Andrew Mills | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Matt Gray, a Park Ridge assistant coach born with Down Syndrome, had just received the surprise of a lifetime.
But where was the most popular guy in town in the immediate aftermath after being gifted two tickets to Super Bowl LIV in February?
“You know, he’s probably back up there in the locker room, back in game mode,” his mother, Marianne Gray, said at halftime of Park Ridge’s eventual 21-7 win over Emerson. “Making sure his Owls put on a show.”
On Friday night, “Matty Ice,” as he’s so commonly referred to around town, was the show, specifically at halftime.
In a surprise ceremony immediately following the second quarter, New York Giants linebacker Kareem Martin awarded Matty Ice, a Giants fan, two oversized tickets to The Big Game in Miami.
It shocked everyone in attendance, especially Gray himself. He is undoubtedly one of the biggest football fans you’ll find in North Jersey, someone whose own nickname — coined by a friend years ago — even mimics that of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
“They just told us that if we have family, bring family,” his mother said. “Because they said it was going to be a memorable night. But something like this? We had no idea. How could you ever dream this?”
The tickets were part of a contest run by the NFL for people who impact the game and their community — and no one epitomizes that more than Matty Ice.
Gray, 21, is one of the most beloved figures in Park Ridge and beyond and has been for years.
Park Ridge coach Tom Curry said Gray is “at every practice, every game, everybody takes to him and he keeps everything light and loose for us every day.”
“This is a real special moment for him.”
It’s not the first one, either.
Years ago, Gray’s legend at school grew when he scored an unofficial touchdown during halftime of a Park Ridge game — “Ice Left,” his mother recalled with a laugh of the emotional 20-yard run for her then-senior son — followed by teammates carrying him off the field on their shoulders.
“I was bawling,” she said, now laughing. “Just bawling after that.”
Since birth, Gray hasn’t let his disability define him one bit.
The Class of 2017 Park Ridge graduate and youngest of three served as the football team manager throughout his career. He ran on the cross-country team. He even bowled.
But what he loves and has always loved most, his mother said, is his Park Ridge football team.
“It’s just been such a great big part of his life,” Marianne said. “It’s helped him with reading. It’s helped him with math. All kinds of things. He loves running to get the paper every day to see what Owl made it in there. He talks about the football team’s schedule and writes on it before they even play a game.
“It’s always, ‘We’re going to win. W. W. W.”
So far, Gray’s 2019 victory proclamations have rang true.
Park Ridge football is 5-0 and, after Friday’s win, bound for the NJIC playoffs in two weeks as Patriot Division champion.
And Matty Ice, now as a volunteer assistant, is often front and center leading the Owls on to the field, routinely gets the crowd going after every Park Ridge touchdown and becomes animated any time his defense needs a big stop.
Gray, who has special handshakes with multiple Owls, even performed the YMCA during one timeout and chants of “Matty Ice” could be heard at various times Friday night from the Park Ridge student section.
Gray loves his Owls, and they most certainly love him back.
“Oh, man, we really do love him,” Park Ridge quarterback Vincent Pinto said. “He’s always texting me on Wednesdays and Thursdays like, ‘You ready? You ready?’ Especially this week. He loves this team and this rivalry more than anybody. To see what they did for him at halftime, it’s just amazing for him. He appreciates it so much and everyone loves to see a smile on his face.”
A smile on his face is all Gray’s mother needs.
Marianne said doctors told her at the time of his birth that her son “will never be normal” — an awfully pessimistic diagnosis more than two decades ago — but one Matty Ice has proven to be wildly incorrect.
He’s defied that prognosis and then some — and truly is just one of the guys around Park Ridge, just the way he and his mother like it.
Now, he’s a guy heading to the Super Bowl in South Beach.
“When he was born, you spend a lot of time wondering what his life is really going to be like,” Marianne said. “But if somebody told me that his life was going to be like this for him…” before pausing while getting emotional, “Anywhere we go now, we hear ‘Matty Ice’ chants. Being able to be accepted is really all you want. And wanting him to be happy is all you want.
“Here, he’s happy and he’s accepted. The boys here embraced him years ago, took him on as one of their own and accepted him. And it’s just grown from there.”
The legend continues.