SPARTANBURG, S.C. – For nearly everyone on the Carolina Panthers' roster, earning their way into the NFL is a life-long dream.
For rookie offensive guard Ray Hisatake, just being a part of training camp is a dream come true, but it's far from a life-long dream.
Less than six years ago, Hisatake felt like the ultimate rookie when he attended a preseason team meeting at the invitation of College of San Mateo football coach Larry Owens.
"Everybody went around introducing themselves, saying, 'My name is this. I went here, and I play such-and-such,'" Hisatake said. "It came to me, and I said, 'My name is Ray Hisatake, Westmoor High School,' and then I sat down.
"They were like, 'What position do you play?' I looked at 'Coach O' and he said, 'D-line.'"
At that moment, Hisatake had never played a single snap of football, and as of two years ago, he had never taken a snap in a game on the offensive line. Yet here he is, an undrafted rookie free agent who has seen three fellow undrafted rookie linemen come and go since he got an unexpected call from former Panthers college scout Pete Russell shortly after the draft.
"I had no agents calling me, no teams, and then Pete Russell called me. I was like, 'Come on, who is this?'" Hisatake said. "He told me, 'I've been watching film on you, and I really like the way you look.
"I'm not making you any promises, but I wanted to call and encourage you that there is some interest in you, so don't go home and sit on the couch.' "
Since that moment, Hisatake has been the opposite of a couch potato. He's even decided that if he gets a call from his girlfriend in Hawaii to tell him that she's given birth to their child, he'll see his preseason opportunity with the Panthers through before paying a visit.
"He's doing a great job," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "I've played O-line since I was a sophomore in high school. Ray is a little bit behind in his experience level, but it doesn't really show on the field.
"He's really built himself a nice niche on the O-line."
It wasn't that Hisatake (pronounced "Hiss-a-ta-kee") didn't want to play football growing up in Daly City, Calif., literally a couple of minutes from Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
Despite looking like a perfect candidate, Hisatake couldn't play.
"I was too big to play Pop Warner. In eighth grade, I was 5-11, 275," said Hisatake, now 6-3, 305 pounds. "I didn't play football in high school; we didn't have a team."
Hisatake also couldn't afford to attend any 49ers game next door, but he spent little time worrying about football because he had another dream: to be the first person in his family, the first among his six siblings, to go to college.
With that in mind, Hisatake threw his large frame into track and field, becoming an accomplished-enough discus and shot putter to get an invitation onto the College of San Mateo track team, which he hoped to parlay into a scholarship to a four-year school.
When Hisatake realized that was unlikely, he remembered the offer that the girls' basketball coach at his high school had made to call his good friend at San Mateo, Coach Owens, and ask if he'd give Hisatake a look.
"I knew I wasn't good enough (at track and field) to get a full ride, so I figured I'd just give football the old college try," Hisatake said. "In my mind, I was thinking with my size that maybe I'd get an NAIA or Division III offer, but I picked up the game.
"I loved track and field, but when I started playing football, I really saw what I was missing."
ALOHA STATE OF MIND
After three years at San Mateo – starting with a grayshirt year when he learned things like how to put on his pads – Hisatake found himself getting scholarship offers from Division I schools.
"It was amazing," Hisatake said. "Never would have thought."
He accepted an offer from Hawaii, anxious to continue his education in the classroom and on the defensive line, but he got an early surprise from assistant coach Mouse Davis and head coach June Jones.
"Coach Davis saw me and said, 'Can you bend? Go ahead and squat for me,'" Hisatake said. "So I did, and he said, 'Hey, June, move him to left tackle.'
"That was it."
After redshirting in 2007, Hisatake was a backup in 2008. Last fall, he started at right guard for the Warriors. He reached his ultimate goal last December, graduating with a degree in sociology, but it looked likely that he had reached the end of the line with football.
Now, the Panthers are the latest to give Hisatake a chance.
"I've had my good days and my bad days, but I was fortunate enough to come into a group of vets that are very positive. They're really trying to look out for me," he said. "Every day I'm out there, I try to listen to the vets and work hard and get better."
Hisatake doesn't stop at listening. Gross pulled the rookie offensive linemen aside at one point and stressed the importance of working extra on their weaknesses.
Hisatake took the advice to heart.
"Every little thing the vets or Coach Mags (offensive line coach Dave Magazu) say, I write down in my notebook. I look it over before practice every day," Hisatake said. "I'm out there 20 minutes early and I stay 20 minutes after practice to work on the stuff that I need to work on.
"Then every day after practice, I'm in the O-line room watching film with Mackenzy (Bernadeau)."
Hisatake understands that he's still a long shot to make the 53-man roster, but since he put down the shot put and started learning how to throw around opposing linemen, that's the way his football future has been.
"With all the changes that are starting to be made to the roster, me being able to stick around this long, it feels surreal coming from my football background," he said. "This is really amazing to me."