Wyatt Ray had been barely unpacked for a day in the Bengals locker room. But when someone pointed to the music computer over on the wall Thursday, he said he'd certainly feel comfortable enough to go over there right now and punch in some of his grandfather's unforgettable records.
"Anytime. All day. The guys would love it," said Ray, the Bengals' newest edge player in a line of new edge players looking to start a quarterback hit parade. "When I'm in the car. Sometimes before a game. I don't listen to a whole bunch of rap music all the time. Sometimes I just play some of his stuff."
Ray knows enough about Nat King Cole and his velvet voice that purred into the soundtrack of postwar America to realize that they are related by the dint of hard work and dreams. Before the Sept. 12 opener against the Vikings at Paul Brown Stadium, there's a pretty good chance "Mona Lisa," one of Cole's iconic signatures from 70 years ago, is going to be whispering into his ears during warmups.
The Bengals have had some players with famous relatives down through the years. Even now, tight end Thaddeus Moss, the son of Randy Moss, one of the greatest wide receivers of all-time, is on the practice squad.
But with all due respect to the Hall-of-Famer, no one is bigger than Nat King Cole.
"I've read a good amount just on the start of his career," Ray said. "He had to work his way up. He just didn't come out on top. He had to work his way with up with his brother, my Uncle Freddie, going to shows, doing little gigs, to having No. 1 records. It's inspiring. He was a jazz guy from Chicago. He was working the clubs in the Chicago spots. He was able to just keep on working."
That's exactly what the son of Nat King Cole's youngest child, Casey, is doing in his chosen field of football.
Ray's mother and her twin sister were born three years before Nat King Cole fell ill and soon died of lung cancer at age 45. The twins settled in Boca Raton, Fla., where Wyatt Ray took the same path as former Bengals running back Giovani Bernard six years before. He went to middle school in Boca before going to high school at neighboring Fort Lauderdale's national football powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas.
Like Bernard, Ray went from there to the ACC and when he went undrafted out of Boston College in 2019 he ended up in Ohio with the Browns. Since then Ray, has worked the NFL circuit, making the practice squad rounds with Houston, Buffalo, the New York Jets and Tennessee before the Bengals claimed Ray and Bills rookie cornerback Nick McCloud off waivers after Tuesday's final cuts.
Andrew Johnson, the Bengals East Coast scout who did the extensive work on both when they were up for the drafts in 2019 and 2020, respectively, said it was the August tape that got both of them here.
McCloud is a 6-1, 190-pounder who ran a 4.37 40 at his pro day at Notre Dame and came out of the preseason with an interception. Ray is a 6-3, 255-pounder who made his debut last year with the Titans in four games, had a start and a sack and then put together an excellent summer that the Bengals noticed on tape.
In the opener in Atlanta Ray had one of those games that Joseph Ossai and Khalid Kareem had for the Bengals on the edge before they suffered injuries that have put them on the injured list, Ossai for the season and Kareem for at least three games. Pro Football Focus had Ray for six pressures and two sacks on just 14 rushes against the Falcons and was rated the Titans' second best defensive player that night.
Here's what Ray says the Bengals can expect:
"I'm the type of player that is going to whatever I have to do to win. Just make a daily, positive impact on the team. I'm always going to have a positive attitude … I'm always going to try and lift people, motivate and inspire. That's what I'm going to bring to not only the team, but for anybody who is a Bengals fan."
Ray followed the Bengals because of Bernard and another St. Thomas grad, defensive tackle Geno Atkins. When he hit the practice field Thursday, it brought back memories of the 2013 Hard Knocks series that featured the rookie Bernard and another edge rusher.
"James Harrison. Exactly," Ray said. "I remember that exact practice field right next to the stadium. Always being a football fan, I knew about the Tiger stripes and I thought it was cool."
Now Ray is living one of those Hard Knocks themes. Next Man Up. When Ossai went down in his opener in Tampa, fourth-rounder Cam Sample moved up as the first edge rusher off the bench behind starters Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson. Then when Kareem struggled with shoulder problems in camp before injuring his other shoulder in Sunday's preseason finale, undrafted rookie Darius Hodge went from the practice squad to the active roster. Now Ray has gone from practice squad purgatory to a roster spot to perhaps getting snaps in an opener.
"Another year. Getting older. Game slowing down a little it. Just being a little bit more comfortable in my shoes," said Ray of his preseason.
