The Jets’ season may be over, for all intents, but don’t tell that to Ray Lucas. The team dropped to 4-7 on Sunday and threw itself a near insurmountable obstacle to the playoffs. And while Lucas was bitterly disappointed after the loss to Indianapolis, blaming himself above anyone else, the young quarterback has made a career—in college and the pros—of mounting such obstacles. Why stop now?
The former special-teams gunner sure isn’t about to quit. That’s because the old cliché about not quitting applies to Lucas more than just about anyone. He knows only one speed, and that’s full-throttle. It’s allowed him to overachieve on a consistent basis—like ascending past former No. 2 draft pick Rick Mirer into the Jets’ offensive cockpit. It’s the sort of tale that Lucas has been writing, and rewriting, since he was a teenager in Harrison, New Jersey. The characters may be new and the pace a tad slower, but the story is a familiar one for the man who has been leading the Jets back to respectability, if not the playoffs.
Lucas is blessed with physical talent . . . in abundance. It shows in his athletic style of play. It should also be known that Lucas once ran a 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds at Rutgers. At Harrison High School, the All-State quarterback was expected to win games with his feet as much as his arm.
“We were playing Rutherford his senior year,” remembers Lucas’s high school coach, Bill Hartman. “Five seconds on the clock, we were on about the 30-yard line. Clearly, we would be taking a shot throwing a Hail Mary. But we told Ray to run the ball. We let him pick his holes, and it seemed like he ran for minutes before he scored. That was just as good as calling a Hail Mary.”
But at this level, physical ability is not enough. Patience helps, though. And Lucas, who had to share the quarterbacking duties at Rutgers mere months after coach Doug Graber had made the youngster his top recruiting priority, has plenty of patience as well. He’s shown it in the pros, but he proved it in college.
In 1989, Bryan Fortay, a slickly packaged, highly touted quarterback from East Brunswick, New Jersey, was the quarterback recruit for coach Jimmy Johnson at the University of Miami. Considered by many to be the best high school QB in the country, Fortay soon watched his star fade after Johnson left to take the reins of the Dallas Cowboys. New coach Dennis Erickson arrived with his eyes on Gino Torretta as his starting signal-caller. Cast out by the Hurricanes, Fortay transferred (and also sued—charging Erickson with breach of contract for not starting him, to the tune of $10 million) and opted to return home to Rutgers. At the time (1991), a certain 6-3, 210-pound quarterback from Harrison had been redshirted to play the same position.
The Ray Lucas Era would have to wait. After all, it’s not every day that a field general from a perennial national championship contender falls into the lap of Piscataway, N.J. “He went through some tough times,” says Hartman of Lucas’s first seasons with Rutgers. “But Raymond understood the situation; that that was Graber’s commitment to New Jersey and New Jersey athletes, and he had to take Fortay.”
So Lucas was patient. But he wasn’t idle. In fact, he played well enough to split time with the incredibly hyped Fortay. The next two years saw Fortay and Lucas play teeter-totter with the starting role. Fortay’s graduation finally cleared the way for Lucas in 1994, at which time he began to emerge as the prize recruit Graber had made him.
“He definitely has a great feel for the game,” says Marco Battaglia, an All-Pro tight end with the Cincinnati Bengals who spent five years with Lucas at Rutgers. “We would run a play where maybe I was running an out or an under pattern and I would [see] two safeties splitting. I would just look at Ray before we even got on the line of scrimmage; he gave me the look, I gave him the look, and it was usually six.”
Talent and patience are still not enough, however. For someone from a football wasteland like Rutgers, versatility helps fill out the picture. And Lucas, who finished his high school career by kicking a game-winning field goal on Thanksgiving Day, is expansively versatile.
Undrafted and unsigned as a free agent after graduating in 1996, Lucas changed his identity, eschewing the quarterback position that had defined his football persona since his Pop Warner days. Lucas ran an end-around on his agent and called the New England Patriots directly to ask for a tryout. Bill Parcells, then coach of the Patriots, had remembered Lucas from a predraft combine, and New England brought him in for a rookie minicamp. There, he worked out as a defensive back his first day before running routes as a wide receiver on day two. More valuable than the spot with the team that Lucas would earn at that time was the place he won in Parcells’s heart. Unclear as to where the rookie would play on a team that would eventually reach the Super Bowl, Parcells signed Lucas anyway.
But it was a place on Parcells‘s team that Lucas had won, a fact that didn’t carry much weight once the coach deserted his team. The project Parcells had made of Lucas, which included playing the role of upcoming opposing quarterback on the scout team when he wasn’t chasing down kick returners on Sunday, was one that new Pats coach Pete Carroll brought to an end before the 1997 season began. “You can’t even play,” were the parting words that Carroll laid on Lucas before cutting him three games into the exhibition season.
One final attribute brought Lucas back to New Jersey—back to Parcells—and that is desire. After being so uncerimoniously dumped by Carroll, Lucas, still only a fringe player, might have packed it in. But as everyone who knows him says, Lucas has a heart that aches for football.
His second tour of duty with Parcells appeared at times to be a harrowing trip down memory lane. Combining punt coverage duties with occasional relief work at quarterback, Lucas followed Parcells’s changing directives each week without question. As an injury-prone Neil O’Donnell gave way to an ineffective Glenn Foley, Lucas continued splitting his practice time between the kickoff units and the quarterbacks. After Rick Mirer was tabbed to step under center this year after Vinny Testaverde went down, Lucas verbally supported the wayward former Rookie of the Year. But as Mirer moved New York’s offense with the efficiency of a DMV office combined with the excitement of a tollbooth operator, Lucas emerged as not only a player, but a symbol around which a faltering Super Bowl contender could rally.
“I think it’s in his heart that he wanted to prove that he could play quarterback,” says Jets center Kevin Mawae. “He’s got a brashness about him that permeates through everybody on the offense. That kind of excitement carries through; guys don’t get all bummed out about things.”
The game plans for Lucas have been conservative, to be sure. But he has an understanding of the Jets that only comes from spending time with the club, from quietly learning about the team from the inside while waiting and watching.
“He knows his personnel and his field awareness,” says Keyshawn Johnson, who has claimed a quarterback need only throw in his direction to be successful. “He understands on certain downs and distances, there’s probably only a few people that he can probably count on.” That trust emerges honestly, not merely from trying to placate an offense littered with expensive and effective talent.
“It’s not about Ray Lucas at all,” says the man now taking 90 percent of the snaps in practice each week. “I believe in my offensive line. I believe in [running back] Curtis Martin. I believe in all of my wideouts. If I just do my job, which is minor when you think about the whole squad hitting on the same cylinder, I don’t really worry about it.”
And after a career spent fighting to make people believe, the fact that Lucas can believe in something more than himself might finally make the latest version of Lucas’s tale a hit.