OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- By the weekend, linebacker Shane Ray will know whether he is sticking with the Baltimore Ravens or if he'll get cut for the first time, which would cast a cloudy future on his up-and-down career.
Ray, a first-round pick of the Denver Broncos four years ago, is in what one coach described as a "dead heat" for one of the final roster spots. All signs point to Ray playing for his football life in Thursday's preseason finale.
Survival, though, has always been a way of life for Ray. He grew up in an 8-square-mile part of Kansas City, Missouri, known as the Murder Factory.
At age 12, Ray saw his first dead body. On his way to his grandmother's house, he ran to the bottom of a hill where he saw a man who was facedown and not moving.
"I remember like it was yesterday," Ray said. "I just looked at him. Nobody was around. That was more surreal; no one was around. I don’t hear any sirens. I remember looking at the guy’s head and seeing a gunshot wound."
This was home to Ray, but it was an area to avoid for many others. According to the Kansas City Star, more than 100 convicted murderers incarcerated in Missouri prisons had lived in the ZIP code.
"It was just to another day," Ray said. "You just move past it."
Football was a way to escape and a much-needed emotional outlet.
His father, Wendell Ray, a former fifth-round pick of the Minnesota Vikings, walked out when Ray was 1 year old. His mother remarried when he was 6, but his stepfather was out of the picture after a divorce four years later.
There were feelings of abandonment as well as a fear that Ray could turn to the streets.
"I could not let him keep being angry," said Sebrina Johnson, Ray's mother. "If I didn’t get a hold of him right now, I’m going to lose him."
At age 10, Ray's shoe size matched his age and he wore size 52 husky. He was awkward instead of athletic.
Ray’s mother pushed him toward football. She thought the coaches could just put Ray in the front and he didn't have to run. All he had to do was smash people.
Ray wasn't all-in. It didn't matter. His mother forced him to play.
"You don't have a choice," she told him.
Ray's surroundings still presented challenges. When Ray was at practice in eighth grade, a car pulled up and a kid walked up to the team. The coach told another player to give his shoulder pads to the team's new playmaker.
"Our running back just got out of [juvenile detention]," Ray said. "But we won the championship."
The bigger prize for Ray was getting a chance to attend private high school outside his neighborhood.
His mother worked three jobs so Ray could attend Bishop Miege High School, in Roeland Park, Kansas, which had annual tuition of $10,000. She worked in IT, painted houses and sold homemade cakes.
Ray's body began to transform after his freshman season, thanks to a growth spurt (he went from 5-foot-11 to 6-2 over the summer) and hard work. His mother bought a weight set from Walmart to put in the basement and paid $20 a week to a local trainer to help Ray with his agility.
At this time, it wasn't a means to the NFL. This was a way for an education. Before every game, Ray would tape his wrists and write "college" on it.
His mother would come up to him and ask: "What is the person in front of you preventing you from doing?"
Ray would respond: "Going to college."
His mother then said: "That’s why you have to win."
Ray's aspirations soared higher when he not only went to Missouri but dominated there. In 2014, he became one of the top pass-rushers in college football, setting the school's single-season record with 14.5 sacks and winning the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year.
The Denver Broncos wanted Ray so badly in the 2015 draft that they traded three picks (their first- and fifth-rounders that year along with a fifth-rounder the following year) and offensive lineman Manny Ramirez to the Detroit Lions to move up five spots to No. 23.
After playing a reserve role on the Broncos' Super Bowl-winning team as a rookie, Ray recorded eight sacks in 2016. Ray's career appeared on the upswing until he injured his left wrist in a spring practice the following season.
He didn't know it at the time but that was the beginning of the end for him in Denver.
"These last two years have probably been the worst two years of our lives," his mother said.
The initial prognosis was a three-to-four-week recovery following wrist surgery. When the incision was made, doctors saw all of Ray's bones in his wrist had spread apart along with the main ligament being torn.
Ray returned midway through the season with two screws in his wrist. He had a cast put on for every practice.
"I can barely play the run, let alone rush," Ray said. "I couldn't lift and got small. It got real difficult to play football with this injury."
This all led to a nightmarish contract year for Ray. In 2018, he still had pain in his wrist and felt an additional sting. The Broncos used the No. 5 overall pick on his replacement, highly touted pass-rusher Bradley Chubb.
"It’s one of those moments where it’s really crazy -- is this happening? -- but I couldn't do anything because I wasn’t healthy," Ray said.
After one sack and 10 tackles in 2018, Ray was finished in Denver.
Ray was ready to move on from two years of disappointment. What awaited him was uncertainty.
Ray's first time in free agency wasn't a pleasant one. This offseason, he waited 65 days before joining the Ravens on May 17. He signed a one-year, $1.2 million deal (only $200,000 is guaranteed), coming to Baltimore with a healthy wrist and renewed hope.
During the spring, Ravens defensive coordinator Don "Wink" Martindale described Ray as "a man on a mission." Other team officials predicted a resurgent year.
"Denver probably feels like he’s underperformed," Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti told season-ticket holders in May, "but he’s a healthy 26-year-old now."
Training camp began with a stumble for Ray. He didn't participate in the first practice because he failed the conditioning test. He followed that up with underwhelming numbers this summer. Ray has one tackle and a half-sack in three preseason games, although Ravens coach John Harbaugh has praised his physicality and motor and Martindale said he has seen Ray play with more juice as the preseason progressed.
Ray is expected to receive plenty of playing time in Thursday's preseason finale at Washington, which will weigh into whether he makes the 53-man roster. He said there is no anxiety about being on the bubble heading into Saturday's cut-down day. His focus is on what he can control, and that's producing on the field.
"I feel like I've been putting out good tape this preseason and showing I've been healthy," Ray said. "At the end of the day, a team either signs you or another team will. There are 31 [other] teams."
Pass rush is the biggest question mark on Baltimore's defense, which is why the Ravens signed Ray. But the numbers don't appear to be in his favor right now.
There are five other pass-rushers -- Matthew Judon, Pernell McPhee, Tyus Bowser, Jaylon Ferguson and Tim Williams -- who've received longer extended runs with the first-team defense this summer than Ray.
Still, if anyone has learned anything from Ray's childhood, it's that he has beaten greater odds before.
"When people count him out and think he’s done and not good enough," his mother said, "then he always rises to the occasion."