Curtis Bray is considered one of the best high school football players in Western Pennsylvania history, but he was much more than a football player at Gateway High School.
"There's no question he is the greatest athlete that ever graced the halls of Gateway," said Terry Smith, a former teammate of Bray's at Gateway.
Friends and former coaches of Bray were left talking about his legacy after Bray died suddenly Wednesday morning on the campus of Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, where he was an assistant football coach. He was 43.
A cause of death was not revealed. But Gateway basketball coach Mitch Adams, a longtime friend of Bray and his family, said he spoke with Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, who told Adams that Bray collapsed while going to a meeting at the Iowa State football offices and died a short time later.
"He was like a son to me," said Adams, who was an assistant football and basketball coach at Gateway during Bray's high school career. "He was a tremendous kid who just died too young."
Known as a gentle, quiet person but a fierce competitor in athletic arenas, Bray gained national attention for his football talents as a linebacker. After his senior season at Gateway in 1987, he was selected the first Gatorade National Player of the Year. He also was a Parade All-American and a first-team USA Today All-American.
"As far as a total player, he's the best we ever had," legendary Gateway coach Pete Antimarino said in Bray's senior season.
Bray was recruited by colleges across the country before signing with Pitt. He became a starting linebacker as a freshman and had a highly successful career for the Panthers, despite knee injuries.
"His knees ended his career," said Smith, a former Penn State player and Gateway football coach who now is an assistant at Temple. "I know we tried our best to get Curt to come to Penn State, for nothing more than to save his knees and play on natural grass and not that [artificial] turf at Pitt Stadium."
In 1987, Bray and North Hills' Eric Renkey were considered two of the best high school linebackers in the country. Bray was 6 feet 3, 230 pounds as a Gateway senior and could run like a receiver.
Although Bray went down as one of the WPIAL's all-time best football players, it wouldn't be an overstatement to also call him one of the WPIAL's all-time best athletes. In 1988, he was named the Post-Gazette High School Athlete of the Year, an award won by, among others, Dan Marino, Bill Fralic, LaVar Arrington, Neil Walker and Terrelle Pryor.
Bray was riding a two-wheel bike when was 3. At Gateway, he was one of the first freshman to play football on Antimarino's varsity. He also was a standout basketball player and averaged 14 points and 11 rebounds as a senior. As a sophomore in 1986, he and Smith led Gateway to the WPIAL semifinals for the second time in school history.
It seemed no matter what Bray tried in sports, he excelled. The best example of his marvelous athletic ability might have come in the spring of his senior year at Gateway. He had started throwing the javelin in track and field for the first time as a junior. One year later, he won a WPIAL title and then a PIAA championship with a throw of 226 feet, 6 inches.
"This is sad because I just saw Curt two days ago at a coaches convention in Indianapolis," Smith said. "Like I said, he's the single-greatest athlete to walk the halls of Gateway, but an even better human being."
Bray never forgot his roots.
"When we made the WPIAL championship three years in a row [2010-12], he came back for the championship game every time," Adams said. "He just came to one of our games over the holidays and brought his son to a practice."
After Bray graduated from Pitt in 1992, he got into coaching and worked as an assistant coach at Pitt, Duquesne, Western Kentucky and Temple. He worked with Rhoads when Rhoads was Pitt's defensive coordinator and went to Iowa State when Rhoads was hired in 2009.
"Curtis Bray was a dear friend to me and to all he ever came in contact with," Rhoads said. "He was a trusted and loyal assistant coach who always put the kids and the team in front of his work. He was as genuine in his approach to relationships, coaching and life as anyone I have ever been associated with. We will miss him dearly."
Bray is survived by his wife, Heather; daughter, Sydney; son, Colden Charles; his parents, Charles Sr. and Alavan of Monroeville; and brother, Charles Jr., of England.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.
The Associated Press contributed to this story. Mike White: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1975 and Twitter @mwhiteburgh. First Published January 15, 2014 1:05 PM