Former Notre Dame player Gray goes the distance to see son play for Rice

Bob Wieneke
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- With a work project heating up and the idea floated that he return to Saudi Arabia early, prior to Saturday's Notre Dame-Rice game, former Irish football player Ian Gray's response was swift.

"I said, 'Guys, fire me. I've waited years for this game,'" Gray said early Saturday afternoon outside the north entrance to ND Stadium. "But I'm not going to miss this game. Death is the only way I was going to miss this game."

Why the insistence on attending Saturday's game? Gray, who earned a letter with the Irish in 1980 as a defensive tackle, is the father of Rice starting left tackle Ian Gray, a fifth-year senior.

And how badly did the elder Gray want to see Saturday's season opener? Well, he's been working in Saudi Arabia since March and took a 12 1/2-hour flight to Washington on Friday before making a 90-minute flight to Chicago.

"I can't miss this game," Gray said. "This is the game I have to come to."

As the 6-foot-5 Gray waited outside the ND stadium Saturday wearing a gray T-shirt with a Notre Dame button, a handful of ND fans walked past and offered good-luck wishes and welcomes.

"I've been here," Gray said with a chuckle after the well-wishers walked past. "I graduated from here."

Gray grew up in Jamaica, went to junior high and high school in New York before arriving at ND. After graduating from Notre Dame, Gray went to work for Exxon in Louisiana before landing in Texas. He now works for Flour, an engineering company, and lives in Houston.

Still, Gray's job takes him all over the world. He estimated he's been home 18 days this year after spending the early part of the year in Singapore. He will spend the next few weeks in Houston and be able to see his son play not only Saturday's game, but also the Owls' Sept. 13 game against Texas A&M.

As much as he's traveled, though, Gray hit the pause button on that aspect of work to raise his son. Gray and the younger Gray's mother are divorced. A daughter lived with the mother, while dad raised Ian starting at age 10.

Gray would have loved for his son to play at Notre Dame, but is tickled he's at Rice.

"I told him football is great, if you make it to the next level, that's even better," the elder Gray said of his son, an engineering major, "but that piece of paper will take you through life."

Gray's life has included stops all over the world. He's been to 32 countries for work, and will return to Saudi Arabia (where he said temperatures were around 120 degrees with humidity equal to that in South Bend on Saturday) after spending some time in Houston. His visit back to campus was his first since 1997.

"This place has changed. Visually it's changed a lot. Historically it's still the same," Gray said."I remember a lot about this campus. I think Notre Dame's the best place in the world. I really do."

After the Rice bus arrived, Gray was able to stop his son for a brief chat. Dad had predicted he'd become a bit emotional when he saw his son, and he was right.

"See my eyes?" the elder Gray said as he lifted his sunglasses. "It was good. It was real good."

Former Notre Dame football player Ian Gray greets his son, Rice left tackle Ian Gray, outside Notre Dame Stadium before Saturday's game. The elder Gray flew from Saudi Arabia on Friday to see his son play. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)