Few NFL defensive backs in the 1990s had a catchier nickname than “Big Play Ray” Buchanan.
Buchanan followed in his idol Deion “Prime Time” Sanders’s footsteps on the NFL gridiron. While they both loved to talk smack to opposing receivers, they backed up their play every single time.
In fact, Buchanan had eight interceptions and three pick-sixes in the same year during his second season with the Indianapolis Colts in 1994.
He went on to become a Pro Bowl defensive back with the Atlanta Falcons four years later.
Buchanan continued talking trash during the pinnacle of his pro football career.
He even once compared Denver Broncos Pro Bowl tight end Shannon Sharpe’s appearance to a horse and Mr. Ed prior to Super Bowl XXXIII.
Buchanan also acted like Joe Namath prior to that game without even knowing it.
Truly, “Big Play Ray” created some fond memories during his twelve-year pro football career.
Raymond Louis “Ray” Buchanan, Sr. was born in Chicago, IL on September 29, 1971. He has three brothers.
Buchanan has always looked up to his older brother, Richard. According to the Chicago Tribune’s Paul Sullivan, the brothers grew up in the Chicago suburb of Maywood, IL.
They played the same sports and shared the same ambitions during their formative years in Northeast Illinois.
Richard Buchanan, a wide receiver, eventually played for NFL Europe’s Frankfurt Galaxy and the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams.
However, his National Football League career lasted just two years. On the other hand, Ray’s lasted a decade longer.
Ray Buchanan attended Proviso East High School in his hometown of Maywood, IL. He excelled in football and track for the Proviso East Wildcats.
Ray was so good on the track that he won a state title in the long jump and triple jump during his high school days.
However, Buchanan’s true calling was on the gridiron.
Ray Buchanan committed to the NCAA’s Louisville Cardinals during his senior season. Little did he know he would experience a massive turning point in his football career once he set foot on the college gridiron.
College Days with the Louisville Cardinals
Ray Buchanan attended the University of Louisville from 1989 to 1992,
Louisville Cardinals head football coach Howard Schnellenberger envisioned Buchanan excelling at wide receiver just like his brother Richard did at Northwestern.
For some reason, Ray received a red jersey—the color Louisville defensive players wore—on his first day of practice in his true freshman season in 1989.
It was a tipping point in Ray Buchanan’s gridiron career. Little did he know he’d go on to spend twelve years as a defensive back in the National Football League.
Although Buchanan had played a bit of safety at Proviso East High School, he admitted to the Chicago Tribune in 1993 that getting switched over to the defensive side of the ball in college came as a shock.
Ray also told Sullivan he wanted to play wide receiver so he could share the limelight. However, it was clearly evident that fate had other plans for him on the football field.
Buchanan didn’t disappoint as a Cardinals cornerback. His three interceptions as a sophomore helped Louisville win ten of twelve games in the 1990 NCAA season. It was the best record in program history at the time.
Ray Buchanan also held his own at special teams. He blocked a field goal in the waning moments of Louisville’s 19-17 win over the Memphis Tigers on October 13, 1990.
Buchanan’s heroics coincided with the largest turnout in Cardinal Stadium history.
The 18th-ranked Louisville Cardinals beat the 25th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide in a lopsided fashion in the 1990 Fiesta Bowl, 34-7. It was Louisville’s first bowl victory in thirteen seasons.
Ray Buchanan from Louisville. An anchor on that Dirty Bird defense. pic.twitter.com/gV8Fv08zBq
— Sauber-GT2000 (@WesleyRourke1) May 17, 2022
Buchanan got the spotlight he wanted. His five tackles and one fumble recovery helped him earn 1990 Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP honors.
Continued Success in College
Promptly picking up where he left off the following season, Buchanan had an incredible eight interceptions in the 1991 NCAA campaign.
Unfortunately, Louisville regressed considerably that year. The Cardinals won just two games in Schnellenberger’s seventh year at the helm. It was their worst showing in six years.
Buchanan’s draft stock rose dramatically after his breakout sophomore campaign with the Cardinals. He entertained thoughts of declaring early for the 1992 NFL Draft once his junior season ended.
However, his brother Richard dissuaded him from doing that. Richard Buchanan had declared early for the 1991 NFL Draft after he finished his junior season with the Northwestern Wildcats. Regrettably, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue never called him up to the stage that year.
“He said it was a mistake that he had to come out early,” Ray told the Chicago Tribune in the spring of 1993. “I was so tempted to leave. All the pressure to go was getting to me, and especially knowing that the salary cap was going to come into play soon, I wanted to go.”
Ray Buchanan eventually decided to stay for his senior season at Louisville in 1992. He had four interceptions in his final year with the Cardinals. Although they won three more games than the previous season, they didn’t receive a bowl invite for the second consecutive year.
Nevertheless, Buchanan became a Playboy and Football News All-American following his senior season.
