College Sports

Jason Ray, UNC mascot and organ donor, left behind a legacy of life

Jason Ray Loved Chapel Hill

Video: Emmitt and Charlotte Ray talk about their late son Jason Ray’s love for Chapel Hill during an interview at their home on Wednesday, May 11, 2016 in Concord, N.C.
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Video: Emmitt and Charlotte Ray talk about their late son Jason Ray’s love for Chapel Hill during an interview at their home on Wednesday, May 11, 2016 in Concord, N.C.

A card arrived less than two weeks ago at the home of Charlotte and Emmitt Ray, and when they opened the envelope there was David Erving, a wide smile, wearing “little green glasses,” as Charlotte described them. A homemade St. Patrick’s Day card. Erving never misses a holiday.

He never goes more than a couple of weeks or so without calling, either, just to check in, to hear the voices of the people whose son saved his life. Ten years ago, Erving, 49, was ready to die.

He’d been on dialysis for a decade. Diabetes had ravaged his body, cost him an eye, caused his leg to break. He needed a new liver and a new pancreas. He’d been on a transplant list for four years. He’d decided to stop dialysis, and prepared himself for the end.

Now he’s alive because Jason Ray, the only child Charlotte and Emmitt had together, died 10 years ago on Sunday. Jason was a senior at North Carolina, where before home football and basketball games he transformed into Rameses, the Tar Heels’ muscular mascot.

He traveled with the team to New Jersey for the 2007 NCAA tournament. Hours before a game against Southern California Jason walked out of the hotel in search of a snack. He never returned. An SUV struck him on the side of Route 4 in Fort Lee.

He spent three days in the hospital, unconscious with a catastrophic brain injury. A doctor pronounced him dead on March 26, 2007, at 8:38 a.m. A machine kept Jason’s organs alive. Charlotte remained with him. For 12 hours she sat by his side.

“Until 9 o’clock at night,” she said, “and then that’s when the surgeries began.”

Years earlier, Jason had to convince his parents, who are deeply religious, it was a good idea to become an organ donor. Charlotte can still hear what she said to Jason when he told them that he wanted to be one: “You’re born with all these little parts. You need to leave with them.”

Emmitt can still hear Jason’s argument in response. He can hear Jason talking about the gift he wanted to give if he were ever in position to give it: “Think about a guy that’s about to die that didn’t have a chance to get right with the Lord. And I could give him an opportunity.”

Ten years ago Sunday, the surgery began. Doctors removed Jason’s heart, his liver, his two kidneys, his pancreas. Emmitt and Charlotte prepared to bury Jason in Elizaville, Ky. It is a tiny town, no post office. Emmitt and Charlotte are from there. When they die they’ll return, to be buried next to Jason.

Ten years ago Sunday, Erving waited. He received a call early the next morning: A kidney and pancreas had become available. Those organs saved his life. Erving was one of four people, all from New Jersey, to receive Jason’s organs.

Ronald Griffin, then 58, received Jason’s heart. Dennis Korzelius, 43, his liver. Antwan Hunter, 16, a kidney. The four people who received Jason’s organs were younger and older, white (Erving and Korzelius) and black (Griffin and Hunter). After the transplant, Erving and Griffin grew close with Charlotte and Emmitt. Hunter and Korzelius went their own way.

Ten years later, Charlotte and Emmitt still mourn, but they also celebrate Jason, the gifts he gave. There is peace in knowing Jason’s death provided life, but there will never be closure.

“It’s just something that never goes away,” Emmitt said. “Hangs with you all the time.”

Ten years later, Erving still celebrates that he’s living, but he also mourns. There is joy in the simple things he couldn’t do before, but there will also always be guilt.

“This time of year,” he said, “I get really down. Because a young boy lost his life, and I’m living.”

About a week and a half ago, Erving called Charlotte, like he often does. It was early on a Wednesday morning. The anniversary approached. A time to mourn. A time to celebrate. They talked about how to remember Jason Ray, her son, his donor, 10 years later.

A final visit

The day Charlotte and Emmitt remember the most isn’t the anniversary. The day they remember the most is March 18, Charlotte’s birthday. That was the last time Jason came home to the two-story brick house on Monticello Drive in Concord.

Gentle hills and wide-open fields surround the neighborhood. A basketball goal stands on the edge of the driveway. Ten years after Jason came home for the last time it still feels, Charlotte said, “like he’s gone to get a quart of milk and he’ll be back after a while.”

The day before Jason came home, he told his mom he wanted to take her out for a birthday lunch. Then she went to the freezer and pulled out a pot roast. It was ready when he arrived, along with potatoes and carrots. Jason’s favorite meal.

