Kovacevic: A life — and career — cut sadly short

Iowa State defensive ends coach Curtis Bray (right), a former star linebacker at Gateway High School and Pitt, died Wednesday morning at age 43.
Iowa State defensive ends coach Curtis Bray (right), a former star linebacker at Gateway High School and Pitt, died Wednesday morning at age 43.
Photo by AP/The Des Moines Register
| Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, 10:44 p.m.

Hug the ones you love.

Isn't that always the first thought to cross the mind when a special someone dies much too young?

That you never know.

That every new day, every moment is a blessing.

A good many of you won't know who Curtis Bray was, and that's a shame. You should have. You should have been able to recall a wonderful NFL career. You should have been able to describe not only a Gateway High School linebacker who was the National Gatorade Player of the Year but also a rise to stardom at Pitt and into the pro ranks. You should have placed him in the company of Western Pennsylvania peers Terrelle Pryor and LaVar Arrington.

Bray died Wednesday at age 43. He reportedly collapsed while walking toward a 7 a.m. meeting in the football offices at Iowa State, where he was defensive line coach. No cause of death immediately was known.

He leaves behind wife Heather, daughter Sydney and son Colden.

Much too soon.

There could have been so much more to his life and to his career, as well.

Bray wasn't just the big man on campus when we attended Gateway. He was the BIG man, all 6 feet, 3 inches and 225 pounds, all chiseled, all coordinated. He wasn't just a football freak. He was a starter in basketball and a state champ in javelin.

When you excel at javelin on the side, man, you've got it all.

Bray would have been one of those guys you'd really hate, except he made that impossible. For all the adoration and attention he drew — unfathomable in the pre-Internet era — he'd just as soon show up on a Monroeville tennis court to play street hockey with us geeks as he would hang out with the other lettermen.

He was a star to others. To all of us, he was just “Curtis.”

In 1988, Pitt won one of its greatest recruiting prizes when Bray committed to Mike Gottfried over Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan State and, because of his excellent academics, Yale and other Ivy League schools. The excitement only mounted when, as a freshman, he had a sack for a safety and an interception to beat Penn State, 14-7.

But it all fell apart once Bray's knees began to go bad when he was a junior. He had multiple surgeries, multiple drainings, none solving the problem. Modern medicine has made knee surgery routine, but it was a career-killer then.

Bray toughed it out for Pitt, but as he acknowledged in a 1995 interview, he had to “change my game” because he had lost his explosiveness. It was sad to see for those of us who knew better, but he had become just another player.

To no one's surprise, no NFL team drafted him. And thus, no life-altering bonus was offered. No endorsements. Nothing that would allow him to keep playing football, even if the knee had cooperated.

Bray went on to a respected career as an assistant coach at Duquesne, Pitt and two other stops before Iowa State, earning praise for his instruction and humanity. As Cory Morrissey, a defensive end at Iowa State, told The Gazette of eastern Iowa, “He coached beyond the field. He coached young men to become men.”

Still, a college assistant coach at the positional level can make about $100,000 a year, which is a healthy living but a fraction of the millions a standout NFL playing career can cull.

And therein lies what might be the most powerful lesson from Bray's career, if not life: The next time you hear someone complain that a college kid should stay in school rather than go for big money, next time there's a Steven Adams who leaves Pitt basketball early because he wants to take care of 17 brothers and sisters back in New Zealand, next time you roll your eyes when even a professional athlete says he wants a contract to “take care of my family,” think of the Bray family right now. Think of how they were a year away from that payday.

The opportunity presented by even the highest level of athleticism can be so fickle, so all-or-nothing.

Terry Smith, the quarterback on those great Gateway teams with Bray and now an assistant at Temple, saw his friend Monday at a coaching convention in Indianapolis.

“He was doing well. He found a good home and a good fit at Iowa State. He was making a good career,” Smith was saying by phone Wednesday. “We hugged each other. Things were good.”

Go give a hug of your own today.

RIP, Curtis.

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