NASHVILLE, Tenn. - On March 2, a deadly tornado outbreak struck West and Middle Tennessee. Less than 12 hours later, Vanderbilt senior Harrison Ray was helping distribute requested items to victims. After that, he'd play a game - then return to giving back.
"I got a text before the game wondering if I'd be willing to go over and meet with one of the kids at the children's hospital who just was involved in the tornado," Ray said. "The short time I was over there, probably 15 or 20 minutes, I talked with a young man and heard his story and what happened. I tried to show some encouragement for him during this time he was going through. What he had seen in those 24 hours, I don't think any of us might go through."
Ray's visit with the local sixth grader was just the latest in serving his new community for the Longwood, Florida, native. As a junior, Ray was shown first-hand how Vanderbilt baseball can serve.
"What got me going in the right direction was my junior year, Julian (Infante) was really on top of it," Ray said. "Once I saw how Julian did it, the way he was going about it, it really showed me the importance of what 30 minutes could do here and there for anybody. Just seeing that, I really made it a priority this year whenever I had the free time to try to go do something."
One priority for Ray has been his relationship with nearby Buena Vista Elementary, located five miles northwest of the university's campus. Recently, Ray led and coordinated a baseball clinic for second graders at the school, teaching the skills of the sport while putting on a whiffle ball game.
"My goal in life is to help minorities have more access to the game of baseball and get more involved," Ray said. "I could tell most of those kids never played whiffle ball or baseball. (The game) It helps builds connections and relationships. It's definitely a special group of kids over there."
On the field, Ray's journey as a student-athlete has seen him develop from limited playing time as a freshman to a role player as a sophomore to a junior starter and eventual senior year. According to assistant coach Mike Baxter, that has an impact.
"He's served his team in every capacity possible on the field," Baxter said. "It creates a great deal of empathy in him as a leader. He can relate to any player on the roster. What that also does is creates empathy outside the field. When you see how he spends his time off the field, you can see how that translates. He understands the value of being present with people in the community and spending time and connecting with people. I think that's a big strength of his both athletically and socially."
Ray recently served as team captain for Dancing Dores, an annual Vanderbilt event raising funds and support for the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital. With his help, the 13-hour event contributed $43,000. In 15-plus years, the event has contributed more than $2 million to the hospital.
"He's one of those guys that will show you how it's done," sophomore teammate Isaiah Thomas said. "He's inspiring in that way. He sets the example for the younger guys. People look up to him. He has a high character level. He shows all the characteristics that Corbs (head coach Tim Corbin) talks about."
Around the holidays, Ray and other student-athletes helped put local kids in the spirit. For Halloween, he led a safe trick-or-treat experience, escorting students from Buena Vista and the Martha O'Bryan Center to Greek houses on campus. In December, Ray and other student-athletes purchased and presented gifts to assigned Buena Vista first graders at the Vanderbilt holiday party.
"I think everybody, no matter where you are - collegiate baseball, pro baseball - you're on a platform to where people look up to you and see you in a different light," Ray said. "You don't realize how powerful you are to those kids or the people you're helping out. It may be 30 minutes for me - maybe - but for them it might be the best thing that's happened to them."
When Ray's Commodore career comes to a close - this season or next - he might be remembered most for a game-winning grab at the College World Series or performance in the SEC Tournament title game. Those who interacted with Ray, though, will have much more to share.
"He's got a magnetic personality and people are drawn to him because of the way he goes about his day," Baxter said. "He's the type of player you tell stories about."