Oct. 6, 2011
By Lauren Chval
Everyone knows senior running back Jonas Gray is funny. He jokes with every coach and player who passes him during dinner, and he’ll tell you that the boys are always asking him to tell a story.
“The way I got started in doing any type of comedy is the way I tell stories,” Gray remarks. “Guys always ask me to tell a funny story. I’m so animated with it. That’s how I started being funny.”
He pauses and cracks a smile.
“The guys always tell me I’m funny.”
Cierre Wood, his roommate on the road, doesn’t want to give Gray too much credit. Their relationship, so crucial to Notre Dame on the field, is a light one when they don’t have a football in their hands.
“The thing about Jonas is, he’s funny when he wants to be funny, but at the same time he’s funny when he doesn’t even try to be,” Wood chuckles. “I told him, his face just makes me laugh. Just thinking about some of the stupid stuff that he says, I can’t help but snicker a little bit.”
Although Gray is double majoring in English and political science — “unusual,” he jokes, for an athlete — in hopes of becoming a lawyer, if he really got his way, he says he would be David Letterman. It’s not hard to imagine him as a talk show host.
Gray always wants humor to be a part of his day, but he knows the rest of the 2011 season is no laughing matter. As a senior becoming increasingly important to the success of his team, it is time for him to become a leader.
“There are some benefits to being a funny guy,” he insists while discussing his leadership role for the Irish. “You interact with a lot of people. When they see a serious side of you, they know it’s time to buckle down. When I’m serious, everyone knows it’s time to be serious.”
Don’t ask him what he’s afraid of. He won’t tell you. There’s no room for fear when you’re trying to pull a team up by its cleats.
“I’m tough — I try to bring a toughness to the team. When it comes to the season, I know where we’re headed. I know how good this team can be. We’re going north the whole time. We won’t go south anymore. I know the coaches won’t let us. The seniors on the team won’t let us.”
What Gray doesn’t say is that he personally won’t let it happen anymore, but it’s clear that’s where his head is. It is clear that is where his head has been ever since his fumble in the first drive against South Florida.
“I knew I was a better player than I showed,” says Gray. “The confidence I had in myself, the confidence Coach Kelly had in me, and my teammates, and the coaches — those guys stuck with me, and that was it for me.”
Determined to bounce back, Gray pounded out 66 yards against Michigan, which is basically home turf for the Pontiac, Mich., native. He had 23 family members watching from the stands. A win would have meant a lot to him, but a loss means something, too.
“I went up to the freshmen and I just said, `Never lose to Michigan again,'” he reflects. “As the senior class, we’ve lost to them three straight years. We only beat them once when we were freshmen, and most of us didn’t even play. I think that’s what I try to tell those guys.”
His 65 yards rushing against the 15th-ranked Michigan State Spartans, combined with Wood’s 61 yards, finally produced what Gray knew the team could do all along: a win. Gray jokes that he and Wood call themselves “thunder and lightning.”
“Cierre and I both run the ball well in a sort of one-two punch,” he says. “It’s hard to stop. With us bringing that to the table, we’re going to be a hard team to beat. This offense is going to do well.”
Before playing Michigan State, Gray cited the support of the student body as one of the most important things to him and to the team. Upon their win, the team approached the student section to deafening cheers, respect going both ways.
“The alma mater felt good,” he confesses. “We just want you guys behind us. We can take the other fans, but the students here — they see us everyday. They see what we go through. Some people might not think we have it as tough as we actually do, but I think the students know the reality of our situation. We definitely needed that win at home against a ranked team — a team that usually plays us tough every year.”
Gray has an unwavering faith in his team. He scored his first career touchdown on the road against Pitt, but when asked about the 79-yard run, he gives recognition to everyone else who helped make it happen before he mentions himself.
“It was just a good run. Coach Kelly called a good play. The line did a good job — Michael Floyd did a good job blocking down the field. I let my legs do the rest.”
When asked about Gray, the first thing Wood will do is implore you to call his roommate by his nickname, “Meatball.” According to Wood, Gray earned the moniker, “because he’s a fat wrecking ball. When he’s running on the field, he just looks like a little fat person.”
That’s certainly not how he looked running toward the Pitt end zone, breaking a tackle and then bursting past at least two defenders who had an angle on him down the right sideline.
“That’s a myth,” Gray says of Wood’s “Meatball” explanation. “Jimmy Clausen is actually the one who gave me the nickname. We all shaved our heads freshman year, and when they were done shaving mine, he said the back of my head looked like a meatball. After he started calling me Meatball, I said it would never stick. So then he made sure it stuck.”
Wood never misses an opportunity to mess with his roommate. He takes particular joy in rearranging Gray’s toiletries–“his essentials,” he calls them–the night before a game. But it does not take much for Wood to turn serious and disclose that Gray has been the one to give the pregame speech to all of the backs before the last three games.
“It is obvious he is a leader,” Wood states.
Gray’s leadership is also obvious to quarterback Tommy Rees, whose rapid acclimation to college life and football was critical when he found himself as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback midway through the 2010 season, just a few months after arriving at Notre Dame as an early enrollee freshman. Rees considers Gray, one of the first people he met on campus, someone he can approach with just about anything.
“He took me under his wing my first semester here,” Rees recalls. “He showed me around, showed me the ropes, and he was great to me. We’ve stayed close throughout my time here. Now that we’re both playing together, I think it helps with the comfort level between us.”
That dynamic with younger players is important to Gray, who lets out his ever-present laugh when asked about his relationship with Rees.
“He was a quiet kid, always stayed to himself,” Gray remembers. “One day we had a little heart-to-heart, and I think I’ve impacted him a lot. He’s opened up. I knew he would. I think he did it a lot sooner because I was able to rally around him.”
That’s the thing about Gray–he’s not content with taking the team north in terms of wins. He wants his boys to experience success in everything, and he wants to keep them laughing the whole way up.