Ray Thornton likes to cook.
He specializes in brewing “fancy stuff,” he claims — like, filet mignon and stuffed crab with seasoned lobster.
“I do it big,” he said.
Stuffed crab? Lobster? Filets?
This is news to Ray’s mother and older sister. From their experience, Ray’s cooking is rolling hotdogs in biscuit dough and creating his own interpretation of spaghetti.
His oldest sister, Trinity, is his biggest critic. This is made clear during a phone conversation between a reporter and Ray’s mom, Donielle, regarding that spaghetti.
“That’s the most watery sauce you’ve ever seen!” Trinity shouted from the background.
This is the man of the Thornton household. Cooking, cleaning, tutoring, LSU’s chiseled edge-rushing redshirt freshman did it all, caring for his two younger sisters while mom worked and dad fought. Ray’s father has been in the U.S. Army since the late 1990s. He spent seven years of Ray’s 18-year childhood overseas.
That left Ray as the lone male in a family with three other females: mom Donielle, sisters Trinity and Alexis, now 16 and 8, respectively.
“Ever since he was young,” Donielle said, “his dad always told him, ‘You’re the man of the house now. Take care of your mom and sisters.’”
That’s long behind Ray now.
He enters this season as a somewhat unknown player on LSU’s football team, a quiet, unassuming guy with a weight-lifting regimen and physique that turn teammates’ heads. He’s the new breed of college football athlete, a quarterback-seeking freak who plays a hybrid edge-rushing position that so many defenses are employing to slow the spread offense.
Arden Key broke the school record for sacks last season (12) from the position, but he’ll miss the Tigers’ game against BYU on Saturday in the Superdome while still recovering from shoulder surgery.
That means Thornton is, again, the man.
Ed Orgeron knows they’re watching it.
He’s expected to split time with freshman K’Lavon Chaisson at defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s Buck position. The outside linebacker/defensive end spot is similar to the one Thornton played at Shoemaker High in Texas, when, during his senior season, he recorded 10 sacks and led the team to its first ever playoff win.
Could he go from a redshirt year to a season-opening starter? Maybe.
Sitting the bench last season looks so distant now, but he admits being “disappointed.” He signed with LSU hoping to make an immediate impact. His mother says the news — coaches told him before the season that he’d redshirt — was “tough” for her son.
He braved through it and now he gets his chance Saturday to show the skills that he’s honed since arriving in Baton Rouge last summer.
And, of all places, he’ll be back home in New Orleans.
Donielle and Rahssan, Ray’s dad, are originally from the city, born and raised in the seventh and ninth wards, respectively. They moved to North Carolina when Ray was a baby and then again from North Carolina to Fort Hood, near Austin, Texas, in 2005.
Ah, the life of a military family, always on the go.
They will all be back home Saturday, except dad. He’s in Kuwait, deployed about three weeks ago. Donielle will see her husband again next August. His deployments are each one year in length. She says this is the eighth since 2001 — or one every other year.
Rahssan will be watching the Tigers in Kuwait. The game kicks off at 4:30 a.m. local time there.
“He brought his LSU gear and everything,” said Donielle, a school teacher.
LSU’s edge-rushing position took another hit this week.
At the Superdome, Ray’s immediate family will all be watching. That includes mom, sisters, an aunt and uncle and four sets of grandparents. Donielle and Rahssan’s parents have both remarried.
The extended family is large. Donielle’s grandmother was one of 18 children. Her maiden name is Mercadel, an old New Orleans family that last year gathered at City Park for a reunion so big that The Advocate wrote a story about it. More than 1,000 members were there.
Many of them are big Saints fans. The Thorntons are in that group. In fact, Ray's mother chose the little league team Texas in 2009 based off its mascot: the Saints.
The family is rooted in LSU football, too. Former LSU defensive end and fifth-round NFL draft pick Lavar Edwards is his cousin. He recently learned that he had another distant cousin play for LSU: Tyrann Mathieu.
Edwards urged Ray to choose LSU over Texas during the recruiting process.
“He said it was a good choice for me,” Ray said. “It’s a defensive school. I knew it was a good fit for me because of my playing style.”
And what’s that?
“Ray is a guy who really tries to attack the point. I think, with his body type, he’s more like a Kwon Alexander type of guy,” defensive end Christian LaCouture said. “If he does everything Coach O asks him to do, he’s got a chance to do something like Kwon did at LSU.”
Kwon Alexander emerged in 2014 as a first team All-SEC middle linebacker, was selected in the fourth round of the NFL draft and now starts for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The high praise comes from everywhere. Ray, 6 foot 3, 228 pounds, is known on the team as the guy who, after a school-led workout, stays in the gym for another separate lifting session.
After the second, he might stay for a third.
“When I feel like I did enough, I look at him and he’s doing extra,” sixth-year senior outside linebacker Corey Thompson said, “then I got to do extra too.”
This is nothing new.
The summer before Thornton’s junior season at Shoemaker High his mother realized her son’s college potential. He attended something called “pack camp” each morning, spanning from 7-10 a.m. By 3 p.m., Donielle was out looking for her son. He was still in the camp’s gym working out or running.
He began to morph from what she calls a scrawny track runner with “no muscle” to the powerfully built man now on the edge for LSU.
Ray ran track throughout his high school career. He was a master at the hurdles, participating in an event despite, by his junior year, possessing a burly figure.
LSU coaches, during the recruiting process, attended one of his track meets.
“They could not believe a muscular, stocky guy was running hurdles,” Donielle laughed.
Rahssan wasn’t always there during this evolution of his son, but things are slowing down.
He is two years from retirement, Donielle said, and he wants to move the family back to New Orleans. By law, Donielle cannot disclose her husband’s duties during this deployment. He's a Chief Warrant Office 4, a position described on the U.S. Army’s website as a senior level expert of both the technical and tactical aspects of his field. The rank is the 17th in the Army, just below Lieutenant and Captain.
Ray and his father are close. Ray’s real name is Rahssan, something people in Baton Rouge kept floundering to pronounce. His nickname on the LSU football team, Ray, quickly turned into his name.
The program even changed his name on the school’s football roster.
A laughing Donielle says the family has “adopted” LSU's name for her son.
His father, meanwhile, is some 7,000 miles away — again.
“It’s traumatizing for a kid at a young age,” Donielle said. “When he was missing his dad, I was able to get grandpa on the phone. That was a help.”
“I understand at the end of the day, my dad’s doing that for us,” Ray said. “I respect that to the fullest. I respect my father for doing that for me and my sisters.”
Ray did a lot for the girls, too. He’d pick them up from school, assist them with homework and, of course, cook. He's mastered the craft here in Baton Rouge, improving on his menu from those meals in Texas — the pigs-in-a-blanket and spaghetti.
“The girls would turn their nose up at his concoctions,” Donielle said, “but he tried.”
He tried to do his sister’s hair once, too. How’d that turn out?
Said Ray: “It was bad.”