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“Let’s be serious,” Charlotte shot back. “Your father and I believe that you come here with all these little parts, you ought to leave here with all these parts. I’m not so sure about this.”

Charlotte was putting up a fight, but deep down she knew it was a waste of time. Her son wouldn’t budge. He never did. At 19, he had the maturity of someone twice his age. Though he worshiped his parents, he didn’t accept being told what to think. By anyone. Jason Ray accepted zero absolutes about the world in which he lived he wanted to probe, research and discover the meanings of life for himself. And no one Mom and Dad included could change that.

“Mom, you’re crazy,” he told his disapproving mother. “If something happens to me and I have a heart that could help save someone’s life, then what good does it do to bury that heart in the ground? That doesn’t make any sense at all.”

It was tough to argue the point, so Charlotte moved on.

“I just kind of gave up,” she says, “figuring it won’t have anything to do with my life anyway.”

DESTINED FOR GREATNESS

The tryout judges gave no specific instructions. No rules. The only thing they told Jason to do was put on the costume for the yellow horned ram mascot, Rameses, at the University of North Carolina and prove he deserved to wear the suit.

So Jason climbed into the furry blue and white outfit, pulled on the smelly Ram head and did his thing. Within seconds, the traffic on the two lane stretch of South Road that cuts through the heart of campus stopped. On the north side of the street, they chanted, “Tar.” On the south side, they chanted, “Heels.” Horns honked, students screamed and Jason climbed on top of cars. It was the beginning of a perfect marriage. North Carolina had found its newest mascot. Jason Ray had found his newest vehicle of expression.

“When you step into that suit, you become this giant cartoon character,” says Tyler Treadaway, one of two current Rameses. “But Jason was that way every day he was born to wear that suit.”

Emmitt and Charlotte Ray always knew their son was special. Heck, even his birth was something of a miracle, the fruit of a love between two teenage sweethearts who went their separate ways after high school only to find each other again some 25 years later. While they both had children from previous marriages, Jason was their only child together.

He was a pesky kid, the type who, in the middle of a whipping from Emmitt, would mouth back, “That doesn’t hurt.” (After which, Emmitt says he would respond, “Who said I was finished?”)

Jeff Oakes, Jason’s youth pastor who later became one of his closest friends, remembers the time he was trying to teach a group of teenagers about God when Jason entered the room and sat down, positioning himself about three inches from Jeff’s face. “He was always testing people,” Oakes says. “I’ve never known another kid to be so distracting to a classroom environment. If you weren’t ‘on,’ he could tear apart the entire classroom in a second.”

Behind Jason’s wit and cleverness was a heart. Emmitt and Charlotte were touched when their son came home from mission trips to Haiti and Honduras with tears in his eyes, unable to shake the images of starving, sick children from his head.

They were amazed when a high school girlfriend cheated on Jason with one of his friends and he responded not in anger but in prayer, writing in a journal that his parents would later find:

Thanks for teaching me patience and forgiveness I pray for them now.

I pray you would speak to them and they would see the light and love that only comes from you.

And they smiled when he carried a Bible with him to his senior prom, knowing he still had to prepare for a sermon he had been asked to give the next morning. Jason, they like to tell people now, “got the message.” At 6 foot 5 and 220 pounds, with that gregarious, in your face,
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who in the world is that guy personality, he loved people, connecting with them through laughter, tears or stimulating conversation. to meet two of his roommates for prayer. “And he hated mornings,” says Chad Hines, one of the roommates. “So as soon as we were finished, he’d head right back to bed.”

Unbeknownst to his parents, Jason led a Friday morning Bible study for older men. On Tuesday nights, he was a student leader for InterVarsity, a campus ministry.

Yet for all of his faith, for all the stories that make him sound like some sort of can do no wrong saint, Jason was just like any other college kid. He loved beer, keeping a journal in which he rated all the beers he tasted, and what he liked and didn’t like about them. He loved smoking cigars for the camaraderie and conversation it stirred. And he was a prankster, one night lighting a package of firecrackers under a friend’s dorm room door and then hiding under his sheets when the police and fire department responded to the smoke alarm. “He was hardcore,” close friend Tyler Hollis says. “Whatever he did, he was just so darn passionate about it: Religion, music, school, Rameses it didn’t matter. Whatever he was focused on, he was 100 percent hardcore.”

It wasn’t unusual for Jason to stop on his way to class and help an overwhelmed underclassman someone he didn’t even know carry moving boxes into a dorm room. Brown Walters, the North Carolina cheerleading coach, remembers the day Jason introduced himself on a bus ride to Wake Forest. Ninety minutes after leaving Chapel Hill, the bus pulled into Winston Salem and the two were still engrossed in conversation. “We were talking like we had known each other for years,” Walters says. “And that’s the way he was with everybody. Whether it was the first time he had met you or you were his lifelong best friend, he treated you with such warmth. I simply haven’t known many people like that. The world is not that way.”

For Jason, every day was a quest to discover something or someone new. While some kids are content listening to music or reading about the Sistine Chapel, Jason wanted to experience both. So he crisscrossed the Southeast to see the Foo Fighters, Rage Against the Machine and Tool. He studied in Europe, seeing Michelangelo’s greatest work with his own eyes. He visited Spain, running with the bulls in Pamplona in 2006.

Through it all, he probed life’s deeper questions, be they about religion, death, sex or anything else. Jason combed through the Bible, picking apart every passage he could and pestering Oakes with questions: Why are there 66 books? How authentic are the writings? What does the Bible say about drinking? About sex? About death?

Stuffed into his pockets and backpack were miniature journals. Whenever Jason had a spare second on campus, he’d jot down his thoughts for the day. Maybe it was lyrics to a new song for Nine PM Traffic, the band he and a group of friends started when they were 15. Maybe it was a prayer for a struggling friend. Or maybe it was a conversation he was having with himself in hopes of conquering his biggest fear: the death of his parents.

Wrote Jason, in one miniature blue notepad:

Is it possible to have a healthy fear of death? Since Adam, all but two people have passed away. It’s an inevitable end. People must see death, for ignoring it is simply lying to yourself. There are two ways to look at it: 1.) people acknowledge death and live toward it. 2.) people choose to ignore death and distance themselves away from it.

Jason accumulated enough credits to graduate from North Carolina in December, but had no interest in leaving college early. He wanted to finish the final semester with his friends. And he wanted to be on the sidelines, as Rameses, when North Carolina won the national men’s basketball championship. “He was always convinced they were going to win his senior year,” close friend Nick Burns says. “Like that was his destiny or something.”

In his final semester before graduation, everything was coming together. Jason was about to graduate, with honors,
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from the prestigious Kenan Flagler Business School. He had job offers on the table in Boston and nearby Raleigh. And he had begun dating Madison Withrow. He’d told his parents he thought she might be “the one.”