Sept. 16, 2011
By Todd D. Burlage
If you want to tell the story of senior Gary Gray chronologically, the first chapter of his time at Notre Dame obviously begins the day he stepped on campus as an early enrollee freshman in January of 2007.
But if you want a truer launch point for Gray's story as a Notre Dame student-athlete, fast forward to December of 2008 when the Irish cornerback saw his solid football career fall into limbo, and his future into uncertainty.
Gray was noticeably absent and not with his team for the Hawaii Bowl that December. And when he wasn't enrolled at Notre Dame for the spring semester in 2009, popular belief was that Gray had played his last down for the Irish.
Don't expect Gray to offer many specifics about the circumstances that sent him back home to Columbia, S.C., for the semester. Details aren't important anyway because this isn't a story about a player leaving his team. It's a story about a young man spending every minute during his absence, working to get back where he belonged - all driven by a mother's support and firm hand.
"Maybe he had just got too laid back at school, and he wasn't doing what he needed to do," says Gray's mother, Yvonne Robinson. "I told him I wasn't going to tolerate him walking around here with his head down. I told him he's got too much to do. There wasn't any point in feeling sorry for himself. You got to just keep going forward. He kept his head up and he's been going at it hard ever since."
After a promising start to a football career that saw Gray make 20 appearances and seven starts during his first two seasons on the field, the exiled player said he felt equal parts embarrassment and disappointment for letting down his mother, his supportive godfather in Duane Wages, and an entire support network when he left school.
"They all sacrificed a lot for me, and for me to just blow it would have been very disappointing to all of us. I really let my mom down, that's what hurt the most," says Gray, fully aware that Prodigal Son stories don't always bring happy endings. "I got a second chance to come back and I wasn't going to blow it."
The choice was Gray's. He could mope, fill up with self-pity and become another big-time football casualty, or he could use the difficult situation to grow as a young man and become stronger upon his return. Gray's mother saw only one path, and she stood beside her son every step of the way.
"Gary was just so upset with himself and it was just a real down moment for him," Robinson says. "I told him God don't leave us hanging. He is always there for us and I told him to keep his head up, keep the faith, everything will work out and you'll get back to where you belong."
But any return to the Notre Dame football team wasn't going to happen until after the spring semester at the earliest, leaving Gray plenty of time to reflect, grow and help his mother.
"I really didn't have my father there my whole life," Gray says, "so mom has been the backbone for me and I needed to be there for her."
Gray worked two jobs to help carry his weight and put some money into a modest household. When he wasn't stocking shelves or bagging groceries at a local market, he was filing papers at an auto insurance business. Away from work, Gray spent his time in his high school weight room or playing pickup football with friends, all in an effort to get back to Notre Dame.
"That was a tough time. I was just focused on getting back with my teammates," Gray says. "That's all I really thought about."
A Triumphant Return
With any problems at the University ironed out, Gray returned to campus and his team in the summer of '09, a proud moment for a mother, but an anxious one for the player.
Starting over is never easy, and being away from the football routine for almost six months would create self-doubt for any player upon his return, including Gray.
Would the other players at his position be too far ahead to catch up? Could he regain the momentum for his career after extended time away? Would he ever become the same player as when he left?
Gray wasted little time answering all those questions, rising from backup cornerback to eventual starter during the '09 campaign, and turning a potential story of missed opportunity into a blueprint on how to face and conquer life's many challenges.
"I always knew I was coming back here and the time away just gave me a chance to grow up, become a man," Gray says. "When I went home, it just gave me time to grow up and find out what I really want to do with my life and focus on things."
"He went strong and hard when he went back to school so I guess being away was an eye-opener for him," adds Gray's mother. "Anything can happen at any time so I told him to keep the faith and it is all going to work out."
Gray continued his rise as a player during last season when he started in all 13 games, tied for the Irish lead with seven pass breakups and finished third on the team with 66 tackles, a staggering number of stops for a cornerback.
And now as one of six fifth-year seniors on the team, the time has come for Gray to take another step, help his team win more games, and build a foundation for a potential career in the NFL. Not a bad checklist for a player who wasn't with the team a couple of years ago.
"I think he is one of the better corners in the country and I think we expect him to play that way," says Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. "At this time last year, Gary Gray was not considered in that realm. Obviously, last year, he had a really good year for us. We want to see him pick up from where he left off and maybe even expand that into the next level."
A Mother's Love
Gray is the first to admit that his career at Notre Dame has been up and down. "It's been full of trials and tribulations for sure," says Gray, who also missed his freshman season after shoulder surgery.
But with a mother's love to guide him, Gray has overcome and in some respects, overachieved, graduating in May with his sociology degree.
"To see my baby walk across that stage to get his degree, it was like I was walking right next to him," Robinson says. "That was a wonderful moment."
Momma has always been there for her son, she's Gary's biggest fan by far. When mom can make the trip to South Bend, Gray claims he can still hear her yelling "Go G!" no matter how loud the stadium becomes, so nothing has really changed.
All the way back to middle school football, mom was lending her support, loudly and clearly.
"I would be on the sidelines for his games and when he got loose, I would be running up there right beside him," Robinson says with a belly laugh. "I'm on the sideline running right along with him screaming at him 'Run!, Run!' One time he said, 'Momma, we got you on film.' That's all right, my baby got that touchdown."
Finances and daily responsibilities make it difficult for Robinson to make the 800-mile trip from South Carolina to South Bend very often. "But you can bet I'll be saddled up in front of my TV," she says. And the two talk by phone before and immediately after every game, win or lose.
Robinson would like to make it to South Bend for at least three games this season, but if not, she won't miss the trip on Nov. 19 for Gary's final game at Notre Dame Stadium on Senior Day.
"I'll walk if I have to, I wouldn't miss that game for anything," Robinson said. "I am so proud of him growing up to be a good young man. He has come so far. It hasn't been easy but he's come so far."