- Damon Sayles, RecruitingNation
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ALEDO, Texas -- Johnathan Gray smiled when asked about his first game as a varsity player. Aledo played Weatherford (Texas), and Gray's first carry was good for a 15-yard gain. His coach, Tim Buchanan, said Gray finished with four touchdowns.
Ask anyone from Aledo, and it should have been five.
"He goes into the end zone and sticks the ball out to try and get it over the goal line ... and he drops the ball," Buchanan said of Gray, then a wide-eyed freshman who was running through a gamut of emotions. "They called it a fumble, but to be honest with you, it was a touchdown. The officials came up afterward and said they blew the call."
Gray said he was chewed out by the coaching staff about finishing runs and making sure that in a situation such as that, the touchdown is no question. Amazing what one little lesson can transpire.
Gray no longer is the freshman with potential. He is a five-star athlete, a University of Texas commit and the nation's top-ranked running back. On Wednesday, Gray officially was introduced as an Under Armour All-American as part of the American Family Insurance jersey presentation tour.
"Four years ago, I was just thinking about if I was going to play running back and how I'd do if I got to play with the big boys," Gray said. "Just being on varsity and scoring was amazing. It's overwhelming how those years have past, and now it's almost time to take the next step."
Specializing in breaking records
Ranked No. 5 in the ESPNU 150, Gray has several Texas state rushing records, including most touchdowns in a season (59 in 2010), most touchdowns for a career (176 and counting) and career scoring record (1,052 and counting). Gray has rushed for 2,048 yards and 37 touchdowns this season, and with his four receiving touchdowns, he's on pace to break his old touchdowns mark -- assuming his team, the two-time defending Texas Class 4A Division II champions, has a good run in the playoffs.
Gray, who has helped Aledo win two state titles, has more than 9,000 career rushing yards dating back to 2008. To put that in perspective, NFL rushing record holder Pro Football Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith had 8,804 when he was a high school star at Pensacola (Fla.) Escambia from 1983-86.
"You're always on pins and needles because it's your kid," said James Gray, Johnathan's father and a former All-American running back at Texas Tech. "You just don't want him to get injured. It's been a great four years watching him play and turn into a man."
Gray continues to chase three huge national records -- the career scoring mark (1,246, Michael Hart, Nedrow Onondaga, N.Y., 2000-03); the career touchdowns mark (204 by Hart) and the career rushing mark (11,232, Ken Hall, Sugar Land, Texas, 1950-53). With a deep postseason run, he has a chance to break the career scoring and touchdowns records. Gray will be close in his quest for the career rushing mark, depending on how well he does in the upcoming weeks.
Gray will need to average somewhere in the area of 280 yards per contest and get his team to the state championship game to get Hall's rushing record.
"This is my 29th year coaching, and I spent 10 years playing the game before that in high school and college," Buchanan said. "I've never been around a football player who's as good of a running back as Johnathan is. He's a special young man."
No 'I' in team ... or Johnathan
Don't expect Gray to talk about his multiple accomplishments without mentioning his team or his coaching staff first. Chiseled at 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, Gray gets most of the publicity in an Aledo victory, but he is one of the first to show support for his teammates after a game -- particularly the offensive line.
"That's what separates Johnathan from the other kids," Buchanan said. "I have never heard him -- not once -- get upset with his offensive line for not blocking.
"There's been some games where Johnathan didn't get 100 yards, and we won the game. The team won, and he is the happiest. He's a lot happier when he rushes for 89 yards and we win than he is if he rushes for 260 and we lose."
Part of that team-first attitude is upbringing. Gray's parents, James and Tonya, stress the importance of respecting all people, and it's that deference, coupled with a healthy dose of humility, that makes Gray such a likeable person on and off the field.
Don't confuse humility, however, with weakness. Gray is one of the most competitive athletes around. During summers, Gray played AAU basketball for the Texas Assault, one of the most recognizable teams in recent years. A two-guard and a defensive specialist, Gray made it a habit to guard Marcus Smart (Flower Mound, Texas/Marcus) in practice. Smart is one of the top-ranked basketball players in the country and is headed to Oklahoma State next fall.
"They really had some battles," James Gray said, "but they also made each other better."
Gray played basketball as a means of getting in lots of running in an effort to stay in shape. Following the football season, look for Gray to step his workout regimen up a notch, as he prepares to be a key contributor in Texas' backfield.
"This is all a blessing. To be honored and to be able to say that I'm an All-American is wonderful," Gray said, "but I couldn't do it without my team and my family. It's a wonderful thing."
Catching another All-American
Gray's most excited about being named an UA All-American because he'll get the chance to play against some of the nation's elite players. His father is excited to see how Gray plays against the talent.
James Gray likes to playfully give his son motivation to be the best running back possible. It's a goal that tends to drive the Aledo senior.
"He's a high school All-American. I'm a college All-American," James said. "He's still got some work to do if he wants to be better than dad."
James Gray was one of Texas Tech's most decorated running backs from 1986-89. He ranks No. 1 all time in career touchdowns (52) and No. 2 all time in career rushing (4,066 yards). His 280 rushing yards against Duke in 1989 was a school record prior to Byron Hanspard running for 287 against Baylor in 1996.
James wants his son to be better. As motivation, he likes to bring up the last time the two raced -- a race that James won.
"He was 12 when we last raced," James said, laughing.
It's the little memories like that which not only makes James smile but remind him of his son's drive to be the best. Johnathan isn't the little freshman hoping to make varsity anymore. When he steps on Tropicana Field in January, Gray will be considered elite.
"This is a huge honor for him, and one of best things about it is he'll be competing against the best," James said. "This should be a great opportunity for him."
Damon Sayles covers recruiting in the Midlands for ESPN Recruiting. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.