Gray has what it takes to bounce back

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The third quarter was less than five minutes old when attention began to shift from the field to the home sideline, Notre Dame players making their way toward the equipment trunk to offer whatever they could to the teammate sitting on top of it, the player unlikely to join them on the field ever again, certainly not in this final home game of the season.

Kapron Lewis-Moore, relegated to crutches after suffering a season-ending right knee injury four weeks earlier, stayed to his right, as if to make sure the running back wouldn't spend a second alone.

Braxston Cave, out for the year after suffering a left foot injury two weeks earlier, emerged from the player's left, hugging the senior as he limped off the field under his own power.

Michael Floyd would say afterward that he was heartbroken. Manti Te'o would call it the hardest thing to watch.

Jonas Gray, the man they were all trying to pick up? He was doing a much better job than any of them, picking up everyone around him instead.

He told his mother, Jeri, not to worry, insisting he'd be OK. His right knee immobilized in the locker room after a 16-14 win over Boston College, Gray told his teammates to stay strong. He thanked them for his four years at Notre Dame, told them how special the experience was and explained how lucky he felt to be able to share it with them.

"That's the kind of guy he is," captain Harrison Smith said. "He's not gonna dwell on the bad things. He's gonna try to somehow spin it to be good."

Gray spun a season-opening, goal-line fumble into becoming an eventual starter, finishing with 791 yards and 6.9 yards per carry this season.

He took on coach Brian Kelly's challenge to overcome that Week 1 gaffe and didn't let it define him, carrying the ball 39 more times in 2011 than he did in the three previous years combined, all the while rushing for 12 touchdowns -- 12 more than he had entering this season.

Kelly, sans MRI result Sunday, made the presumption that Gray's injury would cost him 2011 and who knows just how much beyond, all for a senior who had been playing his way into an NFL future during this last go-round.

Just four days earlier, Kelly sang a much different tune about Gray's renaissance senior campaign.

"I can't remember in my 21 years coaching a guy that has made that significant of an impact on a football team," Kelly said Wednesday. "I've had some senior linemen step up and be great role guys, but he's an actual playmaker for us. All the credit. I mean, he's the guy who decided to do this. We said, 'Listen, you gotta do this.' He could've chose not to do it. He's a great story."

That great story was supposed to reach its climax Saturday, the senior walking through the home tunnel for the final time, rushing for a 26-yard score on the game's opening drive, Notre Dame's only touchdown of the day.

But 11 carries, two catches and 76 total yards later, that great story came crashing down in the form of a 3-yard reception gone wrong, putting everything Gray had said this season to the test.

"The one thing I'm gonna remember is how I was humbled through my first couple seasons, and how that has an impact on how I am now," he had said Tuesday. "That makes me work even harder every time I have the opportunity, because I was humbled so early on in my career. So that's what I'm gonna remember about this place. And this university is great. The people are great. And being surrounded around great people who all have the same attitude I have, which is having a selfish motivation, but at the same time being great teammates."

Gray could say he was humble and tout his teammates when all was going well. But what about when his career flashed before his eyes, when everything he worked for was taken right from under him so close to the finish line?

"I don't feel bad at all, because he's had a good year," his mother said after the game. "He's overcome some adversity, and so for him to even get this far, I don't feel bad for him at all. It's unfortunate that this situation happened, but it's football and he knows that. And just like before, he'll bounce back."

Gray himself wasn't available for interviews Saturday. He probably wasn't needed. Everyone else did the speaking for him.

Because afterward, his teammates said, Jonas Gray looked at them in the locker room following the Senior Day win he couldn't finish and told them how lucky he was just to be a part of it.