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One-on-One with Ray Buchanan

Few current NFL defensive backs have accomplished more, on or off the field, than Ray Buchanan. In his 10th NFL season out of Louisville, Buchanan has intercepted more passes than any other player in the NFL over the past five seasons. As a charitable and dedicated family man, the 30-year-old Buchanan, who is married with four children, has established a foundation to foster the betterment of underprivileged children in Atlanta.

Buchanan’s talents, however, transcend the football field. The former Pro Bowl cornerback is an accomplished vocalist with more than 15 years of musical training. He recorded his first album during the off-season prior to the Falcons’ 1998 Super Bowl run. Entitled “Favor,” the album consisted of songs that ranged stylistically from ballads to rap with close friend and teammate Ashley Ambrose.

His musical exploits afforded him an opportunity to showcase his talents on the 2000 All-Madden Selection Show. Buchanan also produced a CD single that was released during the 1999 season entitled “Roll With Me,” and performed the football-themed song during Super Bowl XXXIV week in Atlanta.

In this exclusive interview with The Sports Network’s NFL guru, Bryan McGovern, Buchanan discusses the upcoming NFL season, the loss of teammate Jamal Anderson, the future of superstar-in-the-making Michael Vick, his favorite wide receiver to cover (hint: he talks a lot) and his brand new self-titled album.

The Sports Network: What happened during last year’s disappointing 7-9 season and what can you take from it and change this year?

Ray Buchanan: We really didn’t challenge opponents as much as we needed to. But you don’t want to take too much away from the players because we have a lot of talent on this team. Now we have Wade Phillips as our new defensive coordinator and he’s installed a new 3-4 defense. We’ve been practicing it a lot and it’s amazing how a new scheme can really turn things around. It actually makes us look good.

TSN: You are clearly the leader of Atlanta’s defense. However, Pro Bowl linebacker Keith Brooking has really established himself over the past two years. What’s your take on Brooking and the rest of your defense?

RB: Keith Brooking is legit. He’s a very good player. Keith made a lot of mistakes last year, but at least he made them at full speed. He definitely made more plays than he messed up. Then a couple of guys got hurt and Keith was added to the Pro Bowl. That’s something this team needed. With Patrick Kerney and John Thierry now too, we have a lot of competition at linebacker. Looking at the secondary, me and Ashley are back. We have Gerald McBurrows starting at strong safety, and we’ve got ex-Bill Keion Carpenter and veteran Keith Lyle in the mix at free safety. We’re definitely going to be better.

TSN: You team up with Ashley Ambrose to form one of the better cornerback tandems in the NFL. But the weakness of last year’s defense was the play of the safeties and the failure of the team’s nickel and dime backs to hold their own. Do you think one of the newcomers, Fred Weary or Allen Rossum, can solidify the holes?

RB: In nickel and dime you need guys who are fast, quick and can go out there and make a few plays. But that third cornerback isn’t going to be asked to put up numbers like me or Ashley. We just need a guy who can win his share of the battles at that position. When you’re 31st in the league on third-down situations you realize that your nickel back is really getting attacked. That makes everything look sour and then they start looking at us like, ‘What’s going on?’ Not to say that our play was all that great last year, but everything has a trigger effect. If you see a lot of guys making plays that pumps up the whole team and you’re going to follow suit. I’ve been able to put up numbers year after year, but still I think I can play that much better when you get a great group of guys around you. Everybody starts feeding off one another. A guy like Fred Weary or Allen Rossum might be able to step up at that position and help us.

TSN: You had five interceptions last year and an NFL-high 27 over the past five seasons. How much better can you get?

RB: People talk about having the most picks in the last five years, but I have 43 interceptions in my nine seasons. I look at some of the active players and some of these other guys who are ahead of me but are retired and I’m catching them real fast.

TSN: How about when you were coming up in this league…who did you look up to and how do you use what you learned from those guys to sustain a successful leadership role on the Falcons?

