Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Family Of High-Spirited Tar Heels Mascot Donates His Organs

N. Carolina's spirits shattered as their mascot dies of injuries
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Star-Ledger Staff

In the end, the college student who had lifted the spirits of so many North Carolina fans had his own cheering section at Hackensack University Medical Center, with friends, family and even strangers camped in the hallways and the waiting rooms, hoping for good news.

But Jason Ray, the 21-year-old who proudly wore the mascot suit for the Tar Heels, died yesterday morning from injuries he sustained Friday afternoon when an SUV struck him in Fort Lee.

Ray had traveled to New Jersey with the cheerleaders to play the role of Rameses, the team's sleek and furry mascot, as North Carolina played for a spot in the Final Four this weekend in East Rutherford. He never made it to the games. Ray was returning from a nearby convenience store when he was hit about 200 yards from the hotel where he was staying.

No charges have been filed against the SUV's driver, 51-year-old Gagik Hovsepyan of Paramus, Fort Lee police said yesterday.

"There was no doubt Jason was no longer with us," his father, Emmitt Ray, said yesterday. "It's the most terrible thing I have experienced as a parent, obviously. Kids are supposed to outlive you, you know?"

He took comfort from the support his son received from family, friends and other members of the school community. One North Carolina graduate came to the hospital after the game Sunday night, which the Tar Heels lost to Georgetown, even though she had never met Ray.

"She still had a Tar Heel on her cheek," Emmitt Ray said. "She went down in the room and wanted to stay as long as everybody else stayed. That kind of support means an awful lot.

"His roommates, his close friends, they were all here. We had people lying in the halls and the waiting rooms, and the people at the hospital tolerated everything and never said an unkind word. We were treated so well while we were here."

Jason Ray had been performing as the North Carolina mascot since his freshman year. His father said it was his way of supporting the team. He was scheduled to graduate May 13 with a 3.6 grade-point average and a business degree. He minored in religion and was active in the campus' InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Ray spent one summer studying in Europe, traveling from Copenhagen to Spain to run with the bulls in Pamplona. He told his father the trip would cost $5,000, and Emmitt Ray told him to book it.

"In a lot of ways, we've been living vicariously through Jason," said Emmitt Ray, who has three older sons. "We were able to do more for Jason than our other boys, and we always worried if we were doing too much. Now, we wish we could have done 10 times more.

"We had an agreement when he was an eighth-grader that he had to take care of his academics. We want him to have a 3.5 or better, and anything other than that, we'd have a meeting. Never had to have that meeting."

Ray's organs will be donated to the Sharing Network of New Jersey. The family is planning a memorial service in Concord, N.C., where the family lived, and burial in Kentucky, where the family has its roots and an existing grave site. No details have been finalized.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the Jason Kendall Ray Memorial Fund, Concord Christian Church, 3101 Davidson Highway, Concord, N.C. 28027.

"My heart goes out to Jason's family," North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams said in a statement. "He was an engaging young man and a friend to a number of our players and managers. They tell me he was a wonderful person. Obviously our team is disappointed with the outcome of Sunday's game, but that pales greatly in comparison with the loss the Ray family is dealing with today. We ask everyone to remember Jason and his family in their prayers."


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