“I see plans have changed,” Jason said with a laugh when he walked in.

He spent three hours at home that day. He told them about Tampa, where he’d just been for the 2007 ACC tournament. In a few days, he’d be going to the NCAA tournament East Regional in East Rutherford, N.J.

Usually Jason didn’t travel with the team, but the postseason was different. Rameses had to be there.

Jason had been Rameses since his freshman year, when he saw a flier in The Pit, in the middle of campus, with details about interviewing. The front man of his band, 9 PM Traffic, Jason loved performing. He loved sports, too.

Soon enough Charlotte and Emmitt became regulars at the Smith Center. During games Jason told his mom he loved her, using hand signals. If Emmitt was in a vulnerable position Jason would sneak up behind.

“And he’d have that horn positioned so that when I turned I’d hit the horn, you know,” Emmitt said, smiling.

People talked about how much life Jason squeezed into 21 years. He was Rameses, but he was also a singer, a business major and an honor student with two job offers months before graduation. He loved Franklin Street on Halloween. He loved to travel. He’d run with the bulls in Spain and served his church in Haiti and Honduras.

Jason was a deep thinker. He kept a journal and contemplated philosophical and religious questions.

Sometimes Emmitt goes into Jason’s room. It is mostly as Jason left it, the pictures on the walls, the notes on his desk, the posters.

“Every once in a while I feel a little melancholy, I come in here and get all teary-eyed,” Emmitt said.

He reached for a journal and opened it to a page in the middle. He read out loud from an entry Jason wrote about a trip with his church:

“Sunday, June 12, 2005. Wow, it has been quite a while since I have written in this notebook. I am 19 and on my way to Honduras. We just pulled out of Charlotte. I am cruising high above the clouds. … My goals for this trip: read everything I brought to read, work hard at all I do. God, I give this trip to you. May you be glorified. ...”

Jason’s wallet sits on a shelf. Inside is the same $20 bill he carried when he walked out of the hotel. His day-planner is nearby, filled with events that required Rameses’ attendance.

There was the ACC tournament, the NCAA tournament. It went on beyond March, days Jason didn’t live long enough to see, while parts of him remained alive inside of those he saved.

Video: Emmitt and Charlotte Ray talk about their late son’s last visit home before his death, during an interview at their home on Wednesday, May 11, 2016 in Concord, N.C.

Communing with Jason

After he received Jason’s heart, Ronald Griffin visited the Rays’ home in Concord, with his wife, Stephanie. Griffin, a retired postal worker, wanted to see where Jason lived. When Griffin arrived he asked Charlotte and Emmitt if he could see Jason’s room.

“He’d come up here and spend quite a bit of time,” Emmitt said. “Like he was communing with Jason.”

It isn’t common for the recipients of organ transplants to know who the organ donor is, or for family of a donor to know recipients. The media attention made Jason’s story different: the UNC mascot killed during a trip to the NCAA tournament.

Without it, Charlotte and Emmitt might have never known where Jason’s organs went. They are thankful to have known.

“Because I feel like they were just handpicked by God,” Charlotte said.

In the months that followed Jason’s death, the full scope of his story came into focus. Here was UNC’s larger-than-life mascot, 6-5 and more than 200 pounds, saving four men with his decision to be an organ donor.

An Emmy Award-winning story, “Ray of Hope,” aired on ESPN and detailed Jason’s gift. As part of the production, ESPN helped Charlotte and Emmitt meet the recipients of Jason’s organs.

There were tears and hugs, gratitude and guilt. Hunter, the 16-year-old who received a kidney, told Charlotte that he didn’t want to cry. That initial meeting, Charlotte and Emmitt said, was the first and only time they ever saw Korzelius, who received Jason’s liver. Korzelius was who they most identified with Jason’s hope of bringing someone closer to God.

“The day we met him, you could tell he was really having a problem,” Charlotte said. “He couldn’t look us straight in the eye. And what was it he said? ‘Why am I living, and Jason’s not?’ 

Years later, Charlotte said she’d occasionally try to call Hunter only to hear nothing in response. The Rays became close with Griffin and Erving, who received Jason’s pancreas and his other kidney. During Griffin’s visit to the Ray home in Concord, Griffin and Emmitt shared a spiritual conversation.

“He would say, ‘I talked to Jason about coming down here,’ ” Emmitt said. “ ‘He told me when I met you, I’d like you.’ I don’t know what possessed Ronald to think like that, but he did. And he’d say, ‘Yeah, I asked Jason about that, and he told me, ‘You’ll like Pop when you meet him.’ 

