MINNEAPOLIS - Ray Buford is coming full circle.
The former Gophers cornerback, expelled from the University of Minnesota for his alleged role in the sexual misconduct case in 2016, is set to play for New Mexico State in the U's season opener at 6 p.m. Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium.
"Get to see all my boys play this weekend," Buford tweeted Monday. "Yessirrrr."
His Twitter account listed his location as "Road to Redemption."
Buford, a 21-year-old Detroit native, is contesting the University of Minnesota in U.S. District Court, one of nine players that sued the U in June alleging discrimination on the basis of race and sex. The plaintiffs, suspended or expelled for violating the school's conduct policy, claim that when multiple players had sex with a female student who had been drinking on Sept. 2, 2016, it was consensual.
They are asking for compensatory damages and to be reinstated to the U with clean disciplinary records.
The terms of Buford's indefinite expulsion won't preclude him from playing football against the Gophers, said Chuck Tombarge, the U's chief public relations officer. "There are no other restrictions on him, certainly not related to this game," he wrote in an email.
The U has not filed a response to the lawsuit. The players' attorney, David Madgett, said he believes the U will file a motion to dismiss, and he claims that an investigation of the incident by the U's Office for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action excluded relevant evidence.
"People will be very surprised to see the level of evidence that is presented," Madgett said.
After leaving the U, Buford landed at Independence (Kan.) Community College, where he played in all 12 games of the 2017 season. He also made brief appearances in the most-recent season of "Last Chance U," a Netflix documentary that chronicled two junior colleges filled with players seeking second chances from major college programs.
New Mexico State, an independent program which recently left the Sun Belt Conference, gave Buford that second chance after a lengthy vetting process in January. Buford was accepted and enrolled after the school's Office of Institutional Equity and Aggies athletics director Mario Moccia looked into his past, according to the Las Cruces Sun-News.
Citing privacy laws, New Mexico State's Title IX coordinator Lauri Millot declined to discuss the investigation into Buford's past, but Moccia said he spoke with former Minnesota coaches Jerry Kill, Tracy Claeys, Jay Sawvel and Rob Reeves.
"They were high-character references; that to me went a long way," said Moccia, who worked with Kill and those assistants at Southern Illinois from 2006-07. "When the discussion about recruiting this prospective student-athlete (occurred), I asked myself, 'What is my due diligence?' And it was (talking to) people I knew and people I trusted."
The Hennepin County Attorney's Office twice declined to press charges against Gophers players related to the Sept. 2 incident, once after a police investigation and then again after the school's Title IX investigation, for which the burden of proof threshold is lower than in criminal court. The U expelled four players and suspended another for a year. Five others returned to the team.
Three of those reinstated players are set to play against New Mexico State - safety Antoine Winfield Jr., receiver Seth Green and cornerback Antonio Shenault. Mark Williams left the program after last season, and Kobe McCrary graduated and signed with the Vikings midway through this preseason.
The four other players punished by the U are Kiante Hardin, Tamarion Johnson, Dior Johnson and Carlton Djam. Only Hardin is not part of the lawsuit, Madgett said.
The incident cost the jobs of Claeys, who succeeded Kill as head coach in October 2015, and Sawvel, Reeves and the rest of that Minnesota staff. They were fired in January 2017, and current head coach P.J. Fleck was hired a few days later.
Buford was a promising defensive back in the Gophers' 2015 recruiting class. In 2016, he made 16 tackles and broke up three passes in seven games of a season cut short by suspension relating to the sexual misconduct incident. On Saturday, he started and made four tackles in New Mexico State's season-opening, 29-7 loss to Wyoming.
He has one more year of collegiate eligibility remaining after this season.
In a tweet published Monday, he wrote "Psalms 40:2" in reference to a Bible verse: "He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and the mire, he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand."
It Ends Here
The two-year anniversary of the sexual misconduct incident involving football players is Sunday, and the U's athletics department continues to feel its effects. Part of Gophers athletics director Mark Coyle decision to hire Fleck included the coach's stated goal of creating a "holistic" program that aims for player growth on and off the field.
Brenda Tracy, a sexual assault victim who has used her experience to change the culture in major college sports, has addressed the Gophers about "setting the expectation" against rape and domestic violence in favor of consensual sex and universal respect for women.
Coyle said the athletics department's Student Advisory Committee, which comprises leaders from all 25 teams, asked for more education on the processes of the university's EOAA office, which is responsible for investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct.
In response, the U's athletic department has increased its training on sexual misconduct, academic integrity and gambling from about four hours a year prior to Coyle's arrival to around eight hours now.
"They have a better understand of how that process works and how we can all make sure that we fully understand that process and how it can impact us," Coyle said.
Gophers basketball player Reggie Lynch was expelled in February following EOAA investigations into two separate sexual misconduct accusations.
In spring 2017, the Gophers brought in consultant Dan Beebe, a former Big XII commissioner and former NCAA director of enforcement, to provide an outside perspective on the U's operations from a "human relations risk management" perspective, Coyle said.
Beebe conducted more than 100 interviews with athletics department staff, coaches and players.
"He taught us and provided us with alternative ways to report things," Coyle said. "If something is going on and you don't feel comfortable going to ... your immediate supervisor, you can go to these three other people on campus, inside the department - those kinds of things."
Beebe conducted follow-up visits in February and July, and has another scheduled for this fall, the U said.
In addition, U President Eric Kaler set up the Initiative to Prevent Sexual Misconduct to address accountability and education within the U community. Coyle and Julie Manning, an executive associate AD, sit on that committee.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Student Association (MSA) sexual assault task force recommended that when an athlete is serving an interim suspension, he or she is also barred from practices on top of games. Lynch practiced during investigations last fall. The athletics department said it prefers to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
MSA also started "It Ends Here," a public-awareness campaign urging all to speak up when encountering any form of sexual misconduct. The Gophers football team promoted the campaign during its spring game in April and invited MSA President Trish Palermo to give a presentation to the team.
"When I walked in, I was shocked because of how attentive they all were," Palermo said. "I've spoken on panels before, and you probably have one-quarter of the eyes in the room. This was every single set of eyes on me intently, extremely respectful and engaged in what I was saying. Coach Fleck definitely prompted them, but it was definitely nice to see that level of attention."
Fleck and his team arrived at TCF Bank Stadium for the spring game wearing "It Ends Here" T-shirts, and a video on the cause played on the stadium's big screens. Afterward, Fleck explained how he plans to have his team follow up.
"Actions," he said. "Words, stickers, that's one thing. T-shirts (with) 'It Ends Here' is one thing. Now we've put the pressure upon ourselves to act right, to act accordingly. I'm not going to sit up here and say my players are perfect, (that) we will never make a mistake. But one thing I can promise everybody is when things happen and things need to be handled and dealt with, they will be handled efficiently, correctly and swiftly. I think our players understand that.
"Whether people run me out of town in five or six years or we are here 50 years, we are going to run a first-class football-life program."