These days, Rayden Overbay doesn’t have a problem striking up a conversation at his middle school. Classmates engage him.
”They’re not treating him any different,” Overbay’s father, Danny Ray Overbay, 37, told MMA Fighting. “They’re not being mean to him.”
At the height of bullying that started when he was nine, Rayden Overbay, who is autistic, suffers from ADHD and is deaf in his right ear, had written “I want to kill myself” on his arm in marker.
The pair of assaults Rayden suffered in mid-September at Yukon Middle School in Yukon, Okla., weren’t unlike others he’d endured over the years. The difference was that someone filmed both, and the footage got out.
Two months after those videos went viral, the 12-year-old is finding out how many people care about him. A social media hashtag – #standwithrayden – attracted support from famous athletes and actors. Famed boxing coach and analyst Teddy Atlas offered a trip to Disneyland.
It also brought a new mentor into the young man’s life. Former UFC heavyweight and Bellator fighter Justin Wren, founder of the nonprofit “Fight for the Forgotten,” showed up a few days after Rayden’s life was upended by a social media furor. They haven’t lost touch since.
When Wren first reached out on Facebook Messenger, Danny Overbay was skeptical of his son being used to promote others’ interests. Now, he can’t stop singing Wren’s praises.
”That was probably the best decision my wife and I have made in the 20 years we’ve been together,” Danny Overbay said. “He’s part of my family. God couldn’t have sent a better person besides himself.”
Wren, 32, quickly took Rayden under his wing and has been a chief advocate as the young man recovers. He hosted the Overbay family at the “Fight for the Forgotten” offices when reporters came knocking on their door. He was the family’s spokesperson when a press conference was called to urge restraint after reports surfaced of retribution against the bullies.
”I’m just trying to be the guy I needed when I was Rayden’s age, because 12 and 13 were the two worst years of my life,” he said.
Known for intertwining his fight career with charity work for Pygmies in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Wren has a soft spot for victims. But Rayden’s situation also came at the right moment. For the past year, he’d been developing an anti-bullying curriculum – “Heroes in Waiting” – as a spinoff of “Fight for the Forgotten.” He saw an opportunity to put the work into practice.
Wren has made it his mission to get Rayden healthy. He’s advised Rayden on healthy eating habits, attended family dinners, and even been a chauffer for sessions in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber that he said has improved the young man’s sleep patterns and an ongoing struggle with diabetes.
Rayden and his brother, Brock, also have been given a full scholarship to learn jiu-jitsu at Rafael Lovato Jr.’s academy in Oklahoma City; Wren is a training partner of the Bellator middleweight champion.
”I think he’s got a big, bright future ahead,” Wren told MMA Fighting. “He’s a teddy bear. He’s very loving and kind. He’s quiet and timid in first in group settings, but you get him one on one, and that’s where he spreads his wings.”
Rayden suffered a concussion during the attack and is still traumatized by what happened to him, according to his father. But he’s trending in the right direction. At times, the experience of being a viral sensation has been overwhelming for the young man.
”There’s times when he doesn’t know how to react, so he wants to get frustrated or upset because he doesn’t know if he’s supposed to be happy, or excited, or what,” Danny Ray Overbay said.
There was no mistaking Rayden’s emotion, however, when Wren told him he was going to Disneyland.
”He was damn near in tears about it,” Rayden’s father said.
The public’s support runs in stark contrast to the school’s response, Danny Ray Overbay said. Although Rayden’s social life improved, the school hasn’t done anything to prevent future incidents.
”What I can tell you right now is our school is doing absolutely nothing, which makes me very angry as a dad that they’re not doing anything to prevent this,” the father said. “It’s happened again since Rayden went down; another kid got beat up.”
Danny Ray Overbay said the school has told him charges have been filed against the bullies, but he said the city’s district attorney will ultimately decide the punishment for the pair of assaults. He said administrators initially talked tough about seeking the maximum penalties, but then began to hedge and were slow to respond.
”As much as they say they’re trying to prevent it from happening, I don’t truly believe that they are, and that’s why my wife and I have considered taking it a little further to see if we can do something about it,” he said.
In a prepared statement, a spokesperson for Yukon Middle School told MMA Fighting that the school and Yukon Police Department had “thoroughly investigated” the incidents on video. But the spokesperson declined to say whether any disciplinary action had been taken. A request for comment to the Yukon Police Department was acknowledged but not returned.
Danny Ray Overbay said his family is considering moving Rayden to another school. But with none in the immediate area, that’s not an easy switch.
After Radyen’s bullying story went viral, Wren and Overbay said people posted the bullies’ home addresses and advocated violence against them. They denounce those responses as the opposite of their mission.
”We’re trying to prevent all this from happening,” Danny Ray Overbay said. “We want to care for those other babies as well. It’s not just our kids. If we see one of those kids walking down the street, we’ll give them a hug. If they want to talk, we’ll talk. We do not look at them any different after what happened.”
Prevention remains a pressing issue worldwide among parents, school administrators and legislators as incidents of bullying go public. Anti-bullying laws have been enacted in all 50 states, though some go farther than others in shaping policies that prevent behavior before it starts.
Wren believes the best way to prevent the problem is first and foremost to build “good character” in young men and women, and then make every member of the community responsible for taking action when someone is victimized.
“Encourage people to stand up and say something,” he said. “Make safe choices, but make sure you report it. Something as simple as saying, ‘Hey, that’s not kind.’ Just by doing that, you shut down bullying.”
For those who’ve been victimized like Rayden, Wren said recovery is dependent on building a network of mentors that will continue to provide support. Not surprisingly, he likens it to the team of professionals that surround a fighter in camp.
“We need to surround him with coaches that will help him be well-rounded,” he said.
So that’s the goal now is finding other mentors to help and support – not just me, a cage fighter with a heart for bullied kids.”
Already, though, that cage fighter has made a big difference. The Overbay family didn’t ask for Wren’s help. But they’ve been humbled by the lengths he’s gone to help their sons.
“It’s about both my boys, all in all, and we just want to make sure the support is there for them,” Danny Ray Overbay said.
For those interested in helping the Overbay family, a GoFundMe has been set up to help cover medical costs during Rayden’s treatment.