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"Wasted knowledge" but not wasted money: How Nick Thurman and LaBryan Ray found a home

LaBryan Ray, Nick Thurman

CHARLOTTE — Chances are, you don't know a lot about Nick Thurman and LaBryan Ray.

That's fair since the day they came to apply for a job with the Panthers, a week into training camp when there were already 90 other players on 31 other rosters, and there were nine other guys with them with little more than a sweaty free T-shirt and a carryon bag and a dream, they were about the 2,890th- and 2,891st-most-likely people to be making a living much less a difference for an NFL team in December.

So we'll pardon you for not knowing that Thurman speaks an extra language beyond English and football. Or that Ray still drives the Nissan Altima he had since his junior year in high school because it runs great and it's already paid for.

"Nick's got some knowledge where you just go, that's wasted knowledge," Panthers defensive line coach Todd Wash said of his nose tackle. "He knows a lot of shit about a lot of things, you know."

"You can't get a dollar out of LB," teammate Shy Tuttle said with a laugh of the run-stopping defensive end.

Thurman and Ray are conjoined in a certain anonymity, in part because they play for a 2-12 team and in part because they're playing behind one of the game's brightest stars in Derrick Brown. It might also be because when they actually got signed and got into a training camp this year, they wore jersey numbers 76 and 67, respectively.

"I didn't know which one was which for a minute," Wash said. "It was 67 and 76 because I kept getting them screwed up on my sheet when I was rotating them in training camp. And I'm like, who the hell is this again? I'd be like 67 get in there, and then it's like no, that ain't the one I want, 76 get in there."

But they're here the week before Christmas — with actual defensive lineman numbers 91 and 93, respectively — and they're making plays for a pretty good defense. And considering how their journey this season began, that's an achievement in itself.

Nick Thurman, LaBryan Ray

On July 28, about a week after the rookies, including No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young, had arrived at camp, they showed up for a cattle call workout, the kind of tryout where teams are looking for some camp bodies who can give them decent-enough snaps to get the starters ready through August. You aren't looking for starters or even necessarily regular-season players in a workout like this one; you're looking for fiber.

"I didn't have any background on them at all," Wash admitted of the two of the seven linemen they worked out that day because they had too many guys on the roster who were either hurt or already underwhelming. "I didn't know them from the man on the moon."

Then again, he didn't know anything about Ronheen Bingham, Tyler Clark, Ifeanyi Maijeh, Forrest Merrill, or Nick Tarburton either as they worked out that day (there were also two quarterbacks and two receivers there that afternoon, and the name among them was sometimes-practice-squader Jake Luton). So maybe it was easier for Thurman and Ray to stand out.

Either way, each of them did just enough to earn some notice that day in Spartanburg, and considering where they were coming from, that was enough.

This is the point in the story when you back up and point out that both of these cats are really good at football, compared to the vast universe of football-playing individuals.

Nick Thurman

Thurman grew up in Dallas, Tex., and went to Lake Highlands High School, and is among the notable alumni on their Wikipedia page, along with an astronaut, Morgan Fairchild, Merton Hanks, and Chris Harrison from "The Bachelor." He was good enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Houston and good enough there to earn a contract from the Houston Texans in May 2018. Do you know how few people can say those things?

Ray grew up in Madison, Alabama, and was a five-star recruit from James Clemens High School who stayed in-state to play for the Crimson Tide. Because Nick Saban picks who he wants first and then everybody else gets a turn at the leftovers, and he wanted LaBryan Ray. Seriously, if you're a five-star recruit who ends up at Alabama, your football passport is stamped, and you are already pre-checked en route to the NFL.

Then again, Thurman got cut by the Texans in September 2018, signed by the Buccaneers in April 2019, and cut that same month before landing with the Patriots in May and hanging around on their practice squad that year. He played some games for Bill Belichick, but then he didn't and was cut and passed through Atlanta and Jacksonville, good enough to be on practice squads and get cut the following summer.

And Ray spent a year on the Patriots practice squad and was cut the following February (Who gets cut in February?) and ended up with the Philadelphia Stars of the USFL. Sam Mills once played for the Philadelphia Stars in the USFL, but that was 40 years ago when they actually played in Philadelphia and not in Detroit like they do now. It ain't the springboard it used to be.

