Even when he was being wooed by the University of Virginia, the Citadel, the University of South Carolina and other big-time football schools, Robert Bradley Gray felt he was destined to attend MIT. He'd known it since seventh grade.
When he was 12 years old, Brad saw the Design 2.70 contest on public television in his home town of Columbia, SC. "They were building things and getting toï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½play with them," he recalled. "What could be more fun?" He asked his father, an engineer who'd attended the University of Louisville, what he knew about MIT. "If you want to be an engineer, that's the place to go," his father said.
Brad, now a senior in chemical engineering, just completed his fourth year of varsity football at MIT with a flourish, leading the team in tackles and being named an Academic All-American for the second consecutive year.
The decision to attend MIT is as sound now as it was then, perhaps even sounder. He may never have played in a Bowl game, but he has helped develop drugs ranging from cancer therapies to vaccines and hopes to start a pharmaceutical company some day.
"My decision to pass up a career in big-time football surprised almost everyone in my community," he said. "But though many of my close friends didn't understand my decision, I knew I followed my heart."
A Marshall Scholar with a perfect 5.0 grade point average, Brad won the Division III National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame Scholar Athlete of the Year award ($18,000 toward graduate school and a $25,000 donation to the MIT general scholarship fund) and the Burger King College Football Scholarship (worth $10,000 to MIT).
"Brad Gray is the epitome of the term scholar-athlete," said Dean Richard Hill, director of athletics. "To be able to combine two major aspects of college life, scholastics and athletics, is often a greater challenge than people acknowledge. The athletes who are able to master it deserve the type of recognition Brad has brought to himself and to the Institute. His affable personality, his student leadership both on and off the field, and his contributions to team success all combine to make him the special person we've become fortunate to know."
As a Scholar Athlete winner, Brad was one of four finalists for the Burger King Vincent DePaul Draddy Award, known as the Academic Heisman. The winner was University of Tennessee quarterback Peyton Manning, a likely top pick in the National Football League draft in April and a finalist for the real Heisman Trophy, given to college football's outstanding player. "He seemed like a very down-to-earth guy," Brad said, even if he was on his way to multimillion-dollar security.
Other Scholar Athlete award winners came from the University of Nebraska, Florida State, Pennsylvania State University, Stanford, the University of Virginia and other Division I powers. Much of the talk at the awards ceremonies revolved around agents, NFL prospects, sneaker contracts, fame and especially fortune.
"I was the novelty," Brad said. "They wondered how you could play football without spring practice. They couldn't believe we didn't have a full-time weight[lifting] program -- things like that."
As the first varsity football player to compete on the Irmo High School Science Team, he'd been considered a novelty before. "We joked that I was not really a member of the team, but a 'roadie' who helped carry luggage and books during competition on the road," he said. "I loved the role I played and I always made a point of wearing football T-shirts to science competitions and science team 'nerd shirts' under my football pads." The sometimes critical reactions he got only made him try harder to discourage people from labeling him as "either a jock or a bookworm."
Brad, a 6-foot-3, 245-pound defensive tackle, doesn't have an agent and he won't be drafted. Instead, he'll use the Marshall Scholarship and the Scholar Athlete stipend to study economics and management at Oxford,ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½perhaps play rugby, and keep track of his peers in the NFL.
"I played against [Baltimore Ravens linebacker] Pete Bouleware in high school and I held my own," Brad recalled. "We both threw the discus. I was better."
He is proud that his football days ended on a positive note with a 5-4 record, the first winning season in his MIT career. Unlike many of his high school peers, he never dreamed of the NFL, perhaps because his family did not emphasize athletics and he never considered athletes as role models.
"To me, football is just a game," said Brad. "In a lot of ways, it's a childish game. You have toï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½outgrow all that rage and hurting other people."
His immediate goal is to maintain his perfect GPA for his final semester. "There were times when I wasn't sure it would survive the football season," he said. "I was bleary-eyed for lots of practices after pulling an all-nighter. It'd be a shame to lose it now."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 25, 1998.