FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — Have you heard the one about the little-known running back who went from standup comic in college to sudden sensation for the AFC’s best team?
Please welcome to the stage Jonas Gray.
“Back in the day,” he said, “I called myself a funny guy.”
Now Gray is the New England Patriots’ no-nonsense, straight-ahead runner who charged into the spotlight by steamrolling the Indianapolis Colts for 199 yards and four touchdowns on 38 carries last Sunday night.
For his first three years at Notre Dame, his best performance may have come at CJ’s Pub, a burger joint.
On the field, he totaled just 75 carries for 309 yards and no touchdowns. In none of those three seasons did his numbers match his single-game output in the 42-20 win at Indianapolis, only 150 miles from South Bend.
But in February 2011, between his junior and senior seasons, he opened at CJ’s for Dustin Diamond, who played the role of Screech in the “Saved By The Bell” television show.
“It was an honor,” Gray said.
Gray had an outstanding senior season with 791 yards and 12 touchdowns. And now, the 5-foot-10, 230-pounder is filling in for Stevan Ridley, the Patriots’ top running back who suffered a season-ending right knee injury in the sixth game.
Quite a rise after not playing for two full seasons.
Gray was on Miami’s physically unable to perform list in 2012 after tearing a ligament in one of his knees in his final college game. He spent the 2013 season on Baltimore’s practice squad.
He was on New England’s practice squad the first six games this season, time well spent. He learned the offense, ran with power in practice against the first-string defense and earned the respect of his teammates.
Then, in his fourth game, Gray was the headline act.
His 199 yards rushing tied for third most in a single game in Patriots history and his 38 carries matched the second highest total.
And the Patriots (8-2) ran their winning streak to six games.
“We watched him run the ball all preseason. We’ve been watching him all year in practice,” safety Devin McCourty said. “He’s still running the same way, running hard. I just thought it was good for him to get out there and have a game like that so the rest of the world could see the work he’s been putting in and how determined he’s been.”
The Patriots kept running Sunday night because it worked. They often used an extra offensive lineman to open holes and bruising fullback James Develin overpowered defenders heading for Gray.
“That’s why I play the game,” Develin said. “It’s an awesome feeling when you’re just moving people and getting them out of the way.”
Just as it is when Ridley, who combines power and shiftiness, or Shane Vereen, smaller and a receiving threat, have lined up in the backfield.
The Patriots likely will spend more time protecting quarterback Tom Brady on Sunday against Detroit. The Lions have the NFL’s stingiest defense against the run and Gray knows his role could diminish substantially.
“Wouldn’t surprise me at all,” he said. “We have a lot of weapons on this team.”
And that’s no joke.
“I had no idea,” left tackle Nate Solder said when informed of Gray’s comedic skills. “Is he pretty funny or what?”
Uh, not always.
Gray compares his comedy style to that of Kevin James, but a 4 1-2-minute YouTube video is hardly side-splitting.
“He probably should stick to just running the ball,” McCourty said with a smile.
That’s what Gray intends to do.
“There’s not a whole lot of room for laughing and comedy” on the field, he said, “I’ll probably be focused on my number one job.”
And what would all-business coach Bill Belichick say about his comic talent?
“We’ll have to see,” a smiling Gray told reporters. “He’ll probably say, ‘We’re on to Detroit.’”
The audience laughed.