Dec. 11, 2012
Raleigh, N.C. -
Senior defensive lineman Brian Slay understands the value in each snap. He’s logged over 1,000 plays during his Wolfpack career, but any opposing offensive lineman expecting him to take one off will be sorely disappointed. That’s because one morning in January of his freshman year, Slay suffered a profound loss that managed to put every down in perspective.
“Right after our season ended, I woke up feeling like something was off,” said Slay. “I had a bunch of missed calls from my mom. If my mom calls and I don’t answer, she’s not the type of person that keeps calling and calling. That told me that something was up.”
The morning of those fateful missed calls, Slay was in the midst of enjoying some well-deserved time off after a promising freshman campaign. The Ashburn, Va., native had seen action in 10 games, pressured the opposing quarterback six times in the Pack’s final three contests, and positioned himself for an increased role heading into his sophomore year. Perhaps most importantly, as the family’s youngest child, he’d been able to share the experience with his parents (Kendall and Rhonda), his sister (Kalandra), and his twin brothers (Brandon and Keith).
When Slay returned his mother’s frantic calls, he received word that Brandon, two years his senior, had suffered a serious brain injury that would leave him hospitalized indefinitely. The news left Slay shaken, but his family insisted that he remain focused on his responsibilities at NC State.
“You can tell he knows what the situation is, but his body won’t let him express it,” said Slay. “He’s been in the hospital for the last two years, going on three. I beat myself up over it for a while, but eventually it gets to the point where you kind of learn you can only worry about the things you can control. My brother’s injury happened, it was terrible, but I have to move forward because that’s the only way I can function day to day.
It’s been hard for me, being away from my family when all of it happened. Every time I come home, a part of me isn’t used to it because I wasn’t there. I try not to worry about the details, but it’s always on my mind whether he’s alright, if anything’s going on, or if anything’s changed with his condition. It would be easy to get distracted, or not feel like going to class, but the most important thing is to stay concentrated on school and football.”
Brandon Slay had the chance to watch Brian take the field during his freshman year, but he hasn’t returned home since being admitted to the hospital.
“It was hard, it’s still hard today,” said Slay. “When I see him it’s hard for me not to break down, because that’s not the way I remember my brother, but this is what he’d want me to do. When I earned a scholarship, he was the most excited person in my family. I definitely use it as motivation, because I know how proud he was when I signed on the dotted line. I try to keep that in mind. This is where he wants me to be, and I have to play as hard as I can every snap.
“I can’t take a down off, because I’d be giving something up. He would love to have this opportunity, or even just be able to play with his kids. When Saturday comes around, whether the television in his room is on or not, I know that he’s happy I’m out there giving it everything I have.”
Slay knows his time at NC State makes everyone in his family proud.
“I’m proud to be able to play at NC State, because of how much it means to my whole family,” said Slay. “Everybody sees me being strong, doing well here, and that allows my family to keep moving forward. We all motivate each other. We know that we’re going to face challenges, but that doesn’t mean we can stop and whine about it.”
Each time Slay returns home to Virginia, he makes it a point to fill his brother in on every detail. Thanks to his hard work on the field, Brian has enough good news to handle both sides of the conversation. He especially loves recounting a pair of wins over Florida State.
“Both games went down to the wire, and the atmosphere was crazy,” said Slay. “Those have been the most memorable games. This year, it would have been easy to give up at halftime, but we played hard to the last whistle. They came in averaging 40 points a game, and we were holding them to field goals. To shut that offense down in the second half, that’s a special moment. In the huddle, we just kept saying ‘Keep up the tempo. Let’s keep getting three and outs.’ After a while, we finally realized we were about to shut them out for the half.”
Slay also has a touchdown to his credit, a 52-yard scoop-and-score fumble return against Liberty during his junior season. He might have been tempted to glamorize his account, but Slay’s humility won out during our interview.
“It’s funny, I almost fumbled,” said Slay. “They ran a quarterback keeper. I was coming down and missed the first tackle, but got up quickly to pursue to the ball. Somebody was wrapping him up, and all of a sudden I see the ball come rolling out. My eyes lit up. Once I picked it up and started running, I felt it slip a little bit in my hand. What literally went through my mind was ‘If I fumble, I’m going to be on Not Top-10.’ There wasn’t anybody in front of me, so I just made sure to hang on the rest of the way.”
Though fortunate enough to enjoy a career full of highlights, Slay genuinely regrets the few missed opportunities that he and his teammates have endured during his time with the Wolfpack.
“We don’t talk about this year’s game against UNC as much as some of the others,” said Slay. “I feel like we could have changed the state of North Carolina with a few more wins. [Losses to Virginia and UNC] hit me the hardest. With what we were doing, the basketball team’s success, and the ‘This Is Our State’ campaign, I felt like we were in a position to change the culture of the state.
I hit a low after the Virginia game, wondering how we reached that point, but I realized there were more games left. I could pack it in and call it a career, or keep moving forward and give it my all. Hopefully, we’ll win out, get to nine wins, and be the team that affects that changing of the culture. That opportunity is not over.”
After the season, Slay plans to apply himself in hopes of a career in the NFL. He says that despite the odds, that opportunity only presents itself once and he’ll seize it with all of his power. If his time spent in a unit with former Wolfpack stars and current professionals J.R. Sweezy and Markus Kuhn is any indication, he’ll be ready.
“My freshman year, I’d get on the field and not be 100% sure of what was going on,” said Slay. “I’d find Sweezy and he’d say ‘Fly off the ball! Fly off the ball!’ As I transitioned into a bigger role, I could see the guys start asking me what to do. It also helped in the weight room, because I’d see those guys and think ‘That’s how big I need to get.’ It’s great to see them both enjoying their opportunity and making the most of it now.”