MarQueis Gray's most obvious talent is scrambling, and it's a good thing. He has been taking on a pair of bruisers who would challenge even the best broken-field runner.
"I'm laying on the couch, watching TV for maybe two minutes. I look over, and found one eating lotion, so I jump up," Gray says, verbally diagramming his living-room duck-and-dodge. "I grab him, and see the other one under the table. He's pulling out the plug on my printer so he can chew on it."
Yeah, the Gophers quarterback is getting a lesson in playing defense against a Gray -- times two. MarShawn and MarZell, Gray's 9-month-old twin sons, have taken over that part of his life that isn't occupied by football, and babysitting a couple of increasingly mobile rug rats has replaced training camp as the most frenzied and rewarding activity in his life.
Yet the Gophers' most critical player, the key to Jerry Kill's second season as coach, enters his senior season with divided attention and dueling responsibilities. Gray and coaches believe that's not a bad thing.
"That's part of the picture, now, in his maturation. He's got confidence now," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "He knows he can do it. There were some ups and downs, but being a father, with those responsibilities ... has gone into his maturation."
Said Gray: "My mom always told me that the real joy in life is having your first kid. I see what she means."
She means you get to break up hair-pulling fights, especially when the twins' hair is so unruly. You get to install a gate in the hallway because they have learned to crawl up stairs, then deal with the tears as a baby stands gripping the bars like an unhappy prisoner. You get to wake up at 4 a.m. when one starts screaming, then marvel that the other "is sleeping face down, his little butt in the air and his arms between the [crib's] slats, just sleeping through everything."
And you get to enjoy feeding time, because at close to 30 pounds apiece already, "they definitely know when it's time to eat," he said. "They start licking their lips when they see that jar of food."
Mostly, you spend every hour that you're not working on football or schoolwork with a pair of needy, entertaining kids.
"It's a lot of fun. You can be sad or mad one minute, but when you see them, they just make you laugh," Gray said. "They always brighten your day."
Many full-time jobs
They fill it with work, too, especially for someone who is as determined to be hands-on as Gray. He gets up with them, a task that meant 5 a.m. wake-ups at times. He dresses his sons and prepares their bottles. He changes diapers -- "MarQueis changes them more than I do," said Alley Behr, the boys' mother and Gray's fiancée.
Most fathers share child-raising responsibilities in some fashion. But taking on that role while also being depended upon by 100 teammates to be the leader and offensive power source for a Division I football team?
"That's not so easy," said Bryan Cupito. "That's a lot of weight on one guy."
Cupito has carried that load himself, as the Gophers' starting quarterback from 2004 to '06. His girlfriend, now his wife, delivered daughter Callie two weeks before Cupito quarterbacked the Gophers in the Music City Bowl against Virginia in 2005.
And for his entire senior season, he juggled the responsibilities of taking snaps and being a dad. Tight end Matt Spaeth would babysit when both parents had a class, and Cupito began "fining" teammates for mistakes on the field. "If you dropped a pass or jumped offsides, you had to bring diapers or a toy the next day," said Cupito. "[Receiver] Eric Decker probably bought more toys for Callie than I did."
Cupito threw 22 touchdown passes, led Minnesota to another bowl game -- and got home to tuck Callie in bed nearly every night.
"It was tough, as far as balancing the two. You sort of go to college to have fun, but when you have a baby, it makes you grow up fast," said Cupito, now with three kids in Madison, Wis.
Indeed. Gray now enjoys front-door celebrations more than any touchdown dance. "When I come home, they drop whatever toy they're playing with and come rushing over to see me," Gray said with a smile. "That's the best feeling you can have."
He isn't sure what he felt when Behr, 30, first told him he was going to be a father. The couple met shortly after he arrived on campus in 2008, introduced to each other by linebacker Deon Hightower, and have been together since. Gray had grown close to Behr's daughter, Tessa, now 13, but the notion of children of his own, at the age of 22, came as a shock.
"At first, I was just like, 'Wow. I'm still in college.' I was stressed out about it," Gray said.
"We were both in shock a little bit, especially when we found out it was twins," Behr said. "The [ultrasound] nurses were jumping around, but we were almost in adaze."
But Gray and Behr, who worked at a local health-care provider, realized they were a good team and could handle it. Gray then had to hope his coaches would feel the same way. Fortunately, they did.
"After the initial shock, the first week or so, he's done a really good job," said quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski, a father of two school-age children himself. "I told him, 'Understand, these are the cards you dealt for yourself. You have kids, so love them. They're No. 1, and that's the way it is.'"
One big family
But he has responsibilities to others, too. "You have to have a football focus as well. A lot of people are counting on you. A lot of people are counting on me, and Coach Kill as well, so understand that," Zebrowski said. "You've got to prioritize."
Never was the balance between the two as evident as the day the twins were born. Gray was at the team's dinner the night before the Gophers played Wisconsin last November when he got a text saying Behr was about to give birth, nearly a month early. "I told Coach Kill the babies were coming, and he looked at me and said, 'What are you still doing here?'" Gray recalled. An athletic trainer took him to the hospital, where he watched his sons being born, even videotaping the event.
Then he returned to the team's hotel, and played the next day as scheduled. The Gophers lost 42-13, and Gray played perhaps his worst game of the season -- but it was the only disappointing part of his weekend.
Now Gray's children are as big a part of his life as his team, and he is getting good at combining the two. He's improved his throwing motion after completing only half his passes a year ago. He's buffed up the 6-5, 250-pound body that crashed its way to 966 rushing yards last year. He's forced himself to become a more outspoken, demonstrative leader, intending to improve the Gophers' 3-9 record and attract the attention of NFL scouts. Hey, he's got more mouths to feed these days.
Gray has already completed the requirements for graduation, and is a master's student this fall, with a reduced workload that allows him to spend more time at home. During training camp, with players expected to spend 12-16 hours a day working on football, Gray had to stay in a school dorm, so Behr brought the children to practice so he could see them afterward.
"I can hear them on the sidelines, playing," Gray said. "Once, I looked over and saw them trying to bite each other, but one only has one tooth, and the other has two."
Gray realizes how lucky he is; he has had teammates with children, but not all live with them, or even in the same city. "Some guys struggle with it initially," Zebrowski said. "It's a life-changing deal, and guys do struggle with the change. But sometimes it helps them. In this case, I think it focuses MarQueis more. Time management is key."
So is taking responsibility, he said. Gray has already given Tessa his last name and is in the process of formally adopting her. And Gray and Behr plan to be married in December -- on 12-12-12, actually, in part because the twins were born on 11-11-11.
"I didn't know for sure until we had the kids, but he's been Super Dad," Behr said. "He's amazing with the kids, and they adore him."
And if they keep growing this way, he won't be the only one.
"I may be breaking NCAA rules, but I'm trying to recruit the two boys," Limegrover joked. "I told him, start putting one in a left-hand stance, and one in a right-, and I've got two guards."