just try to take it as slow as I possibly can and used this year to grow, trying to get as much information as I possibly could from my veterans and figuring out exactly what it is we got to do. That's the toughest thing as a rookie, just fine-tuning yourself and finding a way to contribute and help your team.
Who are the guys on the team you looked to for that information?
Definitely Von [Miller] and DeMarcus [Ware]. I have them to go to every day, and that's been a huge help to me. But I talked to T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib, Chris Harris, Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall a lot. That's the best thing about my locker room – I felt like I could talk to a lot of guys. I could keep going down the list of guys that said something to me or talked to me at some time during the year just to give me some information or see how I was doing. I really feel like that's what made our locker room so great.
Do you find it much different than college?
It's definitely a jump up from college. You're on your own. You're automatically expected to do your job, and people might think it's just playing football, but it's so much more than that. You gotta really break it down, there's more of the game that you gotta understand and really taking care of your body and all that. I can only imagine how it is for a rookie who comes in and doesn't have all that veteran leadership. I'm sure it's tough, because you're thrown into the fire and you gotta figure out a lot on your own. It could be really stressful. For me, it was easier to get better as a player because I had those veterans in my corner talking to me every day, helping me out and showing me the ropes.
When I watch a college game it looks like a completely different sport. What was the biggest transition you had to make?
To break it down. Whatever division you're in, you play those teams twice a year, so the guys have so much more time to study and break down film. They're so much smarter. In college, you can just go and run around all the time just because you were better. It's really just a heightened level of understanding. You see it on a week-to-week basis. You're literally spending all your time during the day watching the team you're about to play and knowing the person you're about to go against. You can only expect they're doing the same thing preparing for you. And so that's what makes a huge difference: You gotta find something that can help you beat who you're gonna play against. Of course your talent, your work ethic, everything you put in all comes into play, but it's really the knowledge that sets you apart from everyone else.
How much time did you spend watching tape?
At least 8 a.m. to almost 3:30 p.m. every day, three or four days a week. That's just what we do on our own. Adding those hours every week and then whatever extra the guys want to do. DeMarcus might say, "Let's come in and watch an extra hour of film after practice on these days and pick up on these keys." So it really doesn't stop. You literally become like a student. I would describe the NFL as being in school with football.
Are there any specific instances you remember from this year when something you studied gave you an advantage against a player?
Yeah, definitely. I forget exactly who we played but we were breaking down film on guys and pass rush and noticing the guy was getting bull rushed. That was his weakness. You're always trying to find a guy's weakness so you can expose him there. We just kept watching film and sure enough, the bull rush kept coming into play. I went into the game and talked to DeMarcus and said, "I'm gonna set the guy up," and it worked. I ended up getting a sack off of it. And I came back to the sideline, and it's funny because you start talking about what happened, and literally I did what we talked about and I got a sack on it.
Do you remember who you got your first sack against?
It was against the Vikings. That was just a rush. I'm just trying to fight for playing time with DeMarcus and Von, so getting on the field I might not get as much time as those two. But I wanna make a play, and there's nothing like being a pass rusher and not having a sack. You kind of feel empty without it. So when I got my first sack against the Vikings, it was just like a rush of energy. Really, an indescribable feeling. I was excited, I was happy and at that point, I was like, "I gotta get settled in: I want some more."
What have you been doing in the offseason?
I've just been relaxing and taking time off, honestly, because I don't really have an offseason compared to everybody else. I really just had two weeks off, then started training on March 1. My little free time is over and done with. Back in Columbia [at Mizzou] to train and get ready to go. The season's about to be here again.
What are favorite things to do outside of football?
Honestly, I love to eat, man. That's always priority number one. Always eating different foods, trying different restaurants. And if I have time, when I come home the first thing I'm trying to do is take a nap. But if I don't do that I might play some Xbox and just chill out.
What kind of music do you listen to?
My favorite right now is Kendrick Lamar. That dude – he's nice. I don't know too many people who are as lyrical as he is in the rap game. I love rap music, and R&B, of course. I'll listen to any rapper from any place. I really don't just break it down, but outta my favorites, for sure Kendrick.
What do you think of the new Kanye?
I love it, man. You know Kanye just does Kanye things. He kind of brings it on himself, but I appreciate Kanye's music for sure, and what he's trying to do. He's trying be different. Who wants to be put in the same bubble as everybody else? I like that he came with a lot of different styles to his new album. And you know, he made another hot one. One thing you can say is that the man knows how to make some music.
You're a big Royals fan. You even threw out a first pitch last year. What's your take on the team this year?
I haven't been able to check them out just yet – but who doesn't want another World Series?!?