Proviso East staff and parents celebrate Rayshawn Gay's scholarship at Northern Illinois, a DivisIon I University. | Courtesy Michael Romain

A Wednesday signing ceremony for Proviso East High School senior football player Rayshawn Gay turned into something much more emotionally resonant by the time the school’s principal, Patrick Hardy, was done speaking.

Gay, an outside linebacker who’s also a member of the track and field team, is the Proviso East football program’s first player in four years to sign a full athletic scholarship with a Division I school.

In the fall, Gay, 18, will be attending Northern Illinois University. The last Proviso East football players to sign D-I football scholarships were defensive end Antony Greenhow and Rashad Williams, who signed with Southern Illinois University and the University of North Dakota, respectively, in 2013.

Safety Corey Cooper signed with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2010. Incidentally, Cooper and Gay shared the #6 jersey.

“I’m proud of you on a very personal level,” said Hardy, adding that his decision to come to East was motivated, in part, because of the 2015 release of the Laquan McDonald police dash-cam video. McDonald, 17, was shot 16 times by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014.

Gay and McDonald share a similarity, Hardy said, but one that signals hope instead of tragedy.

“That video got released weeks before I got this job and I watched this young man get shot dead in the street,” Hardy recalled. “I knew then what I was going to do and I knew my reasons for doing it. I came here because my people are here. I’m a little harder on young black men than I am on anybody else. I fuss at them more than I fuss at anybody else. I’m fair, try to treat people with equity and equality, but there’s something personal about this one.”

Hardy said that Gay’s signing ceremony was the symbolic inversion of ceremonies that are much more common nowadays, namely the funerals of young, black men.

“Today we’re supposed to be forming a line and you’re supposed to be up here different and we’re supposed to be proceeding by, crying, talking about, ‘Lord Jesus, why?’ But I get to stand up here today and say, ‘Justified, he earned it,'” said Hardy.

“I watched that video [of the McDonald shooting] over and over and over again and I still can’t figure out why this young brother is dead, instead of in jail,” he said. “He deserved to go to jail for what he did, but dead? You have to understand, Rayshawn, that when I see you, I see [McDonald] and I see the 18 others who died in the two years before him, including a lady, and they all said justified. We get no justice.”

Dr. Brian Colbert, Proviso East’s athletic director, said that Gay’s scholarship was the culmination of efforts by Gay’s parents, his coaches, his school and the wider community.

“All of us, all of you, had a hand in making this happen,” Colbert said. “There’s a responsibility that comes with this signing. You have a responsibility to your parents, but you’re also a role model to the rest of these young men and to our school body on how to carry yourself. So you’ve got a lot of weight with this.”

Accompanying Gay on the stage inside of the school’s first-floor social room was his mother, Julie Gay; his father, Ray Gay; his grandmother, Gwen Williams; Colbert; and head coach DeWan White.

Gay’s signing comes in the wake of two consecutive winless seasons by the Proviso East football team.

“The coaches helped me out a lot and they kept me working hard, playing hard every game,” Gay said, adding that he selected Northern, in part, because of its welcoming atmosphere.

“I liked the atmosphere I felt when I visited,” Gay said. “They made me feel like I was at home. I also liked the academics.”

White and several coaches said that, despite posting two winless seasons, they envision a program with the potential to make these signing ceremonies routine affairs.

“We should have more kids up here, so we’ve got more work to do,” said White. “This is a testament of a young man who, thanks to [his hard work] and his family, has used sports to go somewhere. Now his parents don’t have to worry about paying his tuition. Your athletics took care of your academics. Just keep using that [formula] to get to where you want to go.”

“We want to do this again,” said Gay’s father, himself a former Proviso East football standout, while speaking to his son’s teammates. “Make this a habit from now on. You all can do the same thing; you’re going to do the same thing. The blue blood carries on, even though there’s going to be a little red in there. The blue blood carries on.”

Only this time, as Hardy mentioned, that blood is both metaphorical and redemptive.

“We got some justice today,” Hardy said, before addressing Gay. “While I can’t take credit for your work, thank you, sir, for giving me some justice today.”