Jeff Bray is an avid motorsports fan, and when he arrived in scenic Keuka Park to accept a job as Keuka College’s head athletic trainer/assistant athletic director in the summer of 1992, he figured he was just making a pit stop.
Nearly 20 later, the man who came to campus on a two-year plan can’t imagine working anywhere else.
As he reflects on two decades of dedicated service to the Storm’s student-athletes, Bray can’t help but wonder how he ended up as the second-longest tenured member of the College’s athletics department.
To quote the Grateful Dead anthem, “Truckin’,” what a long, strange trip it has been for Bray.
Born in Sterling, Kansas, a small town that Bray said possesses a similar down-home feel to Keuka, Bray essentially grew up on his parent’s gas station before enrolling in Kansas State to study athletic training.
Bray has taped hundreds of professional athletes during a career that, among other stops, has seen him work the sidelines of NFL games, alongside pit crews for assorted auto racing events across the world, and behind the bucking chutes at top-flight bull riding competitions.
During a four-year stint in the NFL working as an athletic trainer with the Philadelphia Eagles — three as a summer intern and one as a paid professional — Bray taped Hall-of-Famer Reggie White, was part of a team that helped dynamic quarterback Randall Cunningham recover from various knee injuries, and worked alongside talented coaches such as Buddy Ryan, Jeff Fisher and Wade Phillips, to name a few.
Tom Coughlin, the Waterloo native who led the New York Giants to a 21-17 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI Feb. 5, was also a part of those Eagles’ coaching staffs during Bray’s time with the team.
Bray worked alongside legendary actor/race car driver Paul Newman and the drivers of his Newman/Haas Racing Team when working in the Champ Car Racing Series. Division I schools, including Bray’s alma mater Boise State, have sought his expertise in the field of athletic training, making enticing job pitches in an attempt to land Bray’s services.
But through an athletic training career that has spanned more than three decades — the last two of them spent at Keuka — there is no place Bray would rather call home than picturesque Keuka College.
“One of the reasons it’s been easy to stay here is because Keuka’s just been a good place to be, with good people who provide a great college experience, be it coaches, parents, administrators, or the student-athletes. Coach Dave Sweet has been an outstanding mentor and has taught me all about the world that is Division III athletics,” said Bray, who became interested in physical training after watching his mother, Nettie, battle back from a debilitating stroke when Bray was 15.
“I really appreciate getting to know the families of the student-athletes here. At a Division I school you never really have any dealings with parents. Keuka is special from that standpoint, and as my kids get older that [relationship with the parents] means more to me, because not too far down the road it’ll be me handing my kids off to a college and I’ll want to feel as comfortable sending my kids off to college as the parents of our student-athletes feel when they send their children to Keuka.”
However, that opinion of Keuka took some time to formulate for Bray, who currently resides in nearby Penn Yan with wife, Kristen, and son Tyler, 15, and daughter Kelly, 13.
When Bray was offered the Keuka position, he had his reservations. Sweet, Keuka’s athletic director and head coach of the women’s basketball team, had been on campus for nine years and was working diligently to transform the Storm from a predominantly women’s sports-based program into a well-rounded, co-ed athletics department that produced championship-caliber teams on the playing fields, and accomplished students in the classroom.
Additionally, Bray had only worked with professional and Division I athletes at his previous jobs, and Keuka was a tiny Division III school smack-dab in the middle of rural Upstate New York.
The Storm didn’t even have a football team, a fact Bray felt was a prerequisite for any potential job. He previously had worked passionately with football teams at every stop along the way: from his student athletic trainer days at Kansas State, to his graduate work at Boise State, through his four-year stint with the Eagles, and his time spent as Illinois State’s head football trainer.
In the end, while the decision was Bray’s to make, his future wife Kristen held the ultimate card. She had grown up in the Buffalo area and was a successful basketball player at Canisius College. Even though the couple wasn’t yet married, Bray realized it was important for Kristen to be closer to her family.
So the couple came to an agreement. Kristen and Jeff would relocate and Bray would try out the Keuka position for two years, and if Bray was unsatisfied at the end of the two-year trial period, Kristen would relocate anywhere in the country as her husband searched for his dream job.
Twenty years later and, the rest is history. Bray said he “fell in love” with the job and the students, and while other colleges and universities have called for Bray’s services, the answer has always been the same: “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“I had a unique opportunity at a very young age to reach the pinnacle of our profession,” said Bray, who still carves out time in his busy schedule to work between 5-10 auto races a year as an athletic trainer.