LaBryan Ray

So, suffice it to say, the world was not clamoring for updates on their careers this summer. And with all the attention paid to NFL football, they didn't get a lot of notice.

Even on, the one place on the internet dedicated to every single move made by this particular football team, the stories about their signings clocked in at 128 and 89 words, respectively. And some of those words were about other people, and Ray's name wasn't even in the headline when it was his turn; it was about the guy they cut to make room for him.

They were as anonymous as it gets.

"It doesn't happen very often, because there's so many people that do work on so many individuals in the personnel departments in the NFL, you know what I mean?" Wash said of finding them. "It's hard to miss people. It happens, but it's hard to miss. And if I've said it to them once, I've said it to them 10 times. What the hell are you two doing on the street? Do you have some demons in your closet we don't know about? But we're so excited to have them, and they're playing well."

So they're still here. So it's probably best to get to know a little more about why they're here and who they are.

Nick Thurman

For a guy who grew up in Texas, it's hard to startle Thurman with the weather, but when asked about his first workout, his first reaction was, "I remember it being extremely hot," he said. "I'm from Texas, but I didn't realize Carolina gets hot like that."

But when you get to know Thurman a little, you're surprised he didn't know that already. When football coaches talk about players being smart, they're usually referring to football intelligence. But with Thurman, it's the regular kind.

"I told him I could tell he's not an SEC lineman, and that pisses Derrick off because he is an SEC lineman," Wash cracked.

"Like I was a competent kid, a smart kid, I took AP classes, I did all of that stuff growing up," Thurman said with a shrug. "I know a second language; you know what I'm saying?"

He says it casually, like everyone around here does. They do not, since a lot of them are SEC linemen. But he downplays it also, saying his Spanish is just "intermediate" but that it's getting close to fluency.

"I could definitely have a conversation and get around," he said. "I've always had a hunger for knowledge. I think about the game and it's less brute, more brain, I guess. So I don't know, maybe that's why he thinks that. Especially when he first met me, he knew that I was pretty smart, you feel me? So it is what it is. I play my role."

Derrick Brown, Nick Thurman, Todd Wash

Knowing your role is key in the NFL, and not everyone does. And if you're truly smart and understand the league, you understand nothing's permanent, and even if there's money coming in, it has an expiration date.

So when you notice Ray heading home from work and getting into his Nissan Altima, that stands out. NFL parking lots are stratified. Closest to the door are the players and coaches, then staffers in various departments as you get farther away from the building. So you get a lot of luxury sedans and sports cars, nice trucks and the Porsches and the occasional Tesla, and then you see an Altima, and it's like one of the equipment guys must have driven his wife's car that day and parked in somebody else's spot. Most Altimas have three hubcaps, like the fourth one's an upsell at the dealership.

But that's the car of an NFL player, at least this one, the one whose teammates tease about not wanting to come up with money to get wings for the meeting room or wonder why the Christmas gifts have to be so expensive.

"It ain't no contest for real. Yeah, definitely 100 percent. I'm not even mad about that," Ray said with a shrug when asked about his reputation as "the cheapest guy in the room."

"That's kind of how I always been," he said. "I've been very a very mindful of my money. That's just how I am."

For one, it's smart because when you're the kind of guy trying out a week into training camp, there are few guarantees. And though they tease him sometimes, they also respect it because it's genuine. The steaks at Steak 48 and Texas Roadhouse both come from cows, so paying the extra seems unnatural to Ray.

"He's a great dude, bro, great soul. What I mean by that, he's extremely humble, comes from humble beginnings," Thurman said of his partner. "We like him that way. I wouldn't use the term green, but sometimes it's things you don't need to know. So it's not even that he's cheap; he just doesn't need all the stuff.

"Like when we went to Steak 48, he had never been there. And obviously, it's a great restaurant. So I told him, when you get a chance to bring your people here, this is where you should go. And he was like, man, we're going to Texas Roadhouse. But that's him, so we don't fault him for it. We just want him to be himself."

LaBryan Ray

But being who they are and fitting in is also why Thurman and Ray are still here, long after that workout, which led to temporary numbers in training camp.

Wash said once they were in Spartanburg a few days, the staff quickly realized they had a chance to be more than camp bodies.

