At the time that he played in the U.S. Army All-American game on Jan. 7, 2017, Kanan Ray's football career appeared to be taking off.
More than two years later, that is still the last time Ray played in a football game, but he looks to his future with optimism as he goes through spring practices with the Colorado Buffaloes.
"It's been quite a ride these past couple of years," he said Wednesday after the Buffs' fifth practice of spring. "I didn't think it was going to take this long but it's been 26 months since I've been healthy. It's been a ride, but I'm thankful for it. I think it built me as a man and as a person. I'm blessed just to be healthy now."
Ray, now 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds, was a four-star recruit coming out of Sierra Canyon High School in Chatsworth, Calif., and he signed a letter of intent with UCLA.
Shortly after his senior year, though, he had surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder, which had bothered him the previous two years. He also had knee cap issues but didn't think much of it.
"Then, right after I got shoulder surgery, I started running again and realized how bad (the knee cap) was," he said. "They told me it was going to be a year-and-a-half plus recovery."
He grayshirted to delay his UCLA enrollment until January of 2018, but after the Bruins changed coaches — firing Jim Mora and hiring Chip Kelly — Ray wound up at CU a year ago. Still not healthy, he spent all of 2018 lifting weights and rehabbing his knee.
CU opened spring practice on March 18 and Ray, a redshirt freshman, said, "It was the first time I've been on the field since I've been here - since I played in the All-American game."
Going through a long recovery process has helped Ray appreciate the game more than ever, he said.
"You kind of take the game for granted sometimes and now that I have it again, I'm just so blessed and thankful," he said.
Ray said he's 100 percent healthy, but considering it's been so long since he played, he's spent the early part of spring dusting off some cobwebs.
"I'm still a little rusty and still getting back into playing and I still have a lot of stuff to work on, but I'm feeling good and just happy to be out there," he said. "I will always have work to do; the greats still have to work to do. But, I still know how to play football, I think I'm still the same player, but I'm striving every day to get better."
Ray has already made a good impression on new Buffs' line coach Chris Kapilovic.
"He plays physical and he's got a little edge to him, which I love," Kapilovic said. "Not all big guys have that. He really hasn't been on the field in two years, so we're knocking a little rust off, but just the attitude and effort and the edge he brings is something that stands out to me."
Kapilovic has shuffled the line around a bit this spring, and that's allowed Ray an opportunity at times to work with the first-team and second-team offense.
"It definitely helps because with the ones you're with a lot of guys that have game experience, so it's there quick and they're seeing things and they're helping me out with all that stuff," Ray said. "You learn a lot from the guys, especially with offensive line, that are playing next to you."
Ray believes that in the long run he may wind up at guard, but this spring he's been working mainly at right tackle.
"I like tackle," he said. "I pride myself on being pretty versatile."
At this point, Ray doesn't really care where he plays and he's not too concerned with his competition on the line. He's simply happy being on the field and working on his game.
"I'm always striving to be the best, but I'm worried about myself right now," he said. "I'm not really worried about the next guy; I'm just worried about myself and how I can be the best player by the time Colorado State comes along (for the Aug. 30 season opener)."
Asked if there's enough time for him to get ready for the opener, Ray smiled.
"I'll be ready," he said. "No doubt."