RB: The most important thing is keeping your head on straight and then studying a lot. You’d be surprised at how much of this game is mental. Studying is real important, but also taking care of your body. That way you can start thinking about having a longer career. When I was a rookie, I picked out a few guys to try and model myself after. I picked out Rod Woodson, Darrell Green, Deion Sanders and Aeneas Williams. These guys are guys I really looked up to and wanted to shape and mold myself and my game after. I wanted to be all those guys. I took a little from each of their games and put it into what I do. The longevity of Darrell Green, the hitting ability at the corner position of Rod Woodson, the off-field manner in which Aeneas Williams handles himself as having faith in God, and I looked at Deion Sanders’ flamboyance. I tried to be all that. I tell the younger guys, ‘Find you some guys who you might look up to, don’t player-hate.’

TSN: Taking a step back and looking at the 2002 Atlanta Falcons as a whole, the club lost some big parts in the off-season. Jamal Anderson and Chris Chandler were released. Both players were big parts of the run to the Super Bowl in ’98. Warrick Dunn was signed to a big free-agent contract, but Anderson’s fate was sealed when the Falcons drafted Michigan State’s T.J. Duckett. How is this team going to adapt to the changes?

RB: Jamal was a great player for us, but it all comes down to the salary cap. It’s a business and losing a great guy like Jamal is a negative side of the business. But he suffered a couple of very serious knee injuries and the team just couldn’t take the risk. T.J. Duckett is here now and he’s solid as a rock. I mean this guy is huge and he’s fast. He has the ability and the agility that Jamal had, it’s just a matter of what kind of guy he is. I’ve talked to him and he’s got that same swagger as Jamal, too. With Duckett and Warrick Dunn, we have a big-time running game with the ability to make some plays.

TSN: One of the guys who worked hard in the off-season program is second-year quarterback Michael Vick. What kind of player is Vick going to be once he puts it all together?

RB: Michael Vick is a beast, a freak of nature. Some of the stuff is yet to be seen, but he has the ability to dominate. The offense is simpler this year, so it won’t be as difficult for him to call plays in the huddle. Dan Reeves had the most complicated offensive verbiage in the league, but that’s been simplified. That will definitely benefit Mike as a second-year quarterback. He also has the ability to run with the ball and his awareness and feel for the game is incredible. His arm strength is outstanding. We all just have to be patient with him. The new running game should take some pressure off his shoulders.

TSN: Is it fair to say that we haven’t even scratched the surface of Vick’s potential?

RB: Definitely. The thing is he probably has the strongest arm in the National Football League. Combine that with his agility and athleticism and I think you’re looking at a very rare football player. He has a chance to be very special. He just needs to go out there and play more and get some confidence. Once that happens, watch out.

TSN: The 2002 season brings with it a whole new ballgame. Under the league’s realignment plan, the Falcons will move from the old NFC West to the newly-created NFC South. Atlanta loses St. Louis and San Francisco, but keeps its divisional ties with Carolina and New Orleans. The Tampa Bay Bucs are the fourth team in your new division.

RB: It’s going to be a lot easier for us now. The Saints ripped apart their defense by letting La’Roi Glover and Joe Johnson go. Of course, Tampa Bay has a great defense. They really slow the game down. But I think we’re in a better position defensively with our new scheme to help out our offense more. Hopefully, we’ll put Mike in a position that will enable him to succeed. With St. Louis and the 49ers leaving, we’re feeling pretty comfortable. But we’re not going to get too comfortable within that division. We really believe we could make it to the playoffs with our schedule, but we don’t want to take anyone lightly.

TSN: The Bucs were a defensive powerhouse under Tony Dungy. But now he’s in Indianapolis and the offensive-minded Jon Gruden is coaching the Bucs and he’s looking to make your job more difficult. Tampa Bay has Keyshawn Johnson, brought in ex-Giant Joe Jurevicius and also scooped up former Jaguar Keenan McCardell. What’s it going to be like having to face that receiving trio twice a year?

RB: I would rather face those guys – bigger guys – than smaller, quicker guys any day. Bigger receivers are a lot slower and they’re easier to read. You just have to worry about their jumping ability. But, man, me and Keyshawn have been going at it since I was with the Colts and he was with the Jets. I love going against him because he’s such a great player. He’s a big trash talker, but he backs it up with his play. A lot of guys talk but can’t play. Keyshawn could probably talk while doing just about anything. But he’s actually started to tone it down a bit dating back to about two years ago when he started getting hit in the mouth a lot. He got caught once on national TV and was down on the ground bleeding from the mouth. His helmet was rolling over by the bench. This game humbles you a little bit no matter who you are. But sometimes Keyshawn reminds me of myself because he says things to get his team pumped up, get the crowd pumped up. But at his position it’s kind of hard to do that because you’re a target. For me, you can come after me but I get to hit those receivers on every play. If I played offense I would never say anything. Defensive players target offensive players who talk. Football is a very emotional game and we’re all human. It’s natural to be excited when you play. But I think it might be a marketing thing for Keyshawn more than anything else because when you meet him he’s not that same kind of guy you see on TV.

