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May 5, 2012
The Johnathan Gray story
When running back Johnathan Gray committed to Texas, Aledo coach Tim Buchanan was surprised to get a call from Texas A&M coach Mike Sherman.
"Mike Sherman called me to tell me what a great kid Johnathan was and knew that Johnathan was going to be successful in college and in life because he had more character and was the classiest kid he'd ever recruited," Buchanan said.
"I've never had a head coach call me after a kid turned him down to tell me how good of a kid he was. I've had them call to help me try to change their mind. Mike Sherman said for the level of player he is, he had more character and class than any kid he'd recruited."
To understand why Sherman made that call and why there is so much anticipation about the arrival of Johnathan Gray at Texas, you have to go back to the beginning. To Johnathan's mother, Tonya, a scholarship athlete who demanded her son get good grades or there would be no football. To Johnathan's father, James, still the second-leading rusher in Texas Tech history.
DESIRE AND DRIVE: When Johnathan indicated to his dad in sixth grade that he wanted to be great in football, James tried to help him by starting him on 5:45 am workouts. Those would continue through high school.
"I knew if I was getting him up at 5:45, he would go to bed on time," James says laughing.
The plan worked. To the point in which Johnathan would go to bed before his friends when he would host a sleepover.
"I can remember one time when Johnathan was in middle school and he had some friends over," James Gray said. "Johnathan had gone to bed, and his friends were up at 11:30 playing video games. And at 5:45 the next morning, I cut the lights on.
"Johnathan gets up, and his friends are like, 'What's going on?' And me and Johnathan were like, 'It's time to work out.' And his friends were like, 'We don't have anything to work out in.'
"And I was like, 'Don't worry, I'll find something.' That kind of took care of that. They thought I was the mean dad. But it all kind of worked out."
James says Johnathan had "desire and drive at an early age."
PULLING THE SLED: Buchanan, who won three straight state Class 4A titles with Gray as Gray ran for 800-plus yards and 13 touchdowns in those three games, saw that desire and drive as a freshman.
"When Johnathan came out as a ninth-grader, I started him out on the freshman team," Buchanan said. "But he was a much better player than all the other freshmen, so we put him on the junior varsity.
"Johnathan wanted to be on the varsity. The JV played on Thursday nights, and I looked out there one Wednesday, after we finished our practice, and Johnathan was doing 100-yard sprints, dragging a weighted sled with about 100 pounds on it, in the ninth grade, the day before a game.
"Most kids won't drag a sled over the summer, much less a day before a game. I actually had to talk to Johnathan about not training quite as hard the day before a game and trying to save his legs as opposed to working really hard the day before."
BALL SECURITY: Buchanan said Gray "didn't have great hands and had some trouble with fumbling the football" as a freshman at Aledo.
"So I took a football and filled it up halfway full of water. When you carry a ball like that, and the water is sloshing around, it feels like someone is tugging on it all the time.
"I told Johnathan, 'You need to carry that ball every time we run, every time we condition.'
"And any time we got ready to condition, Johnathan would go and find a water ball to run with. All the other kids were trying to get in line without a water ball, and Johnathan was always looking for one, even when I'd forget to bring them out. He knew he needed to improve his ball security.
"He knew he needed to improve on catching. As a ninth-grader, he had only two receptions and probably dropped seven or eight passes. As a sophomore, I think he had about 30 receptions for about 600 yards."
One of Gray's strengths now is catching the football.
As a senior, Gray had 21 catches for 480 yards and five touchdowns (an average of nearly 23 yards per reception). And Gray did not lose a fumble his last two years in high school. There were a few botched exchanges, Buchanan said. But no fumbles once the ball was in Gray's arms.
BEYOND THE NUMBERS: Gray's numbers are staggering coming out of Aledo.
In addition to the 13 rushing touchdowns in three state title games, including eight as a junior against La Marque In addition to the 10,890 rushing yards and national record 205 rushing touchdowns, Gray was a humble, thoughtful kid at Aledo.
When a sophomore at Aledo named Leah Van was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia, Buchanan thought it would be nice to give her a football signed by her state champion high school team.
