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Leaving a legacy

Allan Joseph | Thursday, November 3, 2011

Entering the 2011 season, senior running back Jonas Gray had done everything right to get his final campaign off to a fast start. After three years of waiting, Gray had finally found his opportunity to be a featured back.

“He did all the things it takes to have a great year,” running backs coach Tim Hinton said. “He worked hard in the summer, in the weight room, in his conditioning. He worked hard in his summer two-a-days. He studied film, he’s learned his schemes and he understands the blocking in front of him.”

Notre Dame took the ball all the way to the South Florida 1-yard line on its opening drive, and Gray got the call to earn the final three feet and score the first touchdown of his collegiate career.

Moments later, South Florida cornerback Kayvon Webster had returned a Gray fumble 96 yards for a touchdown, and Gray’s dream start was in disarray.

“I was shocked that it happened,” Gray said. “I kept trying to remember in my head what happened. It happened kind of fast, and I was thinking, ‘Did the ref blow the whistle? Was I down by contact?'”

The fumble stood, and Gray found himself facing doubt yet again. But when he re-entered the game later, his own troubles were not foremost on his mind.

“I was a little worried, especially when I got back in and people started booing,” Gray said. “I was worried about my mom in the stands and how she was doing. I know she was probably going crazy.”

Gray’s loyalty to his mother stems from his upbringing in Pontiac. Mich., and he carries the lessons his mother taught him to this day.

“We’re just a close-knit family. She’s a parent but at the same time she’s like my best friend,” Gray said. “We just always stuck together. That’s why I have that loyalty to my teammates, because she instilled that in me.”

That loyalty to his “football family” paid off for Gray when the Irish rallied around their senior tailback after his season-opening miscue.

“My teammates rallied around me, my coaches rallied around me, so I was okay,” Gray said.

Yet despite rebounding and hitting his midseason stride, Gray said not a day goes by when he does not think about that South Florida contest — but not because of the fumble.

“In a lot of ways — I know people are going to say it’s not true — I feel like [senior quarterback Dayne Crist] getting benched had a lot do with me,” Gray said. “With him being one of my best friends, it was tough. It still is tough. That’s why I think about that game every day. You think about how fast it can be taken away from you.”

Belief from the top

After the first game, Irish coach Brian Kelly did not berate Gray, nor did he bench him. Instead, Kelly simply issued a challenge.

“He talked to me about it, and he just said, ‘How do you want to be remembered? It’s up to you. You’re the only person that can make it better or make it get worse,'” Gray said. “That was it. He said he believed in me.”

Hinton echoed Kelly’s sentiments and shored up Gray’s belief in himself when the senior back needed it most.

“After the game, [coach Hinton] pulled me in his office and he was upset with himself … He said, ‘I should have played you more after it happened,'” Gray said. “That right there, it was refreshing — he and coach Kelly coming together and making sure that I didn’t get in the tank, and then realizing the talents that I had and the capabilities that I had when I didn’t even believe in myself.”

Hinton and Gray have developed a close relationship that has helped spur Gray to rebound and accept Kelly’s challenge in the best of ways — Gray has reeled off eight touchdown runs in the last five games.

“We are very close. He always talks about how he loves us as people,” Gray said. “It’s just trust between me and him and the rest of the running backs in the room. We’re like an intermediate family inside of a bigger family, and he’s the head of the house.

“[This success] is just great coaching. That’s what it comes down to.”

From his role calling plays, Kelly has been able to watch the fruits of the relationship between Hinton and Gray turn into success on the field.

“Our job as coaches is to develop our players. It has to be a 50/50 relationship with them. We can only do so much,” Kelly said. “I think coach Hinton has done a great job with him. He’s finishing his runs. He’s playing like a 230-pound back. It’s fun to watch.

“His focus has been on finishing runs, being physical and being that physical element in our running game. It’s really helped our offense.”

For his part, Gray credits Hinton with his renewed commitment to winning physical battles.

“I love it. It’s exciting. It’s like coach Hinton always says: ‘Break your will with their toughness.’ That’s what it is,” the English and political science major said. “You’re out there running hard, you lower your shoulder and after a while they’re not going to take you head on.”

Running into the record books

In response to Kelly’s challenge, Gray gave himself one task: building a legacy.

“My one thing I wanted to do was leave a legacy of a guy who dealt with all that adversity, continued to come back, continued to play at a high level and played through things,” he said. “I think I’ve done that, and I think there’s still a lot left to do.

“I always say it’s been so much of a journey. It’s had its ups and downs, its negatives and positives, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”

Not only has Gray finished his career with its best play, but the presumed power runner has turned heads with his breakaway speed.

“He had to be a physical downhill presence … and he’s done a great job,” Hinton said. “His explosiveness has been a little surprise and a happy surprise.”

Gray has been so explosive, in fact, that he is on the verge of breaking a decades-old Notre Dame record. Gray is currently averaging 8.5 yards per carry on the season, surpassing both the modern record of 8.0 yards Reggie Brooks set in 1992 and the all-time school record of 8.1 yards per carry posted in 1920 by the famed George Gipp.

“It is crazy, especially thinking about where I came from, where I started,” Gray said. “To talk about breaking a record with a guy like that is — breaking any type of Notre Dame record from where I started — it’s pretty incredible.”

Though Gray knows his senior campaign may have put some in the NFL on notice, he has just one goal for the end of the season — a goal fittingly inspired by the season’s start.

“For these last four games, I’m trying to do everything I can to help the team win,” Gray said. “If I work hard, I’m going to help this team win and I’m going to help myself in the future.

“I don’t think there’s a game really where I don’t think about that very first game. I think about going out there and paying attention to detail and helping my team win — going out there and playing my hardest.”