"We knew they were both really heavy-handed players, and that's what we were looking for at the time, and we knew that maybe there was a chance for one of them to make the team," Wash said. "Just within the first couple of meetings we had, I knew they were intelligent too. We had a lot of extra meeting times at night in camp, so I was like, OK, I think we got some run-stoppers. It seems like they're pretty intelligent; let's see what they've got.

"And as we kept going and going and going, we even said it as a defensive staff, we're like, why in the hell are these two on the street? They've done a tremendous job for us."

Wash talks in a coach's detail about why they're standing out, about the way Thurman can anchor against the run, and how Ray has perhaps the second-strongest punch of anyone on the line (second behind Brown is no shame), which is a critical skill in the short-area fighting that is playing line in this 3-4. They weren't looking for guys to get sacks; that's the outside linebackers. They need guys who can maul, and Thurman and Ray have proven themselves able to do that.

"If you're looking for pass rushers and that kind of stuff, those two don't stand a chance because that's not who they are," Wash said. "They fit what we're looking for of being able to play square and knock people back on the line of scrimmage, and both of them are really strong. It fits into what we're looking for, and I'll be honest with you, we fell into that shit. I mean, realistically, let's be honest. Because they're playing well, and how the hell they were on the street baffles me to this day."

You can also tell that by the way their teammates talk about them.

LaBryan Ray

If Ray tosses nickels around like manhole covers, Derrick Brown is that way about compliments. He's never going to overpraise a young player because then they might think they've arrived. But whether it was Ray getting a sack in the preseason against the Giants or Thurman celebrating a play with an exaggerated dance — "he starts beating on his chest and flexing, 100 percent straight King Kong," Brown said — they gradually started building up work that made it clear they deserved to be here.

"We talked about it when they both made the 53, and I was excited for them," Brown said. "We talked about it in camp, and they just talked about their stories leading up to this moment. LB is playing in the USFL, and Nick being able to get back to this point. It's exciting to know the story like that."

But if they couldn't play, the stories wouldn't matter, and even being numbers 91 and 93 didn't mean they belonged.

People around here went into their workouts with low expectations, and even after they made the team, they might not have been sure they were permanent fixtures. But Thurman and Ray have continued to prove they're not just warm bodies.

"They just both keep getting better every week," Wash said. "I mean, you give up 1.7 yards a carry to the Falcons, and that ain't no joke."

Nick Thurman

Maybe part of the reason they're still here is they've kept that tryout guy spirit and worked every day like a guy who isn't promised anything more than the T-shirt he worked out in.

"I like keeping the main thing the main thing," Ray said. "For me, I like to keep things simple. So I was just worried about getting into a camp because that's when I could show what type of player I am. That was the first thing I was worried about, and then once you get into a camp, you just have to put yourself in the best position in order for you to be able to improve. Which, really, is the most important thing to me, even now, is just improving every day because I know I've got a lot of stuff that I need to improve on.

"So just, just keep chopping the wood and keep on improving and know that it would be a good outcome."

These guys have to have the confidence that they belong but also the awareness that no one is forever. That's why they work the way they do, because even if you last through cuts and get a number in the 90s, that call could still come.

"When I originally made the team, you know, I wasn't comfortable until it was 4 or 5 o'clock, you know what I'm saying?" Thurman said. "I've been through the business before. I've been cut late. I've been on the bubble. So I wasn't comfortable until the day was over. And even then, business is still being conducted, so I wasn't necessarily comfortable.

"And I feel like that's what keeps me safe, you know what I'm saying? I'm always trying to like work. I'm always trying to think about the next goal or the next thing I need to accomplish. So right now it feels good, getting all the recognition and stuff, but at the same time, I'm trying to keep working, I'm trying to just stay humble in the good and the bad."

Working like you're trying to find a place has clearly made an impression.

"Big credit to those guys, big credit to coach Wash," defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero said, pointing out that Thurman and Ray didn't have the advantage of OTAs and had to work extra to catch up with the guys around them after they fought to earn a spot at all.

"To see the work those guys have done that they've put in with coach Wash and to see how that they've gotten better and better each week," Evero continued. "And to see all of that work and preparation now reflecting on the game field, it's been really cool to see, and those guys have done a great job.

"They're hard workers, and they've definitely enhanced our defense."

LaBryan Ray, Nick Thurman

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