Former OU football player Darrol Ray used to slice up opposing offenses on Owen Field in the mid-’70s. Now he slices up brisket and “ribs so tender you don’t need teeth.”
“That’s our motto,” Ray said.
Ray and his wife, Diane, own Ray’s Smokehouse BBQ on Lindsey Street.
For Ray, OU football was a high-level sport, but it was mostly for fun, and at the end of the day it was just a game.
“But this right here,” Ray said as he looked around his restaurant, “has a lot of reward and gratification. It’s not ‘fun’ fun. It’s not like running down the ramp at Texas, having 30,000 people cheering their heads off and another 37,000 people booing you.”
Born in San Francisco, Ray played high school football in Killeen, Texas. He was a member of OU’s signing class of 1975, arguably one of its best. Head coach Barry Switzer personally recruited him, bringing Ray to OU on an athletic scholarship, where he played free safety from 1976 to 1979. Ray set records and even made the All Decade Team. He went on to play five seasons with the New York Jets.
Ray came back to Oklahoma after parting ways with the Jets.
“The Jets said, ‘See ya, get out. We don’t care where you go, but you gotta leave our complex.”
Ray was inspired by his former teammate, Phil Tabor, who had turned down a contract with the New York Giants a year before to open a restaurant in Ardmore to open his own restaurant in 1987.
“But when our lease was up, we decided we’d try something different,” Ray said.
So Ray opened T.D. Rays, though he admits it may not have been a good business plan. Ray said the restaurant was too ambitious and grandiose.
“We had breakfast, lunch and dinner. We also had pizza. We did a little barbecue on the side. We opened at 6 and closed at 10.”
Ray said within a few years, the operation was streamlined to focus more on barbecue and efficient service. Ray said the business improved, but he still wanted to open a different place.
Five months ago, Ray’s Smokehouse BBQ opened its doors in Norman.
“This place just kind of fell into our laps,” Ray said.
Ray said three different locations slipped through his fingers for various reasons before his real estate agent showed him the former Pizza Hut building on Lindsey Street.
“We had this place locked down before they even moved out,” Ray said.
Ray liked the place because of its prominent location on Lindsey Street.
The building still has its oddly shaped windows, and until recently, the signature roof, but inside it’s a different place. Rustic farm and gardening tools hang from the rafters. Old ads and black and white photos adorn the walls. Sooner memorabilia is everywhere, some signed by former Heisman Trophy winners. He even has a photo of Switzer and himself at the Orange Bowl. Near the door, almost tucked away, is a framed collection of his trading cards from his time with Jets.
A fierce competitor and a self-described “horrible loser,” Ray said he brings the competitive drive he garnered playing football at such a high level to his business — only this time with a little more affection.
“I love all my competitors,” he said. “I know what it takes to run a restaurant. Everyone in the food business knows. This is what you do to feed your family and to pay the bills.”
Ray also has some advice for current OU student athletes, considering his subsequent success after football.
“Stay in your books,” he said. “If you have even a glimmer of a dream of what you want to do later in life, don’t be afraid ... if you want to do X, don’t let somebody tell you you should do A, B and C,” Ray said.
Although he set records, lost only six games and met his wife while at OU, Ray said he does have some regrets.
“I could have done a lot more if I’d pushed myself [in school],” Ray said. “It would have made for a much more interesting academic experience. I don’t have many regrets, but that is one of them.”
Ray is happy, though. After all, he runs a successful business with his wife, has raised three daughters and makes some pretty good barbecue.
“The name you see on that pole out there, that’s the person you’re going to find in here. We’re proud of our barbecue.”