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It was chaos for the Wildcats.
Delirious fans had poured over the railings protecting the field at Arizona Stadium in the final minute, tearing down the goal posts before the game was over. And now, with the scoreboard showing 0:00 left on the clock, everyone seemed to be on the turf, everywhere, all at once, partying, celebrating, wanting to be part of it all.
“Geez,” Tedy Bruschi once told me, “when we got attacked, everybody was in our face, yelling, ‘Good job! Good job!’ All the booze I smelled on a couple of those guys’ breath was atrocious.”
The final score: Wildcats 16, Huskies 3.
It was Nov. 7, 1992.
Arizona had pulled off one of the biggest wins in school history, ending No. 1 Washington’s 22-game winning streak and establishing the nascent Desert Swarm as one of greatest defenses in college football history.
Washington defensive lineman Jamal Fountaine stood on the field and pondered the scene. He turned to reporters and said, “To me, they’re No. 1 now.”
Imagine the Wildcats’ Heath Bray somewhere in this madness. Arms are tugging at him as he is trying to get off the field. Everybody wants a high five, to touch him, congratulate him. And then Bray turns around to find someone right there in his face. It’s his dad. They embrace. Heath figures he sees a flash, hears a shutter, but that was that.
It was time to party.
The Arizona Wildcats play the Washington Huskies on Saturday night. The game is sold out. It’s a big game and, heaven knows, there haven’t been many of those in Arizona Stadium in recent times. These Huskies are ranked No. 7 in the country and have the highest-scoring offense in the country.
For some of us, the matchup brings to mind that sun-drenched afternoon in 1992 when the Wildcats were, if only briefly, on top of the college football world. Bray, a senior backup quarterback who was also UA’s special teams captain, played his part, recovering a muffed punt from Napoleon Kaufman early in the game.
But we’re not here to talk about any of that.
This is going to be more about fathers and sons. About a moment that forever captures that bond. About how the stars can magically align in a moment that preserves a precious memory.
Ron Bray was a longtime football coach. He coached Heath as a freshman at Monroe (North Carolina) High School and again when his son was a senior at Cherryville (North Carolina) High. It was something of a miracle that both would be standing amid the chaos at Arizona Stadium five years later.
The Wildcats, you see, didn’t recruit the Tar Heel State.
But you couldn’t tell that to one of Dick Tomey’s assistant coaches, Dave Fagg, who was from North Carolina.
“All the coaches were giving him grief,” Ron said. “They said, ‘You’re never going to get a kid out of North Carolina.’”
Heath wasn’t invited to play in the Shrine All-Star game featuring North Carolina and South Carolina prospects, but his dad was there, watching practice one day. So was Fagg.
“I looked across and I see this navy blue jacket with Arizona on the back,” Ron said. “I was thinking, ‘What the heck is someone from Arizona doing here?’”
Ron nodded as Fagg was walking past him, and then Fagg’s face lit up. “Hey, there Ron!”
They had met about 20 years earlier when Fagg was coaching at Davidson, and Fagg remembered.
“I said, ‘Coach, I would like you to take a look at my boy. He is the toughest guy I ever coached and he loves to play,’” Ron said. “As he is walking back to practice, he asked one of the coaches, ‘What do you think of this Bray boy?’ The coach said, ‘He’s the best quarterback in the state. He should be in this game.’”
The Wildcats started recruiting Bray. The coaches looked at his film, invited him on an official visit. Chuck Cecil was his host. Offensive coordinator Ben Griffith flew back to North Carolina with Heath. The Wildcats offered a scholarship.
How unlikely is all of this? Consider that we have to give an assist to John Mackovic, who was a Wildcats assistant coach under Jim Young in the mid-1970s but later became the reviled successor to Tomey from 2001-03.
“I had worked with John Mackovic at Wake Forest,” Ron said. “I asked John, ‘Arizona offered. What do you think?’ He said, ‘If my son had a chance to go play for any coach in the country, it would be Dick Tomey.’”
Heath took a recruiting trip to North Carolina State but decided he wanted to go all the way across the country to join the Wildcats.
Let’s go back to the night of Nov. 7, 1992.
There is a raging party going on at the house Heath shared with a teammate, as players, parents and friends gathered to revel in the moment. Perhaps the number of partygoers has swelled over time in Heath’s memory — although maybe not — but he estimates about 500 people were having a blast.