“There are thousands of young athletic trainers, student athletic trainers that aspire to work in pro sports, and only a few get there. I had the opportunity and while I enjoyed my time in the pros, long-term I didn’t know if it was for me. After a lot of thinking, when this job became available I took it and while I couldn’t believe I was at this small college with no football, I owed it to Keuka to give it my best. After all these years this is where I’m supposed to be.”
To achieve peace of mind with his decision about his future, Bray turned to an important part of his past, Otho Davis, his mentor in the athletic training field. Davis was the long-time trainer in the NFL who had worked with the then-Baltimore Colts and was Bray’s boss with the Eagles when Bray secured a summer internship to study under the legendary Davis, who at the time was considered among the best trainers in all of professional sports.
Davis, who died from pancreatic cancer in 2000, was instrumental in swaying Bray to take the job with the Storm. While he was the influence who got Bray into professional sports, Davis also warned Bray of the dangers of working in an industry where off days are few and far between and the average work week could range from 80 to 100 hours.
Davis, who had four sons, rarely got to see his family due to the rigors and demands of the job, a factor Bray considered heavily when debating the pros and cons of the Keuka position.
As Keuka’s head athletic trainer, Jeff Bray is responsible for attending to all injured players, whether they play for the Storm or the opposition.
In the end, the chance to help deserving Division III athletes won out. Now, fast-forward 20 years and Bray’s presence has become part of the fiber of a student-athlete’s life. Bray and his staff of athletic trainers work all Keuka College sporting events, ready on the sidelines should an injury befall a member of the Storm or the opposition.
“When I’m asked why I’m still at Keuka, ‘I say why not?’ If our point guard, [Jessica Bandrowski], sprains her ankle and is going to potentially miss some big games coming up, she’s as valuable to her team as [Boise State star quarterback] Kellen Moore is to his team,” said Bray, who used his NFL connections to secure the New York Jets old athletic training equipment when the NFL franchise decided to purchase new equipment in 1998.
“Sure, it’s not going to be in the USA Today or make ESPN that Bandrowski sprained her ankle and might miss a game, but she deserves to be treated like a professional athlete, too. But also, if I go to coach Sweet and say Bandrowski can’t play tomorrow, I’m not going to get the screws put to me [to get her ready to play] to the point that my ethics are pushed and her best interests are questioned in order to get a win.”
Bray’s influence on Keuka’s student-body is not limited to the various playing fields for the Storm’s 16 varsity sports teams. Bray also serves as an adjunct instructor and teaches two sports management classes.
Each fall, as part of their senior class projects, Bray’s sports management students organize the annual Storm Madness pep rally, a raucous affair that provides a first look at the men’s and women’s basketball teams to the campus and neighboring communities.
“Jeff has been my right-hand man for all these years, and he is immensely talented and certainly has a lot to offer to any college,” said Sweet, who credits Bray’s communication skills, problem-solving ability, and self-starter mentality as some of his best personality traits.
“He’s tuned-in well with the needs of our student-athletes and understands what we’re trying to accomplish as a small Division III college athletics program. We’re not all about wins and losses; we try to educate the student-athletes on the overall collegiate experience and Jeff has been extremely helpful, not only to the college but to me in particular.”
Applauding Keuka’s unique Field Period as one of the most beneficial aspects of a Keuka education, Bray backs the college’s required annual 140-hour long internship program that offers real-world work experience to students each year they’re on campus.
“Professionally, if you’re trying to get somewhere, don’t always think you’re going to get somewhere on your own,” said Bray, who originally learned of the Eagles’ summer trainer position through Jim Rudd and Hank Fijalkowski, his bosses while Bray was a student athletic trainer at Kansas State.
“There are people that can and will help you if they know where you want to go. I am a firm believer in our Field Period because I lived the internship route, that’s how I got into the NFL. Jim and Hank, my mentors, told me I needed to do an internship in the NFL, and at the time I was probably too stupid to ask questions. But if Otho, Jim or Hank told me to do something, I knew that was what I needed to do. Our students need to get out and have those workplace experiences, but students can’t have a broken want-to. You can’t be the one pushing them; they need the drive and motivation to succeed.”
Throughout the years, Bray’s dedication toward Keuka College and the Storm’s student-athletes has never wavered, and he is just as passionate about his job and this campus as he was July 1, 1992, the day he first reported for duty at Keuka.
“I think you’re missing the boat of life if you’re not passionate about something,” Bray said. “To this day, I’m still doing something I’m passionate about and that’s pretty cool.”