TSN: How about going against New Orleans Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks?

RB: I compare him to Michael Vick. I got my first taste of him two years ago when Mike wasn’t even here. He can run with the ball and make things happen, too. It’s funny because Aaron talks to Mike a lot because they’re cousins. So they kind of play a similar game because they were raised to play every sport and every position. They’re athletes first, football players second. But we won’t be saying that about either one of those guys in a few years. They’re learning fast. Aaron Brooks was really helped by Ricky Williams running skills. That took a lot of pressure off him. He couldn’t pass the ball too well, but he improved that. He had some very good wide receivers to throw to – Joe Horn and Willie Jackson – and good guys around you will always make you look better.

TSN: You’ve played in the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowl and there are tens of thousands of fans at your games every Sunday. How does playing in the NFL compare to performing your music on stage?

RB: It’s fairly similar. When you’re on the microphone doing your thing you still get butterflies. It’s like a dream come true to be an entertainer and perform on stage.

TSN: I liked your new CD. It’s refreshingly different from what Deion Sanders did and what Shaquille O’Neal does with his music. Your new album has a real smooth, positive vibe to it.

RB: People don’t get to see who you really are a lot of times. They just see the football player on TV. They only see me talking about football, but I really have a story to tell. I really have something that could help a lot of kids out in life. You think about the negative vibes you get from some music out there now and a lot of kids are getting lost. They just look at the money, the girls, the alcohol, the jewelry and the cars on TV. A lot of rappers are talking about negative stuff and it really has nothing to do with what life is all about. So I want to give people a different type of perspective. I’m not going to knock what these guys are doing because they’re making money doing it, but I think a lot of them are selling their souls making that type of music. Some of them degrade women and talk about what they’re doing with women. I mean these are the lifestyles they really live, but it’s something they can easily change. As you’re listening to my music, I want to give you something positive and maybe help you to change your life. I talk about relationships and fun things – and it’s all clean. There are definitely some songs with a spiritual vibe, but Ray Buchanan the football player is on the album, too.

TSN: You have a football-themed song on the new album, which is available in stores now, called “Big Play.”

RB: That’s what they pay me for – the big play. I talk about myself in the song making plays and what I’m going to do. But I don’t rap about anything I’m not going to do or haven’t done already. It’s all good.

TSN: Do you have a favorite song on the album?

RB: Yes, “Hold On” is my favorite because it’s about issues a lot of people deal with. It’s about the devil attacking you spiritually and the temptations that are out there and I try to make it into a positive. Also, “That’s All There Was To Give,” which is a song I did with recording artist Sam Salter. It’s a song about me and my wife and how we actually met. It’s what a relationship is really all about and how you should treat your spouse. I think that one was tough. I really liked that one.

TSN: It sounds as though you enjoy making music almost as much as you do playing football.

RB: I do love it, but it’s different. People don’t understand what it takes to make an album. I have a greater respect for entertainers and all that they have to do. But music has been a part of my life for a long time going all the way back to high school when me and my cousin thought we were Run D.M.C. It’s a lot of fun because it’s encouraging. I have a lot of fun making music.

TSN: In addition to your family, football and music, you also have the Ray Buchanan Foundation.

RB: I’ve always been giving back. I like getting involved with helping less fortunate children and kids. I think about what we as football players have and how these kids dream about growing up and being like us. It’s our role to help them along because the majority of those kids are not going to play in the NFL. They need to get an education. I also do work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Boys & Girls Club backing the stay in school and away from drugs message. The most enjoyable part of my foundation, besides giving money and having charitable events, is when I’m on the football field playing for some of those kids. For every interception or pass defended I donate money. So when I’m playing ball it gives me that added incentive. I also have Ray’s Straight A’s which is a program that allows me to donate football tickets to kids who get good grades in the classroom, so that’s an added incentive for them.
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