Commentary

Like father, like son

His dad, James, is a former All-American, but Johnathan Gray has plans to top that

Originally Published: January 3, 2012
By Mitch Sherman | ESPN RecruitingNation

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Curious about the key to success for Johnathan Gray, the No. 1-rated running back in America, two-time winner of Mr. Football USA and arguably the greatest high school player at his position ever in the state that produced the likes of Campbell, Dickerson, Tomlinson and Peterson?

Here's a story: When Gray enrolled at Aledo High School west of Fort Worth, Texas, in 2008, coach Tim Buchanan stuck him on the freshman squad. That lasted all of about two games.

"He would score every time he touched the ball," Buchanan said.

Buchanan moved Gray to the junior varsity. It happened again. So a few weeks into the fall, Gray jumped to the varsity. Otherwise, he wouldn't grow as back, the coach said. Not long after, Gray enjoyed a breakout game, scoring multiple touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Davide De Pas for ESPN.comLonghorns commit Johnathan Gray set the national record for TDs and the crowned jewel of Texas' top-ranked recruiting class.
At the end of one run, Gray held his hand high in celebration as he crossed the goal line.

No flag flew, but when he returned to the sideline, Buchanan grabbed him. When you score the winning touchdown in the state championship game, you can raise your hand, he told Gray. Until then, keep it low and hand the ball to the official.

Later that night, Buchanan returned to the field house at Aledo and checked his cellphone. He had received a text message, sent at the moment Gray scored the touchdown. It came from James Gray, Johnathan's father and a former All-America running back at Texas Tech.

"He wanted to make sure I disciplined Johnathan for what he did on the field," Buchanan said.

Discipline.

In the athletic life of Johnathan Gray, it's the most important constant -- and the top factor to explain how this 5-foot-10, 195-pound Texas recruit rushed for 10,908 yards in his storied prep career and a national-record 205 touchdowns.

Gray plays for the Black team in the Under Armour All-America Game (7:30 p.m. Thursday on ESPN) alongside nine other pledges in the Longhorns' No. 1-ranked recruiting class.

He's the crowned jewel, though, the picture of discipline, driven to exceed the feats of his father and succeed in the NFL, the only level of football James Gray did not master.

"Quietly," James Gray said, "that's what really motivates him. He wants to do better than I did. He doesn't have to say that. I can see it."

James Gray starred at Trimble Tech High School in Fort Worth and left Texas Tech one semester short of his degree with 4,066 rushing yards, then a school record and still No. 2 at Tech behind Byron Hanspard.

The New England Patriots drafted Gray in the fifth round in 1990. He bounced to San Francisco without playing at either stop before leaving football to complete his schoolwork in Lubbock. Gray did not return to the game, a move he said he never regretted.

"Some of the best advice that my dad gave me was to never look back," James Gray said.

Instead, he looked ahead -- to Johnathan, who, 10 years ago when he was 8, drove with his mother, Tonya, past a football field as boys played.

The kid had tried soccer but was too rough for it, James Gray said. Basketball was OK, but Johnathan told his dad he wanted to play football.

Johnathan soon admired the great backs from Texas, LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson, and later Oklahoma star DeMarco Murray.

"He'd ask, 'What do I have to do to get to that level?'" James Gray said.

Discipline, his father said.

"He bought into it. It's amazing. I've never seen anyone work like him."

Rise and shine

Usually, they'd start running before 6 a.m. And that came after all the push-ups and sets of jump rope.

James Gray told his son it was fine if friends spent the night but warned that Johnathan needed to get his rest. Barely a teenager, he would go to bed as his buddies stayed up late to play.

[+] EnlargeJames Gray, Johnathan Gray
Courtesy Gray familyJames Gray helped instill the discipline that has made his son Johnathan one of the best backs ever to come out of Texas.
When James entered the bedroom before sunrise and flipped on the light, he heard groans and complaints -- but never from Johnathan. If you stayed with the Grays, the morning meant it was time to work out.

Put in the work, James Gray told his son, and great things happen.

Johnathan never questioned his dad.

"He was somebody who cared," Johnathan said, "and I always liked working out and running. It felt great. My dad just coached me and told me how hard it was to go from high school to college and college to the pros."

He gained an understanding of the discipline and hard work.

"It's something that gets you ready for the next level," Johnathan said, "and that's something I like. To be the best, you've got to strive to be the best."

Gray rushed for 3,897 yards as a senior, leading his school to its third consecutive 4A state championship. In Aledo's 33-0 quarterfinal win over Stephenville, officials ejected Gray for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, the second flag for a high-step into the end zone.

Such rare lack of discipline reminds Gray he's far from a finished product as he heads to Texas, though you wouldn't know it from the words of other future Longhorns.

"Just knowing him as a person, it's an honor to be his teammate," said quarterback Connor Brewer, another Under Armour All-American. "That dude is just one of the best athletes I've ever seen. I know he's excited to get on and set some new records in college."

No comparison

Back in 2008, when Buchanan moved Gray to the varsity squad as a freshman, just two jersey numbers remained. He didn't want No. 49 and was reluctant to wear 31. That number belonged to his dad.

"He wanted to compete with his daddy," Buchanan said, "but he didn't want to be compared to him. I know he respects the heck out of what James did."

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Davide De Pas for ESPN.comJohnathan Gray might be just 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, but is a potent blend of speed and power, as evidenced by the fact he rushed for 10,908 yards in his high school career.
Johnathan took 31 and switched as a sophomore to 32, which he continues to wear this week in practice for the Under Armour game.

James Gray ran with a punishing style, more physical than