Curtis Bray was one of the biggest influences on LaRod Stephens-Howling’s decision to play football at the University of Pittsburgh.
Stephens-Howling’s four years at Pitt eventually led the Greater Johnstown High School graduate to a career as a NFL running back and kick returner.
News of Bray’s death at age 43 on Wednesday hit Stephens-Howling hard.
“He definitely was the first coach that called me and recruited me. He was a great guy. I’m shocked,” Stephens-Howling said during a Wednesday telephone interview in Pittsburgh.
“He was always smiling. I can just picture him smiling,” added Stephens-Howling, who is rehabilitating after a season-ending knee injury he suffered in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ regular-season opener. “Curtis was definitely a great guy. He always checked on me. He was a big reason I chose to go to Pitt.”
Reports stated Bray died while working out in Iowa. He was an assistant coach on the Iowa State football team the past five seasons.
A highly-recruited linebacker, Bray graduated from Pitt in 1992. He spent seven seasons as an assistant coach of the Panthers and established close ties to then defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads. Bray eventually made more trips to Johnstown as the Panthers recruited players such as future Pitt cornerback Antwuan Reed.
Eventually, Bray followed Rhoads to Ames, Iowa, as the Cyclones’ defensive line coach.
His previous assistant coaching experience included stops with Temple, Duquesne, Western Kentucky and Villanova.
“He was a very likable and pleasant individual,” said former Johnstown High coach Bob Arcurio, who guided Stephens-Howling through the recruiting process during the 2004-05 academic year. “Curtis came to watch LaRod play a game. He left at halftime.
“His statement when I was walking into the locker room at halftime was, ‘I saw enough.’ LaRod had something like five touchdowns at halftime.”
Bray’s high school career was filled with similar highlights. He was the first defensive player to be honored as the Gatorade National High School Football Player of the Year. Bray was a first-team USA Today All-American in 1987 out of Gateway High in Monroeville.
The University of Pittsburgh Athletic Department released a statement:
“The Pitt Football Family is shocked and saddened to hear of Curtis Bray’s untimely passing. Curtis made incredible contributions as both a player and assistant coach at Pitt. His competitive nature on the field was only surpassed by his kind and gentle demeanor off of it.
“Our deepest sympathies go out to his family and many loved ones. While Curtis will be greatly missed, he will not be forgotten by the many people he touched at Pitt.”
Bray is survived by his wife, Heather, a daughter, Sydney, and a son, Colden Charles.
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/masty81.