British Columbia Lions

Ray Nettles - Linebacker - 1972-76 - Tennessee

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Gene Frenette - Jacksonville.Com - 29-09-2009

Ray Nettles, a former Englewood High middle linebacker who went on to stardom in the Canadian Football League and became the first native Floridian inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame, died  Tuesday afternoon at a Southside Hospice after a prolonged battle with liver and lung cancer. He was 60.

 

“Ray is in heaven on his mother’s birthday,” Nettles’ wife, Bonnie, said. “I praise God for his life and the time I had with him. It was a gift to be with the true love of my life.”

 

Nettles, an All-Southeastern Conference linebacker at Tennessee in 1971, played nine seasons with five different CFL teams. He played over half of his pro career (1972-76) with the British Columbia Lions in Vancouver, where he won the Schenley Award as the league’s top lineman/linebacker and was a three-time CFL all-star. He went on to become the defensive MVP with both the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, then played his last two CFL seasons with the Ottawa Roughriders and Calgary Stampeders.

 

Ranked No. 51 on the Florida Times-Union list of the 100 greatest athletes of the 20th century, Nettles was an impact player on Tennessee teams that went 21-3 in his two seasons (1970-71) as a starting linebacker. At Englewood, he was named to the All-State third team in 1967 and honored as defensive player of the year in Duval County.

In 2005, Nettles became the first football player from Florida to make the CFL Hall of Fame.

 

He was later joined in 2008 by former Toronto Argonauts player/coach and Dunedin native Michael Clemons.

 

Nettles was drafted in 1972 by the Miami Dolphins in the sixth round, but he turned down a $5,000 bonus to join the CFL because it offered double the money, and he didn’t want to be a likely backup to Nick Buoniconti on the Dolphins’ eventual two-time Super Bowl-winning team.

 

“It’s not like I was afraid to play in the NFL,” Nettles told the Times-Union in 1999. “I could have had success there, but I already waited my turn behind Jack Reynolds at Tennessee, and I didn’t want to do that again. I wanted to prove myself right away.”

 

In recent months, Nettles was in the news again for a Times-Union story that documented his lifelong struggles with alcohol and cocaine addictions. His journey led to an assortment of personal troubles that included three divorces, remarrying his current wife, Bonnie, and then finally achieving sobriety last November after a six-week stint at Willingway Hospital in Statesboro, Ga.

 

“I was proud for his accomplishments in football, but I’m more proud of his accomplishments this last year,” said Bill Battle, Nettles’ former head coach at Tennessee. “He was fighting a terrible disease that not many people win. But in overcoming his addictions, he was trying to send the message that what he did all those years wasn’t the right way to do it. He wasn’t afraid of death, like he wasn’t afraid of anything.

 

“Ray came back and fought a fight [against addiction] he hadn’t been able to win over decades. In doing that, he regained respect and dignity in himself, which put him at peace.”

 

Nettles’ former Tennessee teammates and coaches put together a fund to pay the exorbitant costs of his rehabilitation. Many of them reunited with Nettles in Jacksonville on August 1 to celebrate his 60th birthday.

 

“What makes this so difficult is I’m losing a brother,” said former Tennessee linebacker and Atlanta resident Jamie Rotella, one of Nettles’ closest friends. “If you Google Ray’s name, you see all the things he accomplished on the field were real, but that’s not what I’ll remember him for. He was an encourager, a cheerleader. He had an enthusiasm award named after him at Tennessee. That was the kind of player he was. He had the ability to get everybody focused and rallying around the cause.

“There’s plenty of referees willing to come down on you just as soon as you mess up in life. Ray didn’t judge people, he lifted them up. That’s what all those honors and awards don’t tell you about Ray.”

 

Nettles, known in his playing days for his motorcycles, long hair and propensity for fast living, had battled liver problems for over a decade. Before his passing, Nettles said he was grateful for the personal redemption of the past year.

“In my mind, I wasn’t suppose to live past 50, so I didn’t take rehabilitation seriously the first few times I tried it,” Nettles said in July. “I was always standing on the edge, looking over a cliff, but stepping backwards. A few times, I slipped and saw a couple of the rocks fall and God spared me many times. I just never could figure out why until this past year.”

Nettles’ family, friends and ex-teammates were uplifted by him achieving sobriety, an accomplishment that allowed Nettles to live out his final months in peace, despite the physical toll the illness took on his body.

 

“Ray left a real mark on a bunch of things,” said former UT teammate Bill Emendorfer. “We’re sad for the way Ray’s health was near the end, but happy for his life-changing experience.

 

His whole identity was based on his ability to play football, be an athlete and be the toughest guy. The whole last year of his life was based on his Christianity. I’m telling you, that’s miraculous.”

 

“[Getting sober] brought back so much purpose and dignity in his life. There’ll be more good things to come out of this last year of Ray’s life than anybody can imagine. He touched so many people.”

 

excerpt - Dave Naylor - GlobeandMail - 16-07-2009

Stories of professional athletes who've fallen on hard times aren't hard to find.

But they are hard to take for fans who remember them as they were during their playing days.

 

Such is the case for Ray Nettles, the former CFL linebacker and 2005 Hall of Fame inductee who's life of drugs, alcohol and broken relationships is in its final stages.

 

Nettles, who played wiith B.C., Toronto and Ottawa from 1972-80 has stage-4 cancer and was given a prognosis of one year to live back in April.

 

Nettles lived in the fast lane, both during his playing days -- which included his first experience with cocaine being shared with then-Montreal Alouettes tailback Johnny Rodgers in a hotel room the night of the 1972 CFL awards banquet -- and afterwards.

 

Nettles was the kind of player you imagined could eat glass. But his anything-goes style caught up with him first on the field through injuries and then off it in a multitude of ways.

 

He underwent 11 surgeries in nine CFL seasons in order to keep playing the game, and living the life that he loved. And he paid a huge price for it.

 

Too often, football players punish their bodies in ways that we never see. Then they retire into obscurity but the scars they take with them from the game haunt them forever.

 

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