Meeting an Idol
According to the Chicago Tribune, Buchanan looked up to NFL legends Deion “Prime Time” Sanders and Mike Singletary during his days on the college gridiron.
Buchanan met Sanders during his senior season at Louisville. The latter taught him a valuable lesson about backing up his play on the football field.
“Deion’s the one that gave me the cockiness,” Buchanan told Sullivan in April 1993. “He showed me how to play arrogant and back it up.”
Ray Buchanan’s metamorphosis from projected wide receiver to big-name defensive back was now complete.
He eventually made a name for himself in the National Football League as a reliable cornerback nicknamed “Big Play Ray” from 1993 to 2004.
Pro Football Career
The Indianapolis Colts made Ray Buchanan the 65th overall selection of the 1993 NFL Draft.
Buchanan lost 10 pounds after he attended the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, IN that year. Consequently, his slimmer version improved his time in the 40-yard dash from 4.5 seconds to 4.35 seconds.
The Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks, Dallas Cowboys, and Washington Redskins were the teams that were most interested in Buchanan’s services, per the Chicago Tribune.
Buchanan eventually became a member of the Falcons organization four years later. However, he first strutted his wares for a struggling Indianapolis Colts franchise in the mid-1990s.
Just two years before Buchanan first wore the Horseshoe, Indianapolis was the NFL’s worst team with a 1-15 win-loss record.
The Colts weren’t much better in 1993. After winning nine games in 1992 under first-year head coach Ted Marchibroda, Indianapolis regressed considerably in Buchanan’s rookie season.
The Colts won just four games and missed the postseason for the ninth time since they moved to Indianapolis in 1984.
Nonetheless, Ray Buchanan had four interceptions as a rookie free safety in the 1993 NFL campaign.
After head coach Ted Marchibroda switched Buchanan to his natural cornerback position in 1994, the latter promptly upped the ante.
Buchanan had an impressive eight picks that year. He also added three pick-sixes for good measure.
Consequently, Ray Buchanan earned Second-Team All-Pro honors following the 1994 NFL season.
Buchanan’s stellar play on defense earned him the moniker “Big Play Ray” during his early years with the Colts.
Indianapolis made progress during Ray Buchanan’s ascent in the NFL ranks.
With quarterback Jim Harbaugh leading the way, the Colts won nine games in 1995 and 1996. They made the postseason each time and narrowly missed making it to Super Bowl XXX.
Harbaugh’s desperation Hail Mary pass to wide receiver Aaron Bailey fell incomplete in Indianapolis’ 20-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1995 AFC Championship Game.
Becoming a Falcon
As for Ray Buchanan, his play regressed in his final two years in Indianapolis. He had just four total interceptions from 1995 to 1996.
The Colts designated Buchanan as their transition player following the 1996 NFL campaign.
According to The Associated Press, that status guaranteed Buchanan the estimated $2.8 million salary the league’s highest-paid defensive backs earned at the time.
Buchanan told The Associated Press in February 1997 that he didn’t mind returning to the Colts for his fifth NFL season. However, he also wanted to test his market value.
Among the teams that piqued Buchanan’s interest were the Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Before long, the Falcons—the team that had been interested in drafting him in 1993—offered Buchanan a four-year, $13 million deal in March 1997. Indianapolis had a week to decide whether it would match Atlanta’s offer or not.
The Colts decided not to, so Ray Buchanan officially became an Atlanta Falcon in the spring of 1997. He spent the next seven years of his pro football career in Atlanta.
Wearing Falcons Red and Black revitalized Ray Buchanan’s pro football career. He helped invigorate a Falcons’ pass defense that ranked 27th in the league in 1996.
Buchanan averaged four interceptions in seven seasons with Atlanta from 1997 to 2003.
His best year with the Falcons—and arguably his NFL career—was in 1998.
Buchanan recorded seven interceptions, made his first and only Pro Bowl appearance, earned his second Second-Team All-Pro selection, and helped the Falcons reach Super Bowl XXXIII against John Elway’s Denver Broncos that year.
Smack Talkin’ and the Super Bowl
Indeed, those were the best days of Ray Buchanan’s pro football career.
“Playing in the 1998 NFC Championship Game, winning that and knowing we were going to the Super Bowl is the biggest memory that will stick with me forever,” Buchanan told the Falcons’ official website in the fall of 2014. “Playing my part—everybody had to play a role—and the chemistry that we had was truly special.”
Buchanan had a war of words with Denver Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe in the days leading up to Super Bowl XXXIII.
Buchanan, always a big talker, took a shot and Sharpe and ridiculed his appearance.
“Shannon looks like a horse. I’ll tell you that’s an ugly dude,” Buchanan told The Washington Post in January 1999. “You can’t tell me he doesn’t look like Mr. Ed.”
