From Mike Schmidt to Paul Newman: Anecdotes From Jeff Bray’s Career
February 8, 2012
By John Boccacino/Sports Information Director
Growing up on his parents’ gas station in Sterling, Kansas, Jeff Bray was surrounded by automobiles at an early age, so it should come as no surprise that the longtime Keuka College head athletic trainer/assistant athletic director considers himself an avid “Gear Head,” an affectionate term used to describe diehard motorsports fans.
Bray was bitten by the auto racing bug and has been going to the local and national speedways for as long as he can remember.
“I got into cars and into racing because I grew up on a gas station, and my wife [Kristen] says if you cut me I’ll probably bleed motor oil, and she believes that,” Bray recalled with a laugh and a smile.
“My parents had a friend who raced cars, and my dad provided tires for him, so I grew up thinking [that driver] was Zeus-like, he was awesome behind the wheel. Watching the Indy 500 was always the best day of the year, better than Christmas for me, and I lived for Memorial Day.”
For the last 18 years, Bray has carved time into his busy Keuka College schedule to work as an athletic trainer at dozens of races each year, including NASCAR, Indy Car and the American Le Mans Series. His efforts have taken him across the world assisting on race days.
“I’ve never had a bad day at the racetrack in 18 years,” said Bray, who is celebrating his 20th year at Keuka College and who resides in Penn Yan with wife, Kristen, son Tyler, 15, and daughter Kelly, 13.
“Even when things haven’t gone right, I’m still at the racetrack and that’s what keeps me going, I am fortunate to ply my trade into something I’m passionate about.”
As a teenager, Bray had some insight into his future professional career and knew how he wanted to spend his working days.
Bray’s mother, Nettie, suffered a stroke when Bray was just 15 years old, leaving her without use of her right arm and right leg. Despite the stroke, Bray’s mom, “never complains about anything,” and after watching her dedicated efforts to rehab from her injuries, Bray decided to enroll at a pre-physical therapy program at Kansas State University, located roughly 140 miles away from Sterling.
“I went to my mother’s physical therapy sessions and I thought it was pretty neat how these people were so passionate about helping my mom recover from her injury,” Bray said.
“I’d never been around physical therapists before, so I thought how they helped people recover from their injuries was pretty cool.”
When Bray was still in high school, his government teacher approached him with an interesting question. As a sophomore at Sterling High School, this government teacher asked Bray: “Do you think you have a better chance to play football at Kansas State, or be a student-athletic trainer. I didn’t know what that field was, so I attended a Cramer Sports Medicine summer workshop.”
There, Bray met Bud Epps, the assistant trainer at Missouri who eventually became an assistant athletic trainer for the Kansas City Chiefs. Epps took Bray under his wing, and after enrolling at Kansas State, Bray worked as a student athletic trainer and worked the Wildcats’ home and away football games.
While on a road trip to Iowa State with the Wildcats’ football team, Bray was out to dinner with Jim Rudd and Hank Fijalkowski, Bray’s bosses at Kansas State, and the topic of landing a summer internship with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles popped up. While Bray was skeptical he could ever land a gig in the NFL, he applied for the position anyways and was selected as one of roughly 10-12 summer interns in the athletic training department.
In-between his sophomore and junior years at Kansas State, Bray began his first of three seasons as a summer intern, and he did such a commendable job he was asked back for one year as a paid trainer following his graduation from Kansas State.
While with the Eagles, Bray taped Reggie White, the Eagles’ fierce pass rusher and eventual Hall-of-Famer. During the 1987 NFL Players Strike, Bray recalls working the Eagles’ home opener at the old Veterans Stadium as Philadelphia hosted the Chicago Bears before 4,000 fans.
“The first person I met, as far as players go, was [quarterback] Ron Jaworski. He brought us [athletic trainers] a couple of large pizzas and some beverages, and he was as common Joe as they come,” said Bray, whose office inside the Weed Physical Arts Center has plenty of mementos from his stint with the Eagles.
“Mike Golic was there and he was a great guy, Reggie White was a lot of fun to be around, I’ll never forget his personality and the passion he brought, not only to football but later on to his ministry career. There were just a lot of great guys to be around: Cris Carter, Keith Byars, Seth Joyner, Clyde Simmons, Jerome Brown, Terry Hoage. We also had Jeff Fisher as the defensive backs coach, Wade Phillips was linebackers coach, Tom Coughlin was a defensive coach and of course, Buddy Ryan was the head coach for my second year. A majority of those coaches went onto become head coaches in the NFL, and it’s amazing they all came from that one team.”
While it might seem glamorous working with an NFL team, Bray said the job definitely had its challenges, including grueling work days with few days off, especially in-season. But there were plenty of benefits to the position, Bray said, including working with professional athletes at the highest level and having an apartment in Veterans Stadium that allowed him to wander into the stadium’s bullpen and dugouts on quiet nights.
One day, the Eagles and baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies were holding a charity bowling tournament, and the Eagles’ front office assembled a team that included Bray.
“This guy comes and sits down next to me, we’re putting our bowling shoes on, and he’s wearing slacks and a golf shirt and he asks if I worked for the Eagles, and I said yes,” Bray recalled. “I asked who he worked for and he said the Phillies, and we’re just talking while putting our bowling shoes on when this little kid comes in and says, ‘Mr. Schmidt, can I have your autograph?’ and I look over and see that I’ve been talking to Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt this whole time! I start undoing my shoes, went to the sporting goods store down the street, bought a National League baseball and asked Mike to sign it for me. He said, ‘You didn’t know who I was, did you?’ and we laughed about it. Charles Barkley was bowling a few lanes down from us, and what struck me was they were just guys out bowling, no one made a big deal about it.”
Following a stint at Illinois State, Bray was offered the head athletic trainer job at Keuka July 1, 1992. After his first year with the Storm Bray was working with Mobile Sports Medicine Director Don Andrews at the First Frontier Circuit Rodeo finals in Albany in 1993, when Bray casually asked Andrews about his recent trip to Phoenix, Ariz.
Andrews, who has been a driving force in increasing safety in the sports of bull riding, auto racing, skiing and equestrian, mentioned he had met with Rusty Wallace and Darrell Waltrip about beginning a sports medicine program in the Winston Cup circuit. Bray expressed an interest in assisting at various races, and Andrews welcomed him to the team for 8 to 10 races a year.
After his team lost its sponsorship in 1998, Bray switched to open wheel racing and the CART Series, which has evolved into the Champ Car World Series, and worked races across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, England and Japan.
While working alongside legendary actor/race car driver Paul Newman and the drivers of his Newman/Haas Racing Team in the Champ Car Racing Series, Bray recalls the time he observed Newman hunched over a sink in the medical center.
“Paul was one of the most outstanding people I ever spent a minute talking to. He had the cream of the crop in open wheel racing, so if a driver was injured, Paul would accompany them to the medical center,” Bray said. “So I turn around one night and see Paul over the sink, and he’d cut the tip of his finger making a salad for some guests, so we took care of his finger and got a surgeon to suture Paul up. Paul hung around afterwards and entertained us with his stories, and I’ll never forget him coming over and introducing himself to me, saying, ‘I’m Paul Newman, what’s your name?’ And I’m thinking to myself ‘I know who you are!’ They’re looked upon as bigger than life, but they’re just good, hard-working people and that’s really the neatest thing.”
While working a race in Mexico City, Mexico in 2007, Bray had the opportunity to ride in the back seat of an F1 car driven by Champ Car World Series driver Zsolt Baumgartner. After donning the fire-proof gear, Bray experienced the sensation of flying through the road at speeds of 175 miles-per-hour.
“Outside of the birth of my kids and my wedding day, that is the single coolest day I’ve ever had,” said Bray, who one day hopes to drive a Sprint car on a dirt track.
“It’s fast riding in a car at those speeds, but the speed is not as cool as the car’s breaking power. Going from 175 MPH to literally zero in a very short distance and not squealing the tires, then turning right and do it again, there’s no way to describe the rush; it’s like the best roller coaster at Darien Lake on steroids. … My career in auto racing all started with me asking a question, and to this day I’m still doing something I’m passionate about, and that’s pretty cool.”
If Bray had his way and could work any sporting event in the world as athletic trainer, what would he chose?
“It would probably have to be something in auto racing, but if I was going as a team athletic trainer, it would probably be Game 7 of the World Series,” said Bray, who added he would never go to the Super Bowl as a fan, only if he was working the event down on the field.