Gray then volunteered to take the ball to Leah. He ended up talking to her for more than an hour in her hospital room. Buchanan found out much later from Leah's mother that Gray kept returning to the hospital throughout Leah's six months of treatment. Now, Leah, who is a year younger than Gray, is in remission.
"I didn't know it was happening," Buchanan said. "It wasn't like he was going to see her and telling people. He was just doing it. And that's the type of kid he is.
"No one else volunteered to take Leah the football, and Johnathan did. He didn't know Leah. And her mother thinks that's one of the reasons she did so well and recovered like she did because of people like Johnathan going in to see her."
'FULL SPEED ALL THE TIME': The thing Buchanan will miss most about Gray was his effect on teammates.
"We didn't have bad practices when he was on the field," Buchanan said. "He went full speed all the time - during play timing, inside drill, outside drill. It didn't matter. He didn't jog. He went full speed all the time.
"Because Johnathan went full speed all the time, everyone around him had to go full speed. It made for really, really good practices.
"He gets everything out of his ability. He accelerates and gets to top speed in pads as fast as he does without pads. He's as fast in cleats as he is on the track in spikes. He's a strong runner and maintains his speed with his gear on, which is very impressive."
And the bigger the game, the better Gray played.
"I knew the bigger the game, the more excited Johnathan got and more focused he was," Buchanan said. "The bigger the game, the more he wanted to play."
MAKING ADJUSTMENTS: That was never more evident than on a soggy night at Lake Travis during Gray's junior year.
"They had a bunch of rain on a natural grass field," Buchanan said. "He goes out in the first quarter, and there are several times when I see a hole open up, and I'm thinking touchdown, and he slips and falls as he tries to make the cut.
"And about halfway through the first quarter, he comes to the sideline and tells me, 'Coach, I'm just going to have to play power football the rest of the night.' And from that point on, he never tried to make a sharp cut. He would lower his shoulder and try to gain 5 yards or 6 yards or 10 yards.
"He knew it was going to be a long night as far as he wasn't going to break any long runs. He wasn't going to be able to use his ability to stick it, make a cut and go 60 or 70 yards.
"His senior year, we played them on a synthetic surface and instead of trying to run over people, we're on a good surface, and he had several long runs, including a 75-yarder because we were on a better surface. So he adjusted his running style to the game. That's what he does so well.
"If we were playing a team that was knocking us off the ball, and holes were going to be hard to come by, he'd be patient and wait for a crease, see the crease and hit the crease.
"If it was a team where we could pitch him the ball and he could outrun to the corner, he'd do that. If it's a team where he was going to have to lower his shoulder and be strong and aggressive, he did that. He was able to adjust and has more game than most backs you'd see.
"He's got a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C."
STRONG BLOODLINES: There's no question Gray's success starts with his parents. Buchanan saw the impact of a mother and father who put education and character ahead of everything else.
"Genetically, his mother and father were both great athletes," Buchanan said. "And Johnathan was going to make good grades or he wasn't going to play. His mother made that perfectly clear to me when he was a freshman.
"So I made darn sure he got his work done and if he needed to miss practice to go to tutorials that he did that. He didn't do that often. But if his mother thought he should be making an 85 in a class, and he was making a 78, she made sure I knew it.
"We made sure he got the help he needed in tutorials and extra work in class that he needed to make sure he got the grade that would be acceptable to Mrs. Gray."
STAYING HUMBLE: Buchanan said James Gray wouldn't tolerate showboating by his son.
"Johnathan's freshman year, we moved him up to varsity, and he scores four touchdowns in his first game," Buchanan said. "When he goes across the goal line, he holds up No. 1.
"And when he got to the sideline, I told him, 'When you score the winning touchdown in a state championship game, then you can hold up the No. 1. But until that time, you keep your fingers out of the air, turn and give the ball to the official like you're supposed to.'
"And when I got back to the office that night, James had texted me to make sure I got on Johnathan about holding up No. 1. It upset him so bad because Johnathan was showboating, and that was unacceptable."
But Buchanan got a chuckle when Johnathan was finally in position to score that game-winning touchdown against Brenham in the state title game the next year.