Hearing that, Emmitt said, “kind of set me back on my heels.” Griffin couldn’t have known that Jason really did call Emmitt “Pop.”

The Rays and the Griffins appeared on Oprah and traveled the country, giving speeches about organ donor awareness. Jason’s heart gave Griffin four years that he wouldn’t have had otherwise.

He died in May 2011, two years after his kidneys began to fail. Griffin was 62.

Even now, Charlotte walks to the mailbox once a month and finds a $50 check from Griffin’s widow. The checks have arrived monthly for the past 10 years, Charlotte said. The money goes to the Jason Ray Foundation, which raises awareness about organ donation. The foundation has raised more than $500,000, Emmitt said, some of which has gone to the UNC Hospitals transplant clinic.

In a ceremony last April, a little more than nine years after Jason’s death, the UNC transplant clinic was renamed the UNC Hospitals Jason Ray Transplant Clinic. Speakers detailed the ripples of Jason’s decision to be an organ donor.

In addition to the four men Jason saved with his organs, 114 others and counting, according to UNC Hospitals, received parts of Jason’s tissue and bone fragments. Those gifts helped their recipients to see, or to walk.

Jason’s story, according to UNC Hospitals, inspired 46,000 people in the United States to sign up as organ donors. Those who did created the potential to save the lives of 165,000 people in need of a transplant.

Erving sat in the front row when they named the transplant clinic after Jason Ray. He’d come to share his story. He’d come to visit Chapel Hill, too, and to see how Jason lived.

Ray of hope

Erving can’t see much. For nearly 30 years diabetes destroyed his body. The disease caused him to lose his right eye. He has lost most of the sight in his left. Yet he can see enough to appreciate the five-mile loop near his house in Howell, N.J.

The path winds its way around a reservoir. Erving knows there are boats out there on the water. He can feel the shade under the trees that surround the path on either side.

“And it’s soothing,” he said. “I like it over there.”

Erving wakes up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. He used to wake up that early for dialysis, before reaching a point when “you have to say enough is enough.”

That day arrived in late 2006, after nurses had run out of entry points for the needle. The port in his chest had fallen out. He’d decided he’d rather die than undergo more long-term dialysis.

A few months later UNC earned the No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels advanced to East Rutherford, N.J. Jason Ray, the team’s mascot, decided he wanted a snack. He walked out of the hotel. Without that confluence of events Erving knows where he’d be.

“I’d be dead,” he said.

He tries to live in a way that honors Jason. That’s difficult in some ways. Erving is on disability. He doesn’t drive. A caregiver lives with him. But Erving does what he can. He wakes up early to make the most of his day.

He spends time outside. He tries to help people around his building, a community residence for the disabled. Erving said he helped 11 of his elderly neighbors install new air conditioners.

“It actually makes me feel good,” he said, “to be able to help somebody.”

Erving doesn’t have family nearby. Charlotte and Emmitt have become family. Erving sends them cards all the time – every holiday – and calls Charlotte at least a couple of times per month.

This time of the year is the most difficult. It’s when Erving most often thinks about how a 21-year-old college senior had to die for him to live. For the 10-year anniversary, Erving and his caretaker had 200 glossy 8x10 prints made that commemorate how Jason’s gift gave Erving life.

On the top of the page it says, “10 Years of the Ray of Hope.” Erving wanted Charlotte to include them in the gift bags at the upcoming annual Jason Ray Foundation golf tournament.

Now that Griffin has been gone for six years, Erving is the only one of the organ recipients who remains in touch with Charlotte and Emmitt. Maintaining that bond is important on both sides.

In the past 10 years Erving has learned to walk again, though he uses a cane. He has spent far less time in hospitals than he used to, though he said he is now recovering from testicular cancer. This fall, he has a road trip planned with his sister, who lives in California.

He’s going to fly there and they’re going to drive across the country. Along the way Erving wants to stop in Elizaville, Ky., the tiny town with no post office, the place where Jason Ray is buried. Erving wants to bring blue and white flowers, he said, and “have a little conversation” with Jason.

“I don’t know what I would say to him,” Erving said, but visiting “is the right thing to do.”

He wants to see the grave. He wants to be in Jason’s presence. Erving wants to thank the man whose death gave him life.

The organ transplant clinic at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, N.C. was named the Jason Ray Transplant Clinic in 2016, in honor of the former UNC student who played the Rameses mascot for Tar Heel athletic events. Jason, who was an organ donor, lost

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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