All Bryce Gray wanted was to be the quarterback of the Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings.
Growing up in Flossmoor, Ill., minutes from the high school he soon will call his alma mater, a young Bryce could look out his bedroom window and see the lights of the football stadium on campus and dream about his future. While his classmates and friends were idolizing collegiate and professional players, Bryce was watching in awe as a talented crop of high school student-athletes came through Homewood-Flossmoor High School and dominated on the gridiron, diamond and hardwood. He hoped that one day he'd get his chance to replicate that.
"I idolized those guys," Bryce recalls. "I wanted to be them. I wanted to be in their situation."
His father, Jason, realized when Bryce was young sports were going to be a major part of his oldest son's life. Bryce and his brother, Chase, routinely came in to their parents' room to watch cartoons, but one morning something was different. Bryce's mother, Kathy, woke up to see 4-year-old Bryce not watching cartoons, but sports. His father had been watching a golf tournament over the weekend, and Bryce had been keeping a close eye, wanting to know Monday morning who had won. Soon after, cartoons went away for good and were replaced by the morning edition of SportsCenter.
Bryce's love for sports came complete with broken light bulbs in the house from errant balls, and he even accidentally hit his brother in the face with one of the golf clubs his parents had purchased for him. He also tried basketball, karate, wrestling and soccer in search of his true passion. His first organized football game at running back he tripped untouched at the 1-yard-line. Twice he took trips to Cooperstown, NY for baseball tournaments, and he went to Florida three times for national football tournaments.
As organized sports became part of his daily routine, his father also began taking Bryce to high school sporting events.
Bryce watched as Julian Wright turned in an All-American basketball season in 2005. He marveled as quarterback Russell Ellington (2007) and defensive end Michael Buchanan (2009) both earned scholarships to the University of Illinois after excelling with the Vikings. He remembered watching forward Tim Williams lead his basketball team to a regional title in 2012 before committing to play at Samford University.
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A member of the Jr. Vikings, HF's Pee Wee football feeder team, Bryce couldn't wait to succeed the same way his idols had. Even his mother admitted that when Bryce would go to games, he'd sit intently in the stands while his friends goofed around. While parents socialized, Bryce was watching the way quarterbacks and point guards interacted with their coaches, and how those players relayed calls to the rest of the team. He watched how they led.
"He sat there and watched the games," Kathy recalls. "He studied the game."
He was also studying the people in the stands. And one night in 2010, there was a new face in the basketball crowd. Weeks earlier Craig Buzea had been named the head coach of the varsity football team, and he was introduced with a brief ceremony at halftime.
It was around that time Bryce's father had begun instilling in him the importance of being self-confident, speaking up and looking adults in the eye. What better opportunity to test those skills out than introducing himself to the head varsity football coach? Late in the fourth quarter of the basketball game, Bryce made his move. And made a statement.
"Hi, Coach. I'm Bryce Gray," the 11-year-old 6th grader told Buzea. "And I'm going to be your quarterback in a few years."
There's leadership, and then there's Bryce Gray.
Over the course of a season Craig Buzea attempts to find room for as many different seniors to act as captains as a reward for their hard work. But there's an exception.
"Bryce is the only one that has been a captain every game since his junior year," Buzea says proudly. "When we go to the captains No. 6 is going to be part of that whole deal. He's the guy you want representing us."
There's an inevitable responsibility that comes with playing quarterback, let alone for one of the top programs in the state. Leadership was going to find Bryce Gray. So he found it first.
It began his junior year, five years after introducing himself and proclaiming his future, when he made good on his statement to Buzea and was named Homewood-Flossmoor's starting quarterback. A year earlier Buzea had made the decision to bring Bryce up to the varsity level, a difficult decision for the head coach considering it was likely Bryce, a sophomore, wouldn't see much playing time behind senior Isaac Cutrara. As a freshman Bryce had led the Vikings to a 9-0 season, including a 40-point win over Lincoln-Way East after the Griffins' athletic director dubbed his freshman team the best the school had seen in a decade.
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That sophomore season acted as a redshirt year, as Bryce once again soaked in all he could, just as he had done in the stands a few years earlier. He learned Buzea's terminology, worked diligently in practice and watched as Cutrara led the Vikings to a 9-2 season.