"We were up by one touchdown and on our own 11 yard line," Buchanan said. "It was third-and-8. And we run the inside zone, and Johnathan breaks an 89-yard run with two minutes left in the game to seal the game.
"He held up the No. 1 when he went across the goal line, and came over to me and said, 'You told me I could, didn't you?' And I congratulated him and said, 'Yeah, I did tell you that, but it's the last time you get to do it.'
DOWN TO EARTH: James Gray hears all the talk about Johnathan potentially being the next Adrian Peterson or a future Heisman Trophy winner at Texas and laughs.
"It's kind of an inside joke in the family," James Gray said. "We laugh when things like that are said because we read things and hear things like, he's going to go to Texas and win three Heismans.
"We laugh. It's funny everyone has all these expectations. The only thing we expect Johnathan to do is go and do the best he can and get an education."
James Gray said he expects his son to have a limited role as a freshman at Texas, adding that Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron have already proven they can make an impact at the college level.
"We're hoping this first year is a learning experience for him," James Gray said. "We're hoping Joe (Bergeron) and Malcolm (Brown) get the bulk of the carries, because if they get the bulk of the carries, it will mean they are having a great season.
"If Johnathan has to come in there and carry the load, that's not a good look. We're just hoping he can come in and contribute and be part of the team."
James Gray said his only regret as a running back at Texas Tech was that he didn't redshirt as a freshman. Gray went on to run for 4,066 yards (5.5 ypc) and 45 touchdowns from 1986-89, second only to Byron Hanspard's 4,219 yards (in three seasons, 1994-96) in Tech history.
"I could have used that redshirt year to get faster and stronger and improve some things like blocking," James Gray said.
But James, who went on to become a fifth-round draft pick of the New England Patriots, said he doubts a redshirt is an option for his son. But he's quick to add that Johnathan needs to work on his blocking.
"He needs to get stronger and faster," James Gray said. "But he really needs to work on his blocking. That's going to be the main thing. It will come. He'll have a chance to improve on that."
PICKING TEXAS: Buchanan described the recruiting process for Johnathan Gray as a circus, but Buchanan tried to insulate Gray from as much of it as possible.
If coaches called - and they did - Buchanan would forward those messages on to Tonya and James and allow them to give Johnathan the word. Buchanan said he never alerted Johnathan to a call or notified him when coaches would be at practices or games.
"It was nothing to have Alabama, Notre Dame, USC, LSU, Auburn, Texas, Texas A&M all here watching him during spring football or fall," Buchanan said. "Someone from one of those schools was here watching him every week."
Buchanan said he helped Johnathan narrow his choices from 30 schools his junior year.
"In February of his junior year, he was still looking at 30 different schools. He said, 'I'm going to try to get it down to 15 by spring break.' I said, 'How about five? Pick the school and take football out. Would you go to a school if football was not in the equation?'
"I left it that. He came back the next week and narrowed it to five. The next week he narrowed it to three - Texas, TCU and Texas A&M.
"He really liked Texas A&M's running game. He liked TCU because it was close to home. But he said Texas reminded him of a big Aledo in terms of family atmosphere."
SON OF A RED RAIDER: James Gray said he was excited for his son when he picked Texas. But he said if TCU had been in the Big 12 from the beginning of Johnathan's recruitment, it might have gotten interesting because Aledo is just west of Fort Worth.
"By TCU, at the time, being in the Big East, that played a huge factor," James Gray said. "The family wouldn't have had a chance to see him that much. By being in the Big 12, all you have to do is roll down the highway for a minute, and you're there."
Johnathan Gray grew up idolizing Adrian Peterson and LaDainian Tomlinson.
"I've always been a Gary Patterson fan," James Gray said. "And that's the reason he was real interested in TCU. LT played there, and you couldn't go wrong with that."
James Gray said he knew Johnathan was falling for Texas when he went to UT's spring game in 2011.
"Normally, when we went to schools, we were always together," James Gray said. "And that last time we went, we couldn't find him. He was off with the players, laughing and joking and having fun.
