Facing toughest foe, Gerry Gray again perseveres

October 05, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

Everything about Gerry Gray is a silent personification of determination. The record is there. He embodies only the finest of athletic and academic abilities, taking a 96 grade average at Calvert Hall to Notre Dame and, upon graduation, being nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship after being a three-year starting fullback.

His desire to succeed is ravenous. He is studious and profound. There are no theatrics from Gray, only total commitment. At age 54, with a wife, Carol Anne, and family befitting a man of such exceptional virtues, Gray is fighting to get back on his feet. He's in Johns Hopkins Hospital recovering from spinal surgery brought on by what doctors believe to be a cancerous condition.

For an insight into the character of Gray and what makes him the remarkable individual he is, let's deal with excerpts from the past:

As an incoming freshman at Calvert Hall, he was recovering from a broken right arm so he taught himself, in a matter of days, to write left-handed in order not to miss any classroom examinations. Complications delayed recovery and, come springtime, he wanted to try out for baseball. With a lame right arm, he became an outfielder who was throwing left-handed, an unusual alternative brought on by necessity.

Walter Youse, the most successful coach amateur baseball has known in Maryland, related an incident involving Gray at the 1959 All-American Tournament in Johnstown, Pa.

"It was the last inning and Gray was up with a runner on third," recalled Youse as he set the scene. "Gray, on a squeeze play, foul-tipped the ball into his own throat. He was out cold at home plate. We put water on him and he came out of it.

"Finally, he got to his feet. I was about to bring in a pinch hitter. There was still one strike left, but Gerry insisted he was OK. I relented against my better judgment. On the next pitch, after being knocked unconscious, he hit a line-drive single to win the game and championship. What a competitor."

At Notre Dame, Gray won varsity letters in 1959-'6l-'62. He had to miss a year of school after a serious disk operation and, while recuperating, became a copy boy in the sports department of The News American. At night, Gray, thirsting for knowledge, enrolled in the McCoy College at Johns Hopkins University to study Russian history.

The late Joe Kuharich, coaching at Notre Dame, said when Gray was injured, it was assumed he would never again put on a uniform.

"The next fall, without even an invitation to practice, he showed up on the field," recalled Kuharich. "I thought it was the ghost of Gerry Gray. We never thought he could play. He not only made the squad but started for us."

Against Southern California in 1959, he gave one of the most outstanding performances of any Notre Dame player in an intersectional series that had its inception in 1926, when Knute Rockne was the coach. Gray scored two touchdowns, gaining 75 yards on 13 carries, tackled Angelo Coia in the end zone for a safety, and was responsible for 14 of his team's 16 points, an effort that won him "back of the week" honors from the Associated Press.

Upon graduation, Notre Dame nominated Gray for a Rhodes Scholarship, a tribute in itself. Few football players have the qualifications to be considered. He made the preliminary cut but lost out in the finals, yet never complained.

Wife Carol Anne says Gerry told her he has no intention of giving in to the current crisis. He's a history teacher and also football coach at John Carroll High. Only two weeks ago, when his team met Joppatowne, he wanted desperately to be on the field.

Carol Anne drove him to the game and he sat in the car and outside in a wheelchair while communicating with the sidelines and assistant John Welsh by telephone. "It was another unbelievable demonstration of what makes Gerry the person he is," was his wife's prideful reaction.

In the midst of the trauma and worry, a letter that brightened the day arrived at his hospital room from a man and coach Gray admires:

"Somehow winning football games seems very trivial when we learn about the battles being fought by courageous people like you. We here in the football office just wanted you to know our thoughts and prayers are with you during this difficult time.

"Please keep up that fighting spirit, Jerry. That is especially important and never stop believing in miracles. They happen every day. The Fighting Irish and I are rooting for you to feel better very soon.

"Sincerely, Lou Holtz."

Gerry Gray never took the easy way. Without a trace of self-pity, he looks on his present situation as one of the "breaks" that tests a man's character. Give up? Never. To him, it's not heroic, just the way he has always played the game of life.

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