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Forever part of the game

The Baltimore Sun

At the time, the series of mishaps and misfortunes seemed to defy explanation.

Down in Miami, the Dolphins were en route to the first 0-16 season in NFL history when fate pushed the Ravens into their way. As the first half expired, the Dolphins blocked a field-goal attempt. Linebacker Ray Lewis left the game with a finger injury in the third quarter. Starting quarterback Kyle Boller was gone in the fourth with a mild concussion.

Then, on the first possession of overtime, sure-footed kicker Matt Stover missed a 44-yard field-goal try. On the ensuing possession, Dolphins wide receiver Greg Camarillo turned a short third-down pass into a 64-yard, game-winning touchdown.

A thousand miles away, in Bowie, the Gray family didn't need explanation. For them, the final score - Dolphins 22, Ravens 16 - told them all they needed to know. In fact, it was everything they had been waiting for.

One day earlier, they had lowered 20-year-old Brian Gray into the ground, laying him to rest next to his father. Brian wasn't a wearing a jacket and tie. That look never suited him. Instead, he was wearing a Dolphins jersey, No. 23, which everyone thought made perfect sense.

"You will always be in our thoughts and hearts," Mary Gray had said at her son's funeral. "Not a day will go by that you are forgotten, Brian. Now stay with Daddy until I get there and I can hold you in my arms again."

Brian had been a Dolphins fan for as long as anyone could remember, and no one really seems to know why. His room was always decorated with Dolphins memorabilia, and he was easy to shop for. The family's holiday photos, no matter the year, all seem to feature Brian wearing a Dolphins shirt or jersey. He was that kind of fan.

On Dec. 10, 2007, just six days before the Dolphins-Ravens game, Brian and his mother pulled out of the driveway in separate cars. Mary was going to drop a family friend off at school, and Brian was headed to the University of Maryland for his criminology class. He had recently transferred from Salisbury and changed his major. In fact, he had plans to intern the next summer with the Prince George's County police department.

Mary wasn't far behind her son, and both were barely three blocks from their home. Brian's red Chevy Beretta turned left onto Belair Drive and moments later came spinning back into Mary's view.

"When I think about it," Mary says, "all I can hear is myself screaming, 'Oh, my God, that's Brian!' "

His car had been hit by an oncoming police cruiser from the Prince George's police department, the same department with which Brian had planned to intern.

Mary approached the car and found her son gasping for air. "Don't die on me," she kept telling him. "You're going to be fine." Soon an ambulance whisked him to the Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly. Brian's spleen had ruptured, and a rib sliced his liver. He was taken in for surgery.

Not long after, from the waiting area, Mary could hear someone call out, "Code blue."

"I knew it was Brian," she says. "I just felt a part of me die right then. It's a very strange feeling. I can't explain it."

Four hours after arriving at the hospital, Brian was pronounced dead.

According to a county police report released to the Gray family, Brian and the officer, Mario Chavez, who was off duty at the time of the crash, shared blame. The report indicated that Chavez was driving 50 mph in a 25-mph zone. The case was forwarded to the state's attorney's office, which 10 months after the accident still hasn't decided whether it will pursue charges.

In a deposition related to a civil suit filed by the Grays, Chavez admitted to drinking over the course of several hours at a nearby nightclub the night before, falling asleep at a friend's house at 3 a.m. The civil suit isn't scheduled for trial until next year.

As for members of the Gray family, just as they had seven years earlier, they again found themselves making funeral arrangements. Mary had already reserved a plot next to her husband at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood. She gave it up so Brian could be buried near his father.

That's where the seed for Brian's football passion was planted. His father, Ricky Gray, was a standout player at DeMatha who eventually played tight end at Notre Dame and had a shot with the Denver Broncos. For years in the Gray home, Sundays were reserved for football, and Brian would be glued to any game, waiting for the Dolphins' score to scroll across the bottom of the screen.

Ricky Gray was playing football in an adult recreational league one October Sunday in 1998 when he suffered a seizure. There was a tumor in his brain, and it turned out to be cancerous. Eighteen months later, Ricky was gone and Mary was left alone to raise three children.

Brian was the oldest, 13 when his father died. Family members and therapists told him not to feel pressure to be the man of the house. Easier said than done. One of the reasons he said he transferred from Salisbury to Maryland was to help more with Kevin and Lauren.

"He was like my dad," his 12-year-old sister says. "He was always helping. He'd pick me up after school."

Ten months later, Kevin, 16, still has a difficult time talking about his brother. Lauren spent months sleeping in Brian's bed. And Mary has left his bedroom mostly untouched. Dolphins photos and memorabilia still decorate the shelves and walls. A 6-foot cutout of Dan Marino hangs on one wall opposite his bed.

"I don't want to do anything with his room," Mary says. "I can't throw anything out. I guess the good thing is I don't have to."

As they do every weekend, the Grays will keep an eye open for the Dolphins' game this weekend, a rematch with the Ravens. It'll probably forever serve as a link to Brian, though not quite like last year's.

They lounged in their grief that Sunday afternoon, watching on TV as every bounce seemed to go the Dolphins' way.

"I just needed some sort of sign," Mary says, "something that told me that Brian was OK."

The phone wouldn't stop ringing. Everyone knew what the Dolphins meant to Brian. As one friend put it: "The Ravens never had a chance. Miami had celestial intervention."

Mary stepped outside for a smoke. What had been a wet and gray day momentarily cleared, and along the horizon, Mary could see a rainbow. She had lost her son, but she had faith that he was OK, wearing his jersey and reveling in the Dolphins' win.

"If I stop believing for one minute that I will never see Brian again, my life would end," Mary had said in her eulogy. "What keeps me going is knowing that I will, and that although his time on this Earth was far too short and the circumstances of his abrupt departure so very tragic, his father is holding him tightly until we are all together again."

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