BY AARON BRENNER | email@example.com
AUBURN, Ala. – It didn’t take long for Melvin Ray to long for the gridiron.
Once a four-star member of Alabama’s star-studded 2008 signing class, Ray never academically qualified to reach Tuscaloosa. So he decided he’d return to the family sport of baseball, drafted 997th overall by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 33rd round of the 2008 Major League Baseball First-Year Player draft.
Ray never made it out of Rookie League ball, turning in an unproductive three seasons setting out as a teenager and ending as a 21-year-old. The outfielder batted .184 and struck out in nearly half his plate appearances.
So when did he start missing football?
“From day one,” Ray said, now an Auburn wide receiver following Wednesday’s spring practice. “Of course, I took baseball. It was an opportunity. I loved it, I played it my whole life.”
One of Ray’s best friends in the minors was Dee Gordon, currently in Triple-A but the owner of 56 stolen bases in 143 major league games from 2011-12.
“It was the first sport I ever played, following my dad and my brother,” Ray said. “Once I started football around 10th grade, I realized that was a sport that physically was probably better for me overall.”
A 6-foot-3, 218-pounder who turns 24 years old on April 23, initially attempted a return to Alabama, but wasn’t offered a scholarship or a fighter’s chance. The Tallahassee, Fla. native turned his eyes across the state, landing at Auburn last fall in camp and playing in all 12 games on special teams.
Ray still remembers his return to football, when he was deadset on returning to Alabama and not seeing it work out.
“It was just … I want to play college football,” Ray said. “Coming back here was more about ‘OK, now I need to start to think about a future’, so when I decided to do that and I took the opportunity to come here and check things out, I fell in love with Auburn and it became a second home to me.”
Now he’s getting his shot as wide receiver, more present in positional groups – particularly in first-team and second-team drills when applicable – than any other walk-on.
Oh, yes, he’s technically a walk-on. Ray’s father, Melvin Ray Sr., told the Tuscaloosa News in 2010 his Dodgers contract dictates the MLB club will pay for his college tuition.
An Auburn spokesman earlier this spring said Ray is still considered a walk-on, and wasn’t sure where the coaching staff stood with offering him one of the few scholarships available for the fall.
Either way, with a shortage of receivers in camp, Ray’s running with the likes of Trovon Reed, Quan Bray, Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis and Jaylon Denson.
“He’s a big, athletic guy. I think if you ask him he’s thinking a lot about where to line up and his assignment instead of just playing football,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “At times he’s made some plays.”
Ray’s older and wiser than the rest of the roster, which he said has forced him to adjust simple aspects of his life like his diet – he stays away from fast food – and being patient with inexperienced teammates.
His goals are simple and independent: earn a scholarship, earn a college degree, start a career in something, anything.
“Of course when I came out of high school, I’m thinking about ‘ball, ball, ball’,” said Ray, a communications major. “I work hard to make sure I play on Saturdays and – you never know, hopefully I get an opportunity to play on Sundays – but thinking realistic, I have to worry about making sure I put myself in a position to get a job first.”