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Coach gave kids skills for game -- and life

An athlete at Robinson High and the University of Tampa, Nick Ray later lived in Louisiana, teaching and coaching.

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 24, 2003

William Nick Ray


* * *

JEFFERSON, La. -- Many of Nick Ray's friends never knew he was a star athlete.

Ray had been a football and baseball player at Robinson High School, kicking the first field goal in the school's history. In college, he played backup quarterback at the University of Tampa and, later, at Tulane University.

William Nick Ray, who went by his middle name, died Jan. 17 at a Louisiana hospital after a short illness. He was 46.

"His childhood in Tampa and his baseball and football careers were a big part of his life," said his wife, Cheryl Ray. "But he was a very humble person, and he wouldn't brag about it at parties or even to me. A lot of what I found out about him was from going through the attic and finding old yearbooks. Then I'd ask him about it, and he'd tell me the stories."

His father, W. Nick Ray, who still lives in Hillsborough County, said his son never cared about the recognition.

"All he wanted to do was play," he said.

After Ray graduated from Tulane, he stayed in the New Orleans area. At the time of his death, he and his wife lived in suburban Jefferson, La., with 4-year-old son Nicholas Ray and two daughters, Megan Ray, 16, and Lindsey Martin, 15.

Their son is taking the death especially hard, Cheryl Ray said.

"He asks who's going to drive daddy's Jeep and who's going to teach him to swing a bat," she said.

Little Nicholas is a lot like his father -- tall, thin and athletic.

"At least God gave me him," Cheryl said. "I can look at him and see Nick all the time."

Nick Ray's love of sports never faded, and he was well-known in his adopted state for his work at local schools. At Riverdale High School he served as head baseball coach and assistant football coach. At Worley Junior High School he taught math and physical education and coached girls basketball and softball.

Ray's father said Nick coached sports almost as long as he played. His career started at age 15 when he coached a youth basketball team in Interbay, where he grew up.

A few years ago, an illness forced doctors to remove Ray's spleen. That compromised his immune system and eventually led to his death.

He felt fine a few days before his death but suddenly turned gravely ill. A bacterial infection had developed inside Ray's body and damaged his internal organs. By the time he sought treatment, the damage was too severe.

"He didn't know anything was wrong until it was too late," Cheryl Ray said.

Mourners at Monday's funeral in New Orleans included dozens of junior and senior high school athletes who considered him both a coach and a friend.

His friends remembered Nick Ray as a genuinely nice man, humble to the point of shyness, who was devoted to children, both his own son and daughters and the students he taught and coached.

"I never heard Nick say a bad word about anybody unless, of course, that person was a basketball official, a football official or a referee," said friend and fellow coach Tommy Hebert.

Hebert, who delivered the eulogy, said Ray used sports to teach youngsters valuable life lessons. He spent as much time with the less-talented athletes as he did with the star players, and he always told them that they could be anything they wanted to be.

"Nick prepared his teams the way we should live our lives," Hebert said. "He taught them to work hard, be determined and have passion for what you do. And they learned that if you do these things, most of the time you will succeed."

During the eulogy, Hebert said that Ray moved to New Orleans only because UT's football program folded.

"I'd like to thank Tampa for giving him to us," he said.

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