If Jeanette Gray is the first woman on a high school football coaching staff in the Duneland Athletic Conference, great.
“That’s pretty cool,” she said.
But that’s not why the former Valparaiso high school and university basketball star is doing it.
“I love to coach, I love football and I love working with kids,” Gray said.
A seven-year veteran of semipro football, Gray was approached by Lake Central head coach Brett St. Germain in the spring about joining the staff.
“She understands what coaching requires regarding the time commitment and the fact that it can consume much of your life,” St. Germain said. “At the end of the day, coaches can coach, and Jeanette can definitely coach.”
Gray didn’t need to think twice.
“Brett knew I had played. He’d seen me coach,” Gray said. “I give him a lot of credit for taking the step. I was given the opportunity and I’m going to run with it.”
Already a girls soccer and basketball assistant at L.C., Gray knows that football is a different animal, the ultimate guys’ sport — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for her or other women in it.
“It’s a really cool thing because I think she’s a trendsetter,” St. Germain said. “She’s doing what, I’m guessing, many other women might feel to be a very intimidating task.”
Gray played with Jen Walter, who interned with the Arizona Cardinals, and texted her about her experience with the NFL team. Katie Sowers is doing the same this summer with the Atlanta Falcons.
“I know there’s always going to be doubters, as with anything,” Gray said. “I’m just going out and doing my job with confidence, like I did with basketball. I know my stuff. I’m going to do the very best I can with the tools I have.”
Gray credits Crete-Monee coach John Konecki for her development as a player. Her coach on the world champion U.S. women’s national team and the national champion Chicago Force, Konecki has helped bring the sport to new places around the globe. Gray is sharing that knowledge with her pass catchers. Konecki lives in Schererville, a stone’s throw from Lake Central, and Gray continues to draw on Konecki’s expertise.
“He’s coached all over the world, seen so many things,” she said. “I’ve been fortunate to have learned from a guy who is very innovative, aggressive on the offensive side of the ball. I think I bring a fresh perspective, something a little new and different.”
With Josh Benson and Austin Atkins, Gray has a potent receiving combination at her disposal, a duo that accounted for 103 catches, 1,562 yards and 16 touchdowns last season.
“They’re very good receivers,” she said. “They’ve been really instrumental in helping with the younger receivers. It very well could have been an awkward situation, but they’ve really been good, not just them, all the boys. They look at me as just another coach, not a woman coach.”
Practice officially starts Monday, but with football going largely year-round, Gray has already been on the job and St. Germain has seen a positive impact right away.
“She has acclimated herself since day one,” he said. “There hasn’t been one day where Jeanette has looked out of place or unprepared in any way.”
Once the regular season kicks off, Gray will also be involved with the JV team on Saturdays, as well as doing film work.
“You can play sports and coach different sports, but your first year, there’s always so much to learn,” Gray said. “Brett and Tony (Bartolomeo) have been so good in helping me with any questions I have. They’ve been around the sport a long time, and it’s fun working with them. I’ve learned so much. I went to camp at Trine and I loved every second of it. I was thrown right into the fire and that’s exactly how I like it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”