Sharpe, an eventual eight-time Pro Bowler and Hall-of-Fame tight end, didn’t back down from Buchanan. He told the media (via The Washington Post) that Buchanan should get rid of the eyeliner, lipstick, and high heels he wore.
Sharpe also said he wouldn’t give Buchanan a ride should the latter’s truck break down in a snowstorm.
Buchanan also became the second coming of Joe Namath without even knowing it.
He predicted the Falcons would beat the Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII on HBO’s Inside the NFL on January 26, 1999.
Viewers compared Buchanan’s bold prediction to Namath guaranteeing the New York Jets would beat the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.
Buchanan claimed he knew nothing about Namath’s guarantee until he read the sports pages the following day. Broncos safety Tyrone Braxton even dubbed him “Ray Namath,” per the Orlando Sentinel.
Sharpe got the last laugh in the end. His Broncos beat Buchanan’s Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, 34-19. Denver won back-to-back Vince Lombardi Trophies.
Buchanan signed a six-year, $36 million contract extension with the Falcons on February 22, 2001. He never played the full extent of that new deal as he remained in Atlanta only until the 2003 NFL campaign.
Atlanta averaged seven wins per season from 1997 to 2003. The Falcons made two postseason appearances with Ray Buchanan in the secondary during that seven-year time frame.
Ray Buchanan signed with the Oakland Raiders as a free agent prior to the 2004 NFL season.
Buchanan, who ventured into football coaching after he retired from the NFL, first trained his oldest son Ray, Jr. in his first and only season with the Oakland Raiders in NFL. The younger Buchanan was in eighth grade at the time, per the Arkansas Democrat Gazette’s Tom Murphy.
Ray, Sr. raved about his son’s work ethic. Although his son wasn’t the fastest and most athletic among his peers, paying attention to the intangibles such as nutrition gave him an edge.
“Ray works very hard,” Ray Buchanan, Sr. told Murphy in 2012. “Not to say that he’s not gifted, because it’s in his blood. You can’t get away from that.”
For his part, Ray, Jr. told The Gazette’s Jeff Johnson some four years later he remembered hanging out with his dad’s Raiders teammates such as Charles Woodson for their post-game meals during his time in Oakland.
Buchanan had regressed in his last two seasons with the Falcons, 2002 and 2003. His downward slide continued in Oakland, where he had just one interception and one forced fumble in the 2004 NFL campaign.
The Raiders won just five games in Norv Turner’s first year as their head coach in 2004. They missed the postseason for the second straight year.
Ray Buchanan retired following the 2004 NFL season. He finished his twelve-year pro football career with 47 interceptions, four defensive touchdowns, four forced fumbles, and six fumble recoveries.
Ray Buchanan, his second wife Beth, and his stepson Jordan currently reside in the Atlanta, GA area.
Buchanan has two sons, Ray, Jr. and Baylen, and two daughters, Destinee and Jade, with his first wife, Sheree.
Apparently, Buchanan’s football genes are more powerful than he thought. No matter how hard he tried to discourage his two sons, Ray, Jr. and Baylen, from following his path on the gridiron, his pleas fell on deaf ears.
“I tried to put tennis rackets in their hands,” Buchanan told The Indianapolis Star’s Mike Chappell in the summer of 2014. “I put golf clubs in their hands all the way down to water polo, brother.”
It came as no surprise both Buchanan brothers played defensive back in the collegiate football ranks, just like their dad.
Like most fathers who played professional football, Buchanan knew about the game’s violent nature. He sustained various injuries during his twelve-year NFL career. He never wanted his sons to suffer the same fate.
Ray, Jr. initially committed to the Arkansas Razorbacks. However, he transferred to Northern Iowa—the same school that produced Super Bowl XXXIV MVP Kurt Warner of the then-St. Louis Rams—later on.
For his part, Baylen played college football with the Tennessee Volunteers from 2016 to 2020. He spent the 2021 NCAA season as a graduate student with the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs.
Buchanan’s youngest son Jordan, a safety, committed to the Purdue Boilermakers in the summer of 2021.
Commentator to Coach
After Buchanan retired from the National Football League in 2004, he embarked on a career in sports media. He had stints with NFL Network, ESPN, FOX Sports Radio, Regional Comcast, and NBC, per Chappell.
Ray Buchanan, Sr. also became a position instructor at Football University. The organization aims to help middle school and high school students grasp the fundamentals of football.
Buchanan told Chappell in 2014 that he has a passion for teaching youngsters the rudiments of the gridiron.
Buchanan has also trained Atlanta-based rookie defensive backs in the yearly lead-up to the NFL Scouting Combine in March.
Buchanan became a member of the Louisville Cardinals Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006. He’s also a member of the Kentucky Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Fort Lauderdale, FL authorities arrested Buchanan in February 2007 for allegedly writing several bad checks. They released him after he posted a bond of $165,125, per The Associated Press (via ESPN).
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