AMES — Iowa State defensive ends coach Curtis Bray had a way of smiling that melted away tension.
Cynics didn’t stand a chance within the orbit of his magnetic presence.
“Just a big, compassionate dude with a great sense of humor,” Cyclones defensive tackles coach and neighbor Shane Burnham said. “And a big laugh to match it.”
That’s how Burnham will remember Bray, who passed away suddenly Wednesday morning.
He was 43, and is survived by his wife, Heather; daughter, Sydney; and son, Colden Charles.
"Curtis Bray was a dear friend to me and to all he ever came in contact with," Cyclones Coach Paul Rhoads said in a statement. "He was a trusted and loyal assistant coach who always put the kids and the team in front of his work. He was as genuine in his approach to relationships, coaching, and life as anyone I have ever been associated with. We will miss him dearly."
A cause of death wasn't immediately determined.
Rob Bowers of the Iowa State University Department of Public Safety said first responders were dispatched to the Bergstrom Football Complex at 6:27 a.m. Wednesday and Bray was then transported to Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames at 6:45.
Burnham said he ate dinner with Bray Monday and much of the talk centered around their kids, not football.
They flew back together from a coaches convention in Indianapolis and Bray drove him home from the airport.
"I said, 'Hey, thanks for the ride, see you in the morning,'" Burnham said. "He said, 'OK, see you in the morning.' ... Boy, it's just surreal."
Bray was an original member of Rhoads' staff and had a knack for getting the most out of his players because he took the time to fully get to know them, former ISU all-American linebacker Jake Knott said when reached late Wednesday morning.
"He was a guy I spent a lot of time just talking about life with, outside of just football," said Knott, a Philadelphia Eagles rookie. "He'd always give me little tips — almost every single day he'd have something to say that I'd listen to and go, 'Wow. That's right. That makes sense.'"
Bray starred at linebacker as a player.
In 1987, he was the first high school defensive player to earn Gatorade National Player of the Year honors.
A native of Monroeville, Pa., he went on to play linebacker for the University of Pittsburgh and graduated in 1992 with a degree in economics.
"He was very calm, cool and collected," said Knott, a Philadelphia Eagles rookie. "If he was yelling at you, you knew you did something wrong, or you knew you had to fix something. He was the type of guy that you respected and you knew you could learn a lot from. ... Just a very special person. He lived life the right way. And he treated people the right way, too."
Burnham said he and Bray ended up buying houses with backyards that aligned.
He remembered grilling on his deck and seeing Bray doing the same on his.
"The kids would run back and forth from his backyard to my backyard,” Burnham said. “We got to be close. He was a great man and a great father.”
Bray and Rhoads coached together at Pitt.
Bray was the main recruiter of then-Panthers star receiver Larry Fitzgerald, among others — people who were drawn to his talent as a coach and warm demeanor.
"He was so much fun to be around," Cyclones defensive end Cory Morrissey said in a statement. "He could joke around with you and make a tense situation better with his personality."
Knott said Bray's ability to connect on a human — not just a football — level seemed to come naturally.
"It's just almost like it hasn't sunk in yet," Knott said. "It just doesn't seem real, because he was such a great guy. It's just like something like this couldn't happen to someone who was that genuine and nice. He'd always go out of his way for people. It's hard to even make it seem real."
Many have posted tributes to Bray on Twitter throughout the day:
This world was lucky to have Coach Bray. He treated EVERYONE the right way. He will be sorely missed. Lucky I was able to spend 4 yrs w/him.— Jake Knott (@Jknott20) January 15, 2014
Prayers go out to coach Bray and his family. A great man, and an even better coach.— Grant Rohach (@grantrohach) January 15, 2014
Wow. So sad to hear about Coach Bray he was such a great guy and a great coach. Thoughts and prayers go out to his family and kids.— Jake McDonough (@_JakeMcDonough) January 15, 2014
— Cyclone Football (@CycloneFB) January 15, 2014
Coach Curtis Bray was a quiet and kind man who always seemed to have a smile on his face. May God bless his young family. Rest in peace.— Chris Williams (@ChrisMWilliams) January 15, 2014
In shock that Coach Bray has passed away this morning. Great man and great coach. Will be missed.— AJ Klein (@AJKlein47) January 15, 2014