Last year, I posted about Jason Ray, the University of North Carolina student and school mascot that was tragically killed in an accident during the 2007 NCAA basketball tournament. As a registered organ donor, Ray helped save the lives of four other human beings and touched the hearts of thousands across the world when ESPN produced the feature video below on Jason. His parents and the recipients of Jason’s lifesaving gifts were later featured on “Oprah” and profiled in numerous other stories.
Yesterday, March 26, marked the one year anniversary of Jason’s passing. ESPN writer, Wayne Drehs, put together this great article to commemorate Jason. Check out the full story here and I’ve also posted below.
A year after his death, the memory of Jason Ray lives
By Wayne DrehsESPN.com
Sitting hand in hand on their living room couch some 10 months ago, Emmitt and Charlotte Ray had one goal in sharing the single worst moment of their life with the world.
“We just want to make sure Jason will never be forgotten,” Charlotte said. “We never want our son to be forgotten.”
Now, a year after North Carolina mascot Jason Ray’s tragic death during the 2007 NCAA men’s basketball tournament, their wish has come true. Jason’s high-profile death last March 26, coupled with his decision to become an organ donor, has saved the lives of four New Jersey men and touched hundreds of thousands of people across the world.
For Jason’s parents, it has meant a visit to the “Oprah” show in Chicago and visits to churches in Arizona, Colorado, Washington and Florida. The New Jersey Sharing Network surprised them in February by announcing that the Heritage Award, given annually to an individual who helps raise donor awareness, would forever be known as the “Ray of Hope” Award.
Emmitt has shipped copies of the “Ray of Hope” story on ESPN’s “E:60” television news magazine to doctors, lawyers, ministers, football coaches, theologians and others. E-mails, letters, phone calls and donations for the Jason Kendall Ray scholarship fund have come from nearly every state and numerous countries. And the Rays’ “extended family,” the term they’ve used to describe Jason’s organ and tissue recipients, continues to grow.
Kenneth Williams, second from left, and his wife, Althea, meet Charlotte and Emmitt Ray. Last September, Kenneth Williams had surgery in which bone chips from Jason Ray were used to help fuse Williams’ spine so he could function without pain.In February, Emmitt and Charlotte met Kenneth Williams, a 57-year-old retired aircraft engineer. For the past 20 years, Williams has battled degenerative disk disease in his back, leaving him unable to brush his teeth, comb his hair, roll over in bed or lift up one of his five children without pain.
“It was like someone had a chisel in my back and was constantly hitting it with a hammer,” said Williams, who lives in Southern California. “It was horrible.”
In September, Williams had surgery in which doctors used bone chips from Jason to help fuse Williams’ spine, allowing him to walk, drive, shave, shower and do most anything else he would like pain free.
“I go to movies, I walk along the beach and go to the park,” Williams said. “I’m so much happier.”
When Williams met the Rays in February, Charlotte’s words about never forgetting Jason touched the father of five.
“I just grabbed her arm and said, ‘Don’t you worry, Mrs. Charlotte Ray, he’ll never be forgotten,'” Williams said. “Every time I take a forward step I think about him. He has forever changed my life.”
Williams isn’t alone. Anthony Popa Jr., a 17-year-old from Honolulu, Hawaii, broke his neck and nearly died last fall when he was thrown from the back of a pickup truck in a motor vehicle accident. Using a piece of hip bone from Jason, doctors performed an anterior cervical spinal fusion to help stabilize Anthony’s neck.
Tedi Marie Harper, a 13-year-old from Broken Arrow, Okla., suffered from scoliosis until last August, when doctors used a piece of Jason’s bone to help attach metal rods to her back and correct the curvature of her spine.
These are some of the stories. According to the Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation, 114 allografts from Jason’s tissue have been provided to hospitals across the U.S. and Canada. The recipients come from 24 states, from New York to Hawaii, and range from Harper, the 13-year-old Oklahoma girl, to an 80-year-old Minnesota woman who underwent a fracture repair. Two recipients had their limbs salvaged because of Jason. Four received tissue for a new ACL. Twenty-five recipients, like Williams and Harper, received tissue for spine surgery. And tissue is still being preserved for another 50-70 future recipients.
“This just continues to prove that there’s a higher architect working here,” Emmitt said. “No one else could have orchestrated the way in which this tragedy would touch so many lives.”
The appreciation is perhaps strongest in North Carolina. At the UNC-Florida State game on March 4, the Rays returned to the Smith Center at the University of North Carolina for the first time since Jason’s accident. They presented the Jason Kendall Ray Spirit Award to junior cheerleader Jeremy Crouthamel, and received Jason’s letterman’s jacket. They were greeted by a standing ovation from 19,000 fans.
“You can tell his spirit still runs through that building,” Emmitt said. “You can just feel it. Those people still love Jason.”
Said Charlotte: “I couldn’t bear to watch the mascot that night. I’d see him running up and down the stairs and just look away. There were too many memories.”
Though they are still frustrated by the lack of progress in the criminal case pending against the father and son accused of hitting Jason with their vehicle — Bergen County prosecutor John Molinelli had no updates on the case recently — Emmitt and Charlotte Ray say that day by day, the grief over the death of their son is easing.
Yet the reminders are still everywhere, perhaps nowhere more telling than on the driver’s license of Charlotte Ray, the mother who once lectured to her son that, “We come here with all these parts we ought to leave here with these little parts.”
Ray was renewing her driver’s license at the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles earlier this month when the clerk asked if she wanted to become an organ donor.
“I sure would,” Charlotte says she told him. “I think my son would like that. I think he’d be quite proud.”
“Your son?” the man asked.
“Yes, my son,” Charlotte said. “Have you ever heard of Jason Ray?”
The man paused. And then it hit him.
“Oh my god,” the man said to her. “You’re Jason’s mom. I’m so sorry.”
Charlotte insisted there was no need to apologize. And for the next 40 minutes, she shared stories of Jason. Before the conversation finished, the man thanked her for everything Jason had done to increase donor awareness. He handed her the new license, with a tiny, red heart icon in the lower right-hand corner.
“It was pretty incredible,” Emmitt said. “I think they would have let her walk out with the entire Division of Motor Vehicles if she just would have asked. But it’s just another example — people haven’t forgotten.”