"I saw how he conducted himself, how he prepared, how he dealt with failure," Bryce recalls of Cutrara. "Those things I've incorporated into my game, which has only made me better. My sophomore year was tough because I didn't get to play, but it's the best thing that could have happened to me."
Bryce stepped in as a junior and didn't skip a beat. Ironically enough, he knew he had arrived the night of the "worst game of my career." In his first true start, the Vikings battled top-ranked Stevenson, dropping a 33-24 contest that was finished Saturday morning after inclement weather Friday night. Bryce threw for 247 yards and a pair of scores but lost a 17-point, second-half lead.
Bryce rallied his troops following a 3-2 start that included a loss to rival Lincoln-Way East. The team began to mesh, Bryce carried on a tradition Cutrara had started of making Sunday dinners for his offensive line when they didn't allow a sack in Friday's game, and the Vikings reeled off eight straight wins to reach the 8A state title game, a year earlier than expected with a core group of juniors.
When the unthinkable happened - the Vikings fumbled away a chance at a title at the 3-yard-line in the 8A championship's final minute - the Vikings needed to know their signal caller could respond the following year. He would.
"When stuff goes bad, everyone turns to him," offensive line coach Tom Cicero said. "I don’t care if you’re Desmond Bland, Deante Harley-Hampton. When stuff is just not there, eyes are looking right at him and he responds. He is by far one of the best leaders I’ve been around in high school football. He’s a special kid."
Before coaches address the team each Friday night, Bryce stands in front of his teammates and relays his own message. The locker room is silent. Buzea calls his quarterback "an extension of myself" on the field. A rare player with three years of varsity experience, Bryce knows the offense as well as any quarterback in the state could know his coach's philosophy, and his team trusts him to execute.
Execute is exactly what he's done as a senior. In 12 games, Bryce passed for 2,621 yards, 26 touchdowns and just one interception. He was the first to greet his teammates after every touchdown - the Vikings found the end zone 81 times this season - and was the team's biggest cheerleader when the second unit is in. He leads in the classroom with a 3.48 GPA and has a contagious ear-to-ear smile you'd be hard-pressed to see him without. And why wouldn't he smile? He's got his dream job.
"Bryce is just respected by all. He's a good person. He just does things right," Buzea says. "I pinch myself every day that I have an opportunity to really coach a kid like this. It's a once-in-a-lifetime situation to get to coach him."
During a weather delay on Homecoming, many of the Vikings rested in the school's gymnasium while they anxiously waited for storms to pass. Others played catch, some spoke with coaches, while a few zoned out and listened to music. Bryce? He found assistant coach Alex Pratt's son, Xavier, and played around with the youngster, exchanging genuine smiles and laughs all the while.
"You," coach Pratt said to Bryce with a smile, shaking his head, "really do it all."
Two weeks ago Bryce Gray received an unexpected phone call that changed his life.
It was Notre Dame assistant baseball coach Jesse Woods.
"I want you to get down here as soon as you can," Bryce recalls Woods telling him over the phone.
Four months earlier Bryce had attended a three-day summer camp at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., performing well enough as a catcher for the Irish to show serious interest in him. Bryce, a two-year starter on the varsity level playing both first base and catcher, already held offers from Villanova, Holy Cross and Dartmouth, as well as a football offer from Valparaiso.
There was a caveat with the Irish, however. They had no more scholarships to offer, though Woods told him at the summer camp he'd be the first recruit they called if a spot opened up.
So when that phone call came, Bryce jumped at the opportunity. A few days later he and his father took the 85-mile drive to South Bend, where Woods formally offered Bryce a scholarship offer after meeting with coaches, academic advisors and touring the facilities.
What struck Bryce most on that tour wasn't the golden baseball helmets, the 2,500-seat Frank Eck Stadium or the majestic 1,250-acre campus.
It was a story Woods told. Matt Scioscia, the son of current Angels manager Mike Scioscia, played for the Irish from 2008 to 2010. He was selected by the Angels in the 45th round of the 2011 MLB Draft and played in the minor leagues until 2014. Woods met Scioscia on a recruiting trip last year in Southern California and asked if the former first baseman had received help in the business world using his well-known last name.
He hadn't, Scioscia told Woods. Rather, he called five different alumni clubs in California and immediately received the numbers of five different CEOs who had graduated from Notre Dame, one of whom became his employer.