Ray knows a lot about inspiration. He's been watching his mother and aunt do it every day running the Nat King Cole Generation Hope, Inc., which funds programming, services and resources for children and music teachers. Here are his top three favorite songs that his grandfather crooned into history:
"Mona Lisa." "Straighten Up and Fly Right." "Unforgettable." Before his late Great Aunt Natalie Cole did the never-to-be forgotten Unforgettable duo with clips from her father and dominated a Grammys show in the early '90s, Nat King Cole swept the charts with it 40 years before.
"He had two number one songs back-to-back in 1950 and 1951," said Ray, who is all over it at age 24.
His favorite, "Mona Lisa," went first. Then it was "Too Young."
Now after a couple of years on the NFL circuit, it looks like his grandson is just old enough to help out the Bengals on the edge.
"I'm always going to bring positive energy," said Ray, who knows where to switch it on.
EVERYBODY LOVES CHRIS: No Bengal had a better preseason than rookie running back Chris Evans, the sixth-rounder out of Michigan. Those NFL pass routes he flashed in the Senior Bowl have certainly translated. That was quite evident on last Sunday's 29-yard touchdown catch on a deep ball down the right sideline.
But then, he's been doing it since they took the field. When he went back home to Indianapolis during a break in the spring drills, he gave his little brother his pair of gloves. He told them he hadn't dropped anything while wearing them.
Still, there are things to learn and, speaking of Bernard, Evans has been watching so much tape of him he probably think he's still here. Sure. He's been watching Bernard's pass routes, but, more importantly, his blitz pickups, always one of the league's best
New Bengals running backs coach Justin Hill didn't coach Bernard, but he's been teaching off his tape. After Evans had a nice debut in Tampa, Hill approached him about the things that needed work.
"He was just letting me know how crucial pass protection is going to be and (we) watched all the Gio clips from last year and taking little things from him as far as pass protect," Evans said before Thursday's practice. "Where to fit, get inside and where to check your eyes and stuff like that so I can be ready for the game.
"He's been doing it forever so I've just got to get to that point where he doesn't have to take that extra look. First couple of games I had to take that extra look, that extra peek just in case. It's just knowing and being confident and just taking what he does and trying to make it part of my game."
Evans also revealed to the media how close he came to not getting that break-through invite from Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy. It had been a frustrating senior season for him. A year after sitting out for academic disciplinary reasons and working three jobs, a new offensive coordinator didn't use him much. But to Nagy's credit, he needed a player quickly and he knew where to go.
"I was literally getting my ticket to go home from where I was training at it Dallas," Evans recalled. "Nagy called me and he asked if I wanted to go to Mobile at the time and all I needed was this chance. My teammates who are in the NFL currently were like, 'Get to the Senior Bowl, get to the Senior Bowl, get to the Senior Bowl.' I followed that suggestion. I understood once I got to the Senior Bowl, it was a wrap. All I needed was a chance. I went there and made plays."
Evans knows all about coming back from being down. He knows all about empty lockers and it shows you his maturity when he looked around the room Tuesday.
"When I was little, NFL players, come to the school and tell us blah, blah, blah," Evans said. "But you don't really know it until you get to see it or see somebody's locker cleaned out the next day. It's surreal. You done talked to that person and built a relationship with him and you just hope for the best for him. You 've got to just focus on you and focus what your job and responsibility is."
APPLE OF THE EYE: It looks like cornerback Eli Apple is going to get another Opening Day start with Trae Waynes nursing a hamstring injury. Apple has had 48 starts in the league with two teams, but he's a former top ten pick (2016) looking to get a foothold on his fourth team.
And he's embraced it.
"New place. New environment. A lot of familiar faces," said Apple, the Ohio State product who went to the Giants out of Columbus. "Some teammates I've played with before and same with coaches. I'm just taking it as a fresh new start and it's just an exciting time."
Apple says he didn't have a problem with the big city media glare as a young player. He grew up not far from there (Voorhees, N.J. near Philadelphia) and enjoyed being close to home, but he admitted the first-round expectations wore on him "a little bit."
"Of course you want to prove yourself right and be worthy of those expectations that are put on you," Apple said. "I just take it day by day and try to get better and get more acclimated with my teammates here and do whatever I can to be the best I can be."
In Cincinnati, he doesn't have to handle the No. 1 pick burden. That is now the bailiwick of Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase. So Apple can do what he did Thursday during lunch and quietly chat at their lockers with Vonn Bell, one of his old Saints teammates and one of the Bengals defensive leaders.
"It makes it helpful for everybody, honestly," Apple said of a veteran secondary. "We have a great rapport, great communication and great leaders here as well."