“The cops came to break up the party, of course,” Bray said. “And then they got in street clothes and came back to the party. True story.”
At one point, one of the football players — we’re not saying who — was running around in only his tighty-whities, shouting, “Nobody can beat us! Nobody!”
And then the morning comes. About 6:30. A neighbor Heath had never met knocks on the door.
“Can you come out to the top of the driveway for a second, please,” the neighbor asks.
Heath saw that the party had done a number on the entire neighborhood, and he knew what he had to do. He grabbed quarterback George Malauulu and his dad from the house and headed to Circle K to stock up on cleaning supplies.
Heath walks in and the guy behind the counter asks, “Hey, are you Heath Bray? You’re on the front page of Sports.”
The guy hands Heath a copy of the Arizona Daily Star. Heath flips it open, and there it is, full color, father and son locked in an embrace for all time, dad’s head buried, peacefully, blissfully in his son’s shoulder.
Heath and George load up on cleaning supplies, buy a copy of the paper and return to the car, where Ron is waiting.
“I handed it to my dad, and I swear that son-of-a-gun broke up so bad. I was embarrassed,” Heath said. “He said he’d take a second mortgage on the house to get a picture like that.”
Ron stepped out of the car. He went inside the store and bought every copy of the paper they had.
A snapshot for the ages
Heath’s Wildcats’ career didn’t go as planned. He was moved to defense, where he played safety and linebacker. He became known as “Crash,” first for a series of mishaps on bicycles and various motor vehicles and later for his fearless play on special teams. As dad says, he was tough.
When chronic back injuries forced him to give up defense, Tomey gave him a chance to return to quarterback in 1992, backing up Malauulu and even starting the game at Miami, when the four-touchdown-underdog Wildcats fought the top-ranked Hurricanes to an 8-7 decision. The Desert Swarm identity was born that day in the Orange Bowl, and Ron Bray was there to see it.
Near the end of the game, he and wife had made their way through the stands. They convinced two security guards to help them over the railings and down to the field for the end of the game and the Wildcats’ last-play field goal attempt.
Six weeks later, Ron was trying to get on the field again near the end of another game. He knew which gate the players would exit the field and wanted to be there.
“I asked the policeman, can I come inside,” Ron said.
“No,” the policeman said.
Ron quickly told him the story of the helpful security officials in Miami.
“I shamed him,” Ron said. “He opened the gate.”
And then Ron was on the field amid the chaos. He watched. He waited. He saw his son. Fighting his way through the crowd, he was finally there.
“And I gave him a hug,” Ron said. “For that to have happened, it was another miracle.”
Heath, now a partner in a Scottsdale wealth management firm, acquired a nice print from the Star and still displays the father-son photo in his office. Ron, still living in North Carolina, has a copy, too.
“I mean, we’ve gotten a lot of family mileage out of that, to be honest with you,” Heath said. “I think my dad was really, really proud of me at Arizona. The crazy thing is that my dad fought through the entire crowd to get to me.”
Of course he did.
Decades and decades of family and football and, by extension, forever friends from Arizona are captured in that fraction of a second.
“The good lord has taken care of us,” Ron said. “The friends Heath has had over the years from Arizona have been a wonderful godsend to our family.”
Heath reflects on his time at Arizona, which improbably — again — ended with him playing wide receiver in the Sun Bowl against Baylor. He says Tomey “was the finest man I’ve ever known … except for my father.”
He added: “Both my father and Coach have taught me you don’t tiptoe around a problem. You full-frontal it. Deal with it. Fix it. Move on.”
Now, Heath has a quarterback-playing son of his own. Mason is a senior starter at Saguaro in Scottsdale.
Heath can and will talk about the headaches, the frustrations, the madness of today’s high-stakes, high-level, high school football, but those negative feelings will eventually fade. They will. Some day in the future, it will all come back around again to the basics — fathers and sons.
“I have thrown 150 million balls to that boy and gotten 150 million back,” Heath said. “He wore me out for 10 years, every day, throwing, throwing, throwing. So there’s that. …
“I just want to teach my son about the magic. The one thing about football is that you do what you do because it’s the funnest (bleeping) game on the planet to play. And I believe if you come at it from that perspective, good things will happen.”
And, if you’re really lucky, somebody will be there to take a photo of it at exactly the right time.
Top photo of Heath and Ron Bray hugging after the Arizona-Washington game in 1992 via Ed Compean, Arizona Daily Star
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