New Jersey player with Down syndrome has game to remember for a lifetime

Park Ridge’s Matt Gray, who was born with Down syndrome, being carried off the field by Owls players Friday night.

Park Ridge’s Matt Gray, who was born with Down syndrome, being carried off the field by Owls players Friday night.

Six points that didn’t register on the scoreboard counted in everyone’s hearts.

Park Ridge senior Matt Gray, born with Down syndrome, took to the field just after halftime dabbing and exhorting the crowd.

“He’s got a little personality about him. It’s amazing to see,” said Park Ridge coach Tom Curry Jr. smiling after his team’s 22-20 win over Wood-Ridge. “The boys pick him up. He picks them up. He likes to Dab a little bit. That’s his little showmanship.”

In a predetermined move agreed on by both teams and announced by Park Ridge PA Announcer Len Servedeo as part of the school’s Homecoming ceremonies, the refs spotted the ball at the 20 and the teams lined up. The play was called “Ice Left.” Gray took a handoff from his friend quarterback Jack Lepore, cut to the left and weaved his way past the Wood-Ridge defense for a 20-yard touchdown run.

His teammates jumped for joy as Gray, known as “Matty Ice” throughout the school community, crossed the goal line. Gray lightly spiked the ball, then raced back to the sidelines, his right arm held up with one finger high.

The large Park Ridge crowd chanted his name and his teammates carried him off the field.

“He’s the first player I’ve ever seen carried off the field here,” said Park Ridge athletic director Chris Brown.

About the only mistake Gray made was not running to the left, where a group of parents and fans had their smart phones recording every second. He stayed in between the hashmarks.

“We ran it every day in practice this week. We started to run it last week,” said Curry Jr. “He ran it perfectly. He ran it right off the corner. It was great to see, and hats to them, they did an amazing job.”

When asked about his touchdown run after the game, Gray smiled.

“Pretty good,” he said.

Plans had been in the works for weeks to get Gray a touchdown in a game for the Owls. Gray has served as a team manager and also runs on the school’s cross-country team. Wood-Ridge was the last regular-season home game scheduled for Park Ridge, and the Blue Devil coaches and athletic director David Porfido were all on board. Park Ridge went all out. Gray was named as one of the team captains for the Owls. His name was added to the official roster – listed as 5 feet 1, 115-pounds — and there was a large “Matty Ice” banner hung near the players’ entrance to the field.

One issue was that Gray is too sharp to not want to participate in a play that didn’t at least seem to count. In fact, if it had been up to him, he would have played quarterback. So Curry Jr. conceived the idea of a play structured just before halftime.

“This was more that I could have ever imagined,” said Matt’s mother, Marianne, sitting in the crowd. “I’m in tears, crying. Like I said before, this school, this community, everyone has been so good to our family. We are so glad to live here.”

His two older sisters made a special trip home for the game, and Marianne said there was family from all around.

“He was a little nervous,” said Marianne. “I told him he was going to have to get the ball and run as fast as he could for a touchdown. He said, ‘Don’t worry Mom, the line is going to protect me. They’re great.’”

Gray’s touchdown was almost overshadowed by an outstanding game that came down to the final seconds. Park Ridge drove 85 yards in the final two minutes, scoring on a touchdown run by Josh Lewis with 25 seconds left in regulation to make it 20-20.

Wood-Ridge was then penalized twice for jumping offsides on the extra point try, moving the ball inside the 1. At that point, Curry Jr. went for the two-point play, having Lewis run it in.

“There was a little bit of something up in the sky helping us out, that was for sure. Wood-Ridge is a class program for what they did at halftime, for the battle we went through just now,” said Curry Jr. “You hate to see someone lose in the circumstance like that.”