Ethan Gray of St. Rita High School is the IHSA's nominee for the 2015 NFHS Heart of the Arts Award
With its tradition-rich roots on
Chicago’s south side, St. Rita of Cascia High School has built a legacy of athletic excellence that intertwines directly with its membership in the heralded Chicago Catholic League Conference. There is little doubt that at some juncture since the school opened its doors in 1905 that a coach or player from the all-boys school has referenced the need for “toughness” or “playing through pain” in the athletic arena.
St. Rita senior Ethan Gray (right)
is not a part of Mustang basketball team that is currently ranked among the best in the nation, or its perennial state title contending baseball team, nor will he be its next alumnus to play in the NFL, as Darius Fleming did for the Patriots in the Super Bowl this year.
The kid who might very well be the toughest walking those hallowed halls is making his mark in the arts, namely music and theater, although he isn’t one to let on about what he has been through.
“Once in a while you get a kid who inspires you and Ethan is that type of kid,” said St. Rita music faculty member Cindy Gradek. “He has a quiet presence about him, and his classmates love him. However, I think the school is going to be blown away when they hear his story. Most kids outside of band don’t know what he goes through.”
What Ethan goes through, and will for the rest of his life, is a monthly blood transfusion. The transfusion is performed through the port catheter that was surgically implanted in his chest, and is a necessity to combat his Sickle Cell Thalassemia. The genetically inherited disease led Ethan to be hospitalized at a young age for maladies such as Pneumonia, Acute Chest Syndrome and other life-threatening diseases. In addition, he experiences debilitating episodes known as “pain crisis” that can occur at any time when parts of his body are deprived of blood and oxygen due the sickling of his blood cells.
“It was really bad when I was younger,” said Ethan. “I was in the hospital constantly due to pain crisis, or a sickness that would lead to a pain crisis.”
That reality led Ethan’s parents to make the decision to home-school him in grade school in order to help limit his exposure to germs. The home-schooling was successful in helping build up Ethan’s immune system, so when it came time for high school, he followed his older brother and enrolled at St. Rita High School.
“I guess it was due to being homeschooled for so long that I joined so many clubs,” said Ethan. “I was really happy to finally be in school, meet new people and have friends. I have advanced in a lot of different ways and been opened up to new experiences. St. Rita has been influential.”
The clubs Ethan joined at St. Rita ranged from paintball to video games to Spanish, but none came more naturally than that of the music programs. He says that his dad “was always playing piano” when he was growing up, which led to him pick up his first guitar at the age of five. He remained musically inclined throughout grade school, but St. Rita opened up several new avenues for him, including playing in the school marching and jazz bands.
“I can always count on Ethan to be prepared,” said Gradek. “He is one of the kids you can rely on and who is always happy to be there. He is such a hard worker, he just works until he has got it. It has shown too, he became the lead sax player over kids with more experience.”
Ethan mentioned that he had “never played in a band before” and that the smaller numbers in the St. Rita band required him to learn and play new instruments. Saxophone, clarinet and guitar remain his most oft played instruments, but he reports he can now play 11 different instruments, self-taught on each.
He has also expanded outside music into the high school theater program, working on the stage and lighting crew as a sophomore before embracing a more active role.
“I didn’t think that I was good at acting,” he recalls. “But theatre program was such a good atmosphere, I loved going back and wanted to improve.”
He has now been a part of the cast in three school plays, including Hamlet, and was picked as the funniest performer at one of the school improv shows he participated in.
Minus a month-long hospital stay during his freshman year, Ethan remained relatively healthy for the first two and a half years of his high school career. He had to take some precautions, such as needing to go inside to get warm to avoid a pain crisis when playing with the band at cold-weather football games, but overall things had gone well. That changed in April, 2014, when Ethan suffered a stroke in the school theatre.
The stroke resulted in the monthly transfusions becoming a lifelong reality for Ethan, but he has recovered and persevered.
“It was a scary time,” says Gradek of the stroke. “He bounced back fairly quickly, and while he was a little slower, he worked to the point that there were no residual effects. He’s such a tough kid, he never complains about any of it. He will get his blood transfusion on a Friday afternoon and show up to play in the band at the game that night.”
Despite all he has endured and his involvement at St. Rita, Ethan somehow still finds time to give back to his community. He plays music at two churches, has built homes for the underprivileged as a part of his youth group, played guitar for sick children at his hospital, and volunteers at Garden Center Services and 115 Bourbon Street, who help the handicapped and veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, respectively.
Music will always be a part of Ethan’s life, but long-term he hopes to establish a career with his other artistic abilities. He plans to pursue collegiate studies in game design illustration and animation, with the ultimate goal of one day drawing comic books for Marvel or D.C.
“I like entertaining audiences,” says Ethan.
Spoken like a true tough guy.