"At that moment I knew this is where I wanted to be," Bryce, who committed shortly after the visit, said. "(Notre Dame) can set me up for so many opportunities in my life beyond sports. I'll be getting an education from one of the best institutions in the world."
His passion and love for baseball was an easy one. His father played collegiately at the University of Illinois for two seasons and coached Bryce on his little league teams that traveled the country to compete. Jason would take his eldest son to U.S. Cellular Field to watch Bryce's favorite player, Paul Konerko, and the White Sox. Ever a student of the game, Bryce would keep score and even attempt to steal opposing team's signs.
His diligent work in baseball came full-circle in July when he was selected to take part in the Double Duty Classic, an event at U.S. Cellular Field featuring inner-city high school baseball players that celebrated the history of Negro League baseball. With his family and Buzea in attendance, and playing alongside teammate Percy Walters, Bryce hit a single and stole a base, playing on the same diamond as one of his heroes, living out a dream.
The weekend-long event also featured student-athletes of the Double Duty Classic running clinics for Chicago Park District youth. Bryce called that part of the weekend just as special, remembering how he had watched from afar as his high-school heroes inspired him to be great.
"Seeing those kids, they would come in and look at us like, 'Yeah, we want to be that.' To help those kids is something, a feeling you can't get doing anything else," he said. "Knowing I gave back to the community, I've given back to these kids, I know I've helped them out some way. It felt good."
All Bryce Gray wanted was to be the quarterback of the Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings.
Years later, he's the captain of the football team. He's a student well-liked and respected by everyone who meets him. He's a baseball star headed to Notre Dame in less than a year.
His accolades and attributes stand out among those of his peers, and yet in a student body of roughly 2,800 kids, he's simply Bryce. It's his best trait, Buzea admits.
Behind his cannon of an arm, his pencil-thin mustache, and his pearly-white smile is a 17-year-old kid living out his dreams because of the hard work he committed himself to years ago sitting in the stands at Homewood-Flossmoor High School. But he hasn't done it alone.
He's his younger brother's biggest fan at gymnastics meets, frequently showing his teammates video of his sibling's accomplishments. His mother, a special education teacher, provides him a unique perspective on life and an outlet to discuss everything happening in his own life, instilling in him life lessons he'll use "for the rest of my life. I can talk to her about everything."
His father has been his biggest fan, waiting for him to return home after every game to discuss the highs and the lows. The countless number of batting practice balls he threw to Bryce growing up, the sacrifice he made, is the reason he'll be wearing a Notre Dame jersey a year from now, Bryce acknowledges.
"Everything good that's happened to me," Bryce remarks of his family, "is because of them."
His parents have seen a leader grow up before their eyes, too. The Vikings run the football nearly 70 percent of the time, but Bryce's mother's eyes are always on her son. Her favorite attribute is the way Bryce "takes a leadership role with his teammates, whether they've had a good series or bad series." Bryce's father watches as he stays composed no matter the situation, discussing strategy with Buzea on the sidelines the same way he spoke to the head coach as a middle schooler.
The 2015 Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings won't soon be forgotten. One of the state's all-time great offenses is led by a quarterback mature beyond his years with numbers to rival those of any other signal caller in the state.
"I want them to look at me as a kid who was dedicated to making his team better," Bryce says. "A kid who did whatever he needed to do on the field, off the field, to win, to help put his team in the best situation to win."
Bryce and the Vikings didn't accomplish their ultimate goal of winning a state championship, falling Saturday afternoon to top-seeded Loyola, 34-28. Bryce said after the game he had hoped to have gone down in Homewood-Flossmoor history as champions. But the reality was a trophy wasn't necessary. Bryce and the 2015 Vikings will be remembered. How could anyone forget?
The path from the Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings locker room to their home field is open to the public. Passersby shout cheers to the team and families give one final well-wish to their sons.
There's also a group of Jr. Vikings who make their way over to the procession, just waiting to catch a close-up glimpse of their favorite players.
And as those kids stick out their hands, hoping for an acknowledgement from their idols, Bryce Gray is there to high-five every last one of them.
His reasoning couldn't be more simple, and it couldn't be more heartfelt.
"I remember," Bryce says with a smile, "when I was young doing the exact same thing."