When Gray turned Blue, the game changed
Bobby Gray's stat line in the annals of Newman varsity football history will show that he rushed once for 3 yards.
But there is no tangible measure for the impact the program has had on Gray, and vice versa.
Before Newman began its trek up the Class 3A playoff ladder, the Comets honored one of the program's many traditions. Each player gives a speech about what he's willing to dedicate, to commit, to the team while adding a link to a chain. He with the most inspirational speech is named Tender of the Chain by the coaching staff.
Gray, who nearly lost his life as an infant and has battled physical challenges ever since, stood before his teammates and – through the first tears head coach Mike Papoccia had ever seen Gray cry – told them that Newman football saved his life.
There wasn't a dry eye in the room.
"It took us longer to walk out of the room than it took to make our decision," Newman assistant coach and athletic trainer Andy Accardi said.
Gray proudly held the chain for nearly 16 quarters of playoff action, all while encouraging teammates and alerting them of the opponent's tendencies.
"Holding that chain means being someone who's strong, who will never give up," Gray said. "It means being someone who's willing to help those who are struggling, to not let them ever give up.
"If anyone broke down, it was my job to build them back up."
Gray wore the chain like a badge of honor until he was unleashed Saturday afternoon.
Aurora Christian nearly sent the Comets out of the playoffs on a sour note during a semifinal Saturday afternoon at Roscoe Eades Stadium.
But after the Eagles turned the ball over on downs with kneel-downs in the victory formation, a window of opportunity flew open.
Papoccia called No. 40.
"You should've seen all the guys' eyes light up when they heard Bobby was going in," Papoccia said.
Gray picked up 3 yards, about 17 years after doctors told him he might never walk again.
"It was the perfect way to end the season," senior captain and linebacker Kyle Moore said.
Being honored as the Tender of the Chain reminds Gray of when and how his relentless personality was forged.
"It brings me back to when I was little," Gray said. "I couldn't breathe. The doctors told my mom I had an 85 percent chance of living."
Gray was a miracle baby upon delivery, considering his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck while he was in his mother's womb. At just 4 months of age, doctors diagnosed him with meningitis. He was flown to Rockford and is convinced he consciously picked up the habit of fighting for his life.
"At that time, I knew I was going to die, but I didn't give up," Gray said. "I just stayed strong in the Lord. They said I'd never be able to walk or talk, or anything. But throughout my lifetime I've proved them wrong, and I'm playing the sport I love. I'm doing things I love, things I never thought I'd be doing."
That includes going toe-to-toe against human plows like Brian Bahrs and Jacob Barnes as a member of the scout team.
"I just line up and tell myself to show them size doesn't matter," Gray said. "What matters is strength. You just get through the line and push them on the scout 'D' to get them ready for the game."
"He's the ultimate example of exactly what Newman football is all about," Moore said. "He never gives in, never gives up, even if the guy he's going against is bigger or stronger. He won't back down.
"He unites us."
A savior lives next door
Gray's football career began 9 years ago in Dixon. A junior high student who looked and talked a little bit different than the other kids at Reagan Middle School, Gray loved the game, but didn't feel at home.
A friend and teammate with the Dixon youth program, Stephen Adamecz, was attending St. Andrews.
"He knew these guys and knew he was going to Newman," Gray said. "So I kind of followed with him."
He didn't know anyone at Newman. That didn't matter.
"They just brought me into a family," Gray said. "They showed me what it meant to be at Newman, part of the Blue Machine. The past 4 years I learned that, even in rough times, you've got people with you. You always know you've got someone behind you.
"It's just been amazing with those guys … they're just like my own real brothers," Gray said.
Fueled by love, by a sense of belonging, a transformation took place.
Thanks to his support system, Gray's grades soared. He learned commitment, and his body grew stronger. Strong enough to match his indominable spirit.
He realized his potential. Today, he's become the role model. The flag-bearer and trailblazer.
Today, he is often the teacher.
"He's taught me more than any of us would ever be able to teach him," Papoccia said.
The giving tree
Even Gray's first varsity carry wasn't enough to completely offset the sobering effect of a senior class ending their Newman football career.
When the team honored another one of its traditions, meeting under Cory's tree, a monstrous oak nearby the team's practice field, Gray gave another speech.
"I told all the juniors, 'Once we leave this spot, you guys are all seniors, and you guys have to give it your all, no matter what people say,' " Gray said. "I told them to never back down and to be good role models. And when they meet under the tree next year, their job will be over."
But Gray's story continues. He'll wrestle in the winter, then run track in the spring.
He plans to attend either Sauk Valley Community College or Northern Illinois University, and would like to work in construction someday.
Gray could set out to be anything, and no one would dare count him out.
"He's just one of those kids who deserves everything he gets," Papoccia said.