Women Can, Too: The Story of Jeanette Gray

Jeanette Gray ’03, ’09 M.Ed.

If you spend any amount of time with Jeanette Gray ’03, ’09 M.Ed., you’ll walk away feeling inspired to dream bigger than you thought imaginable and ready to chase after your lifelong goals. 

Life after Valpo has been nothing short of remarkable for Jeanette, a mechanical engineering major and student-athlete who helped lead her team to the first NCAA tournament in Valpo women’s basketball history. Currently a Project Lead the Way engineering educator at Lake Central High School, Jeanette has achieved greatness over and over again, both on and off the court.

As a Valparaiso native, Jeanette never saw herself attending the university in her hometown. “I wanted to get away. I knew I was going to play basketball in college and I was being heavily recruited. I visited a couple of other colleges and universities and Valpo was in my top five. You get a certain feeling when you’re on campus. When I went on my visit to Valpo, it just felt right. I wanted to study engineering and I knew I could do that at Valpo and that my classes were going to be smaller, not like at bigger universities where there are hundreds of students in the class. Being able to play Division I basketball and being an engineering major, it was the perfect fit. I felt really comfortable with my future teammates there and my coaches, too.”

During her time at Valpo, Jeanette’s life revolved around her engineering studies and playing basketball. “I pretty much walked between Gellersen [Engineering and Mathematics Center] and the Athletics-Recreation Center. I blazed that trail back and forth many, many times. A couple of stops at the library, a stop at the Union to eat now and then, but other than that, I was playing basketball. One of Coach Keith Freeman’s selling points when he was recruiting me was that the girls had never been to the NCAA tournament. And he said, ‘You can help us get there.’ So, that was my main thing for those four years. My senior year, we made it to the tournament. It was awesome. Goal accomplished.”

After graduating from Valpo in 2003, Jeanette went on to coach college basketball at Ball State University, where she received her MBA, but ultimately decided that coaching in college wasn’t right for her. She returned to Valpo and received her master’s degree in education, which enabled her to receive her teaching license in 2009. Jeanette went on to teach and coach basketball at Hammond Clark High School and Valparaiso High School before landing at Lake Central High School in 2015.

After Jeanette finished coaching basketball at Valparaiso High School, she recalls feeling like something was missing from her life. She says, “A couple of my friends asked me to play flag football in a league on the southside of Chicago. It was super competitive. While I was there, I got asked to try out for the women’s tackle football team, which I had no idea existed. I thought it was just this recreational thing, a couple of hours a week. It turned into practically a part-time job. I ended up playing for the Chicago Force for eight seasons (2010-2017). It’s women’s professional tackle football. If you turn the TV on to watch the NFL, it looks exactly like that.”

Jeanette Gray ’03, ’09 M.Ed.

Jeanette found great success while playing professional football. She was honored as the National Offensive Player of the Year in 2014 and was selected as one of 45 women to represent the United States on the women’s national team in both 2013 and 2017, winning gold medals each time. The Chicago Force played in the National Championship Game in 2012 and won it all in 2013. Jeanette was elected to the Women’s Professional Football Hall of Fame in 2019. She says, “That was an experience that I didn’t see coming. I really wanted to play football growing up. My dad was a football coach, my brother was the Defensive Player of the Year in the state of Indiana his senior year, and my uncle won a national championship at the University of Notre Dame as a football player, so I wanted to play football, too. But you never saw girls playing football. I finally got my chance when I was 28 years old.

Jeanette Gray ’03, ’09 M.Ed.

The experience opened up a lot of doors for Jeanette as a coach and educator. At Lake Central High School, not only was she an assistant coach for soccer, basketball, track, and softball, but she also became the first-ever female varsity football coach in Indiana history.

These days, Jeanette is still teaching and is also the co-owner of two CrossFit gyms in the Region, one in Dyer and the other in Munster. She has set her sights on competing professionally in the CrossFit games. She trains three to four hours every day in hopes of becoming one of the 20 Fittest Individuals in the World and making it to the games in her age group. “I’ve always had the drive to be the best at whatever I was doing,” she says. “I think I was lucky that I grew up in a day and age where there was no social media, where you couldn’t see what other people were doing. So, I didn’t really know how good other people were. I just made sure that I was the very best that I could be, never really comparing myself to other people. Every time I stepped on the court, I wanted to be the best player on the court. I wanted to put in the work to make sure that I had the confidence that I was going to be the best. With football, too, I wanted to put in all the work to make sure that when I stepped on the field, I was going to be the very, very best. When I step in front of my kids, when I teach them every day, I want to be the best teacher today that these kids have. There are some days you fall short, that’s life. But I have this internal drive to be the very best at what I do. My parents were a great example of hard work. I never thought I was a very talented athlete growing up. I just thought my talent was hard work. I enjoy the grind. I enjoy getting my hands dirty and just working my butt off and being completely exhausted. That feels good to me. That’s part of that drive, that keeps me going. Winning is kind of fun, too.”

Jeanette credits some of the strong women in her life for their influence on the person she is today. “I’m really lucky to have been around some really strong women,” she says. “I think the big one is my mother. She was the first one in her family to graduate college. And then she got a job right out of college. She was independent and lived on her own. She retired from teaching and was probably the best teacher in our family. She taught social studies and would spend hours at school. She would go to school for hours on Sundays and get ready for the week. Her mom, my grandmother, graduated from Lake Central High School in the 1950s. She was a star athlete and is 91 years old now. She lives in Crown Point, Indiana, on her own and drives herself to exercise three times a week.”

Jeanette includes her former high school softball and basketball coach, Kathy Levandoski, as well as her co-workers, as some other very strong forces in her life. “I’ve been around a lot of women who just got stuff done. Didn’t care, didn’t even think about ‘I’m a woman, I shouldn’t do this.’ They were just like, ‘I’m going to do what I want.’ I’ve done a lot of things that if you were to ask if that is a girl’s sport or if that is what girls do, the answer would be no. I played football. There were three girls in my engineering cohort going through school. But I never felt weird about it. I liked it, so I did it. I’ve never felt limited by that.”

Jeanette Gray ’03, ’09 M.Ed.

Jeanette has often been a trailblazer for other women, both in sports and in her profession. Her advice for other women who may find themselves in the same position is clear: “It’s not easy, you’re going to feel the weight sometimes, especially as a trailblazer, of all the women in the world on your shoulders. It’s going to feel heavy sometimes, but then you need to go talk to other women and ask how they handle it, how they get through it. Because we need you. We need you to blaze this path. It’s lonely sometimes, but you’re not the only one. Some days you’re sprinting, some days it’s walking really slow, but as long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’re going to get where you want to go. It doesn’t matter how fast it is.” On Friday, February 9, 2024, Jeanette and her Valpo teammates celebrated the 20th anniversary of the 2003-04 women’s basketball Mid-Continent Conference Championship team during a half-time ceremony at the women’s basketball game. On April 27, 2024, Jeanette will be honored by the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the 2024 Women’s Silver Anniversary Team. She was inducted into the Valparaiso University Athletics Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Valparaiso High School Athletics Hall of Fame in 2009.

As the epitome of a Beacon, Jeanette continues to shine, even in darkness or without a known path forward, carrying the torch for herself and all those behind her: “I think there are a lot of little girls who need a lot of good role models.” She adds, “Embrace the role you have and be a positive influence for people. We need more of that.”

Jeanette Gray ’03, ’09 M.Ed.