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On a Roll

A Standout Athlete Faces Life Sitting Down
By Steve Blow

After a fourteen-year career in the National Football League, Ray Crockett has turned his attention to show business. He has had a variety of roles, but a recent one turned out to be more of a roll.

The former Baylor football standout and 1991 graduate agreed to spend a month in a wheelchair for the television program 30 Days, a reality show that puts people outside their comfort zones for a month and captures the results.

In Crockett's case, it was a trip way outside his comfort zone. Switching from a lifetime of easy athleticism to the cumbersome struggle and strain of a wheelchair was more demanding than he ever imagined.

A couple of days into the experiment, exasperated and exhausted, he looked into the camera and exclaimed: "What the hell have I got myself into?"

Indeed, paralysis can seem like a personal hell. Crockett admits that he was afraid of it throughout his professional football career. Understandably so. He was there on the field in 1991 when Detroit Lions teammate Mike Utley was injured on a play and left paralyzed from the chest down.

Crockett went on to play as an All-Pro cornerback for the Denver Broncos, winning back-to-back Super Bowls in the 1997 and 1998 seasons. He ended his career with the Kansas City Chiefs.

And ultimately, the specter of injury played into his decision to retire. "There's always that fear," he said. "I was fortunate enough to play so long, but then you start thinking about where you are financially versus the risk of being disabled the rest of your life."

The forty-one-year-old Dallas native now lives in the Dallas suburb of Southlake with his high-school-sweetheart-turned-wife, April, and their three children. The wheelchair experiment proved to be a challenge for all of them.

"It puts a lot of stress on your significant other," Crockett said. "And my boys were really, really concerned about what I could and couldn't do. They're accustomed to dad being able to play ball, go swimming, run, and all that. It opened their eyes to how special that time is. For thirty days, we didn't do that."

But for all the hardships of life in a wheelchair, Crockett also knew that great accomplishment is possible. Highlighting both facts is what motivated him to accept the demanding assignment. "I've had friends who were disabled, not just Mike Utley but another friend who had a car wreck. I wanted to shed some light on the accessibility issue, but also make it clear that it's possible to have a life afterwards," he said.

Indeed, the most moving parts of the program--and of the experience for Crockett--was getting to know people dealing with paralysis in earnest. One of those was Shannon Davis (pictured above with Crockett), a young Dallas woman paralyzed in a car wreck shortly before Crockett began his reality show assignment.

"Shannon is just an incredible story," he said. "When I first met her, her injury was so new. To see her and the way she handled it, the way she is going on about her life, it really shifted my focus from looking at disabilities to looking at abilities," Crockett said.

The admiration is mutual. Davis, who is back to her job as a CPA and audit supervisor, praised Crockett for his genuine empathy. "Even when the cameras were off, he was extremely interested and thoughtful," she said. "I really enjoyed working with him and the whole crew. It was a good experience."

The 30 Days role was certainly a departure for Crockett. Up to that point, most of his forays into the entertainment world were related to football. He has co-hosted sports talk shows on TV and radio and starred with Dick Butkus in ESPN's reality TV show Bound for Glory, which followed a high school football team's quest for a championship.

Now Crockett is branching out, producing and acting in movies. He talked excitedly of one called Free Agents, "a football robbery movie." Whether these productions will enjoy theatrical release or go straight to DVD remains to be seen.

Wherever his quest for a second career in the entertainment field might lead him, Crockett said one thirty-day role--or roll--has changed his outlook on disabilities and the disabled forever. "Beforehand, I'll be honest, when I saw a disabled person, my eyes went the other way," he said.

"Now I find myself addressing them and helping as much as I can as far as opening doors and so forth. I just find myself more cognizant of what's going on in their world because I've been there."

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