It was halftime at the NCAA regional semifinal game between North Carolina and the University of Southern California. My friends and I were fortunate enough to be sitting right at center court. Sometime between analyzing the first half and spotting celebrities in the star-studded crowd, an odd question occurred to us. "Where is Rameses?"
One doesn't normally miss a mascot. Amid all the excitement of another episode of March Madness, it would be easy to overlook the absence of a fuzzy ram with yellow spiral horns, clad in a powder blue uniform. But one of my friends attending the game with me, Jeffrey Zurofsky, had played the role the of the Tar Heels' mascot during his years as an undergraduate in Chapel Hill. And he just couldn't understand how Rameses could be missing in action for such a huge game. North Carolina was poised to make the Elite Eight, after all, and the band and cheerleaders were all in top postseason form.
It wasn't until after North Carolina's stirring victory that we overheard someone saying that Rameses had been in a car accident a few hours before the game. At first it sounded pretty innocuous -- almost like an ESPN SportsCenter commercial gone awry. But the next day the terrible details began to emerge. Suddenly Rameses wasn't some nameless guy in a costume. He was a kid with a name -- Jason Ray -- and had horribly serious injuries.
Friday afternoon Ray was walking from his hotel in Fort Lee, N.J., to a nearby convenience store. Given the long night ahead of him on the court, he probably knew he needed some extra sustenance. "It's a heavy costume," said Zurofsky, recalling his college days. "It's a lot of physical work."
As he walked back to the hotel along a very busy and dangerous highway, he was struck from behind by an SUV. He was rushed to a nearby hospital, and listed in critical condition. As dozens of friends and fellow students held vigil by his bedside over the weekend, his father, Emmitt Ray, rushed on a friend's private plane to be near his son.
North Carolina played again without Rameses on Sunday -- losing an 11-point lead in the final minutes to fall to Georgetown in overtime. But despite the word's frequent and trite use in the world of sports, the real "heartbreaker" for North Carolina athletics came Monday morning. Ray died from his injuries. He was 21 years old.
Those who knew him -- either as Jason or only as Rameses -- knew he was a special kid. When North Carolina head coach Roy Williams first encountered the 6 feet, 5 inch Ray in the campus gym, he asked, "Why aren't you playing for me?"
"I'm too slow and I can't jump," Ray replied. "But I can be of assistance in other ways, Coach."
Williams appeared stunned at a postgame news conference after his team's win Friday night when he was told about the accident. Monday, still smarting from one of the toughest losses of his career, he put things into the right perspective. "Obviously, our team is disappointed with the outcome of Sunday's game, but that pales greatly when compared with the loss the Ray family is dealing with today."
"My heart goes out to Jason's family," said Williams. "He was an engaging young man and a friend to a number of our players and managers."
Police say the driver of the SUV had a valid license and did not appear to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. After the collision, he stopped immediately to try to help Ray. No charges have been filed. It was, apparently, just a terrible accident.
There must be some special quality that goes into turning an empty and lifeless mascot uniform into a lovable character who makes crowds roar and kids smile. Many try out for the role of Rameses every year, but few are chosen. Whatever that unique Rameses-ness is, Jason Ray seems to have had it in abundance.
"Jason gave Rameses an energy that was unique," said North Carolina cheerleading coach Brown Walters. "He embodied all of the qualities you would want in a team member. He was a tremendous ambassador of the University of North Carolina and that spirit will live on forever."
Zurofsky, who grew up in Fort Lee just a few miles from the site of the accident that killed Ray, was touched by the story of another who had worn the Rameses costume. "I was shocked and saddened when I heard about the accident," he said. "Especially with it happening right in my hometown."
Zurofsky never met Ray, but if there is an automatic bond among those who have attended the same college, the group of alumni who have actually played the role of their school's mascot is a true fraternity. "You wouldn't think that being the mascot would be such a big deal," said Zurofsky, "but being Rameses is something I will always remember."
"He may have performed in the anonymity that comes with playing the mascot, but his life has had an overt and lasting impact on the people whose lives he touched," said Dick Baddour the University of North Carolina director of athletics. "Our hearts and prayers again go out to his family and friends in this time of extraordinary grief."