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Gary Gray: Outgoing safety gives Irish a shot of athleticism

Laura Myers | Thursday, November 11, 2010

In Gary Gray’s first game in an Irish uniform, he returned an interception for 41 yards. A little more than a year later, in the senior cornerback’s first start, he led the team with six tackles and returned a 30-yard interception.

Now, he is a steady presence in Notre Dame’s backfield.

In Notre Dame’s first game of 2010, a 23-12 win over Purdue on Sept. 4, Gray led the team with eight solo tackles, and tallied nine in total.

He followed that with five tackles against Michigan and Pittsburgh, eight against Western Michigan and nine against Tulsa.

“I think I’ve developed as a player, having more urgency,” Gray said. “Watching film more, learning your opponent. In high school, you didn’t watch film, but here you have to, to be ready.”

Gray said he became more of a leader as a senior, and his performance in games defined his leadership style.

“I’m not much of a talker, but I talk about plays on the field, and what I do,” he said. “Guys see that, and they want to make plays too.”

At every new step Gray has had a fast start — but it took a while for him to get there.

A four-star recruit out of Richland Northeast High School in Columbia, S.C., Gray chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, Florida State and Michigan, among others. After finishing his high school career with a trip to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, he enrolled in January 2007 to be available for spring practice with the Irish.

But injuries kept Gray out of much of the spring and all of the 2007 season. He had surgery on his shoulder prior to the start of that season.

“It was tough, not being able to play,” he said. “I hurt my arm in spring practice, then my recurring shoulder injury was bad [in the fall]. But it gave me a chance to adjust to college.”

He played his first game in Notre Dame’s 35-17 win over Michigan on Sept. 13, 2008. In the fourth quarter, he grabbed the interception off a pass from Wolverine quarterback Nick Sheridan. He ran the ball from Notre Dame’s 42 yard line to Michigan’s 17 before being tackled.

“That was great. I read the coverage right, picked it and ran as far as I could,” he said.

Gray’s mother was in the stands to see him make the interception, which made it even better, he said. But he noted a playful grudge against defensive tackle Ian Williams, one of his best friends on the team.

“I could have scored, but Ian didn’t block for me,” he said. “… He didn’t block, that’s why I got tackled.”

Gray played in nine games as a sophomore, but then took a leave from the team for personal reasons. He returned as a junior for the 2009 football season and soon became a fixture in the defense. He played in 11 games and started the last seven.

In his first career start, against Southern California on Oct. 17, 2009, he recorded six tackles and intercepted a pass from Matt Barkley. He ran the pass to the USC 13 yard-line, setting the Irish up for a touchdown three plays later.

In his career Gray has intercepted four passes and helped to break up many more. His position in pass coverage led him to get a tattoo on his back, of a hawk carrying a football. The tattoo reads “Ball Hawk.”

“It just means I’m always around the ball when it’s in the air,” Gray said. “When it’s in my vicinity, I’m going to be around it.”

Gray had the tattoo done as a junior.

“My godfather always talked about getting to the ball,” he said. “We always joked about me getting a tattoo, like squeezing the air out of a ball, but I already got it. It has meaning behind it.”

Outside of practice, Gray is just like any other student — he listens to music, does homework and plays video games with friends. He has grown close with most of the football team’s seniors, he said, and spends most of his time with them.

Defensive end Emeka Nwankwo is the one to beat when playing Madden NFL, Gray said, but he is “great at FIFA,” a soccer video game.

His favorite place on campus is related to football as well: the Guglielmino Complex, where players lift weights, study, have meetings and eat dinner.

“We spend half our time here,” he said.

Gray will graduate in May with a degree in sociology and a minor in computer applications. He said he could continue with the computer applications major if he comes back to the team for a fifth year — something he would like to do.

“Hopefully I can do that,” he said. “We’ll see how things work out this year.”

Through three years of action, Gray’s time at Notre Dame has included plenty of upheaval, as the defense changed schemes in each year he played.

“It hasn’t affected me that much. I think I’m a quick learner,” he said. “I think I adjusted okay.”

He said the coaching change worked out well.

“It’s been tough with the coaching changes,” he said. “But the transition was good. [Irish coach Charlie Weis] is doing great with the Chiefs, and I really like what [Irish coach Brian Kelly] brings to the table, and I like our defensive staff.”

Gray said the problems the team has faced since his freshman year have given the Irish a fighting character.

“Through the turmoil, us losing, us being 3-9 that year and having mediocre years the next two years after that has been tough, but you just have to keep fighting,” he said. “That’s what we always do.”

That character has been evident in this season as well, he said.

“I mean, going into the season we didn’t think we’d be 4-5 right now, but we’ve been close in all our games except for two,” he said. “It’s tough, but there’s still season left.”

But there is still a lot to accomplish in 2010. Gray said talk among the seniors is focused on avoiding a senior day loss.

“Just get the win for the seniors,” he said. “They don’t want to leave their last game in Notre Dame Stadium with a loss. It was tough last year, seeing my friends leave with a loss in the Stadium. We don’t want that to happen again.”

With coming back for a fifth year as a possibility, Gray’s view of that senior game may be a little different than that of most; but his reflection on his four years at Notre Dame summed up the experience of this year’s senior class.

“It didn’t start well with the records,” he said. “But we’ve always fought in every game this year. We had our ups and downs, but we keep fighting. We’re the Fighting Irish.”