"When I look back on it, I felt like that's when he made the decision himself."
James said Johnathan did not approach him before making his decision.
"I was excited for him because it was a big decision for him," James Gray said. "The only thing I was upset about was he didn't let me know about it. I felt like I was his best friend, and I wanted to have a say-so about where he went to school. But I guess I kind of guided him that way."
OVERCOMING ADVERSITY: Johnathan Gray has had two shoulder surgeries, but he never missed a game in high school.
Buchanan has heard the whispers about if Gray will be able to hold up physically at Texas or if his numbers were so big because Aledo played weak competition.
"Johnathan never missed a game. He only played a half of a bunch of them. But he's never missed a game," Buchanan said. "Has he gotten bumps and bruises? Yeah. He's had two shoulder surgeries. And that's the reason I talked to him about going to a college where he wants to graduate.
"If anything keeps him from being what he can be in college, it's going to be his shoulders. But it's never prevented him from being a good running back. After his sophomore year he had a shoulder surgery and rushed for 300-something yards and four touchdowns in the state title game before the surgery.
"And after his junior year, he had a shoulder surgery and rushed for 300-something yards and eight touchdowns in the state title game before the surgery. So it's not like it was slowing him down. If it was slowing him down, I want to know what he would have done at full speed."
As far as playing weak competition, Buchanan points to Gray's state title game performances.
"He played in three state championship games," Buchanan said. "His sophomore year, he rushed for 300-something yards and four touchdowns. His junior year, he rushes for 300 yards and eight touchdowns. His senior year, he only rushes for one touchdown, but he rushes for 200-something yards.
"And every big game we played, he performed extremely well, even though we were playing good football teams with one game plan, and that was to stop Johnathan Gray. He still had big games.
"You think about how many great players there are out there, and they go into a football game, and because the other team has a plan to stop their best player, they don't always have big games in games like that.
"His sophomore year, Brenham had a great defense. Then La Marque as a junior and Manvel this year. Those were three really, really good defensive football teams. They put more kids in Division I from those teams than we did. And Johnathan still performed at a higher level."
CLEAR PERSPECTIVE: Buchanan said Gray's mature attitude and practical approach to football can be seen in his decision to pick Texas despite Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron also choosing to become Longhorns.
"When Malcolm Brown committed, I really thought that might push Johnathan to another school," Buchanan said. "I asked him, 'What do you think about Malcolm?' And he said, 'That makes me want to go there.' And I said, 'What? You want to try and beat him out?' And he said, 'No, it takes more than one good running back to win at the college level.'
"That's how sharp he is. He knows when you have to play the Oklahomas and Alabamas of the world, against big, strong defenders, you're not going to carry the ball 30 times a game for 12 games and still be alive."
Gray loves to eat at Chick-Fil-A. He loves to go to movies. He loves to laugh, and he loves to win.
"He's a good kid to be around," James Gray said. "He's funny. He's never serious. Only time he's serious is when he's on the football field. Off the field, he's kind of goofy and funny like his momma."
Buchanan feels confident any success at Texas won't go to Johnathan Gray's head because it hasn't thus far.
"For all the notoriety he has received, he's still the same guy," Buchanan said. "It never went to his head. He's as grounded today as when he was pulling that sled playing JV football.
"In fact, he may be more grounded because he's probably realized how hard it is to be the best and continue to be the best.
"As a freshman, he thought you just did it off of sheer ability. But now Johnathan realizes there are a lot of talented people out there who never reached their potential."
James Gray sees his son trying to achieve his goals and thinks back to when Johnathan learned to ride a bike at age 3.
"He didn't like the training wheels," James said. "He'd get on it and ride and fall, ride and fall, ride and fall, every day.
Until he got it. He was three years old, and he would constantly fall and scrape up his knees. But he didn't want those training wheels on the bike. So I just took 'em off.
"He was the same when he learned how to roller skate. He didn't want any help. He was going to do it until he got it right."
James Gray still sees that perserverance today.
"He tries to always be perfect," James said. "I tell him, 'Sometimes, it's just not your day.' But whatever it is, he's going to always try to accomplish it."
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