Walking To The Top
Nov. 19, 2008
By Larry Watts Contributor, BigTen.org
It's not like Danny Gray didn't have any options. He had plenty of them, both from an academic and soccer standpoint. But nearly all led to Division III schools.
"There were a lot of Division III schools I could have gone to and been successful, but I wanted to play Division I soccer,"' the Setauket, N.Y. native says. "But if the soccer didn't work out, what other possibilities would I have?"
There was no guarantee, just an invitation from University of Michigan coach Steve Burns. Gray could come to Ann Arbor and try out with four other players for one walk-on position. It was an opportunity Gray saw as too good to pass up.
"I knew if I went to Michigan, the great academics and endless possibilities for students would be very rewarding for me," he says. "Those possibilities just weren't there at the Division III schools recruiting me."
"Those walk-on tryouts are a dog eat dog world, and Danny just happened to eat up the others," Burns says. "The chance to possibly earn some scholarship money can create some hungry players."
Although he made the Wolverines' roster, Gray did not log any playing time back in 2005. He did earn a redshirt season, provided he made the team again as a walk-on the following year.
"I've seen walk-ons come in with a chip on their shoulder because they never received a scholarship offer," Burns added. "But Danny came in here and just had a natural feeling he belonged. He's never given me the impression he feels inferior to the other players and he just seemed to really fit in."
The 5-foot-9 midfielder logged playing time in 17 games that next season and even started against Notre Dame. And by the end of the year, he was awarded scholarship money from Burns.
"The time commitment for a walk-on is tough, but it gave me a lot of confidence I could deal with a lot of different situations as long as I kept pushing," Gray says.
"I really liked the idea Danny had been a wrestler in high school," Burns says of the 145-pounder. "I'll take those guys any day. Those wrestlers have a great center of gravity and never get knocked off their feet."
"I wrestled for three years in high school and that really changed my lifestyle and work ethic," Gray says. "It (wrestling) is a lot harder than people think. If you're not ready, there's always someone else waiting to take your place.
"You have to be at the top of your game fitness-wise in wrestling. I'm not saying soccer players are not fit, but I've seen players get by just on their ability alone and they weren't always the most fit athletes."
Last year, Gray drew eight starts while playing in 19 matches and scored the first, and only, goal of collegiate soccer career against Cal State Fullerton. But the biggest reward came after the season, when his teammates voted him one of this year's tri-captains.
"I think his teammates recognized his great leadership and they really respected how hard he works," Burns says. "Danny is just a tough, tough, hard-working young man. He has created his own opportunities."
Along with his new role as a tri-captain, Burns also asked Gray to make a position change this season, switching from a midfield attack position to outside back.
"What Danny did was re-invent himself as a defensive midfielder," the Michigan coach says. "He learned the position quickly and has excelled. It's more of a support role, but he has done such a good job of holding down his side of the field that opposing coaches are placing their best players on the other side away from him."
Gray's contributions don't show up on the 2008 stat line, which shows him starting all 20 matches for the Wolverines but with only two shots and no goals.
"I really didn't mind making the switch this year," Gray says. "I'm quite happy with being a role player, doing all the dirty work so the other players can get the highlight reel plays.
"I have enough confidence in my game that I don't need to be that player in the spotlight. I feel like it's my job to do whatever is possible to get the ball to the guys up front so they can do best what they do."
It all seems to be working out for the Wolverines, despite a bitter 1-0 loss to Indiana during the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. They have drawn the 11th seed, their highest in school history, for the NCAA Tournament and will be hosting the Denver-UC Davis winner in the second round Tuesday.
"This year has been an unbelievable ride," Gray says. "We've been ranked in the top 10 nationally and I'll never forget going to Indiana for a victory or dominating Notre Dame at home. This has all been beyond my expectations.
"It will be great to have the tournament in Ann Arbor. Our fans really deserve this because of the way they have supported us all season."
The industrial operations and engineering major, who will probably be voted a tri-captain again next season, has managed to do it all while twice being named to the Academic All-Big Ten team and three times earning Michigan's Athletic Academic Achievement award.
"It's a very time-consuming schedule," he says. "It seems like one of my teammates (Tom McCurdy), who is also majoring in engineering, and I are together in the library, weight room and on the field all the time."
"Danny's attention to his studies is carried over to the soccer field," Burns says. "He's a real taskmaster and very detail-oriented. He relishes being out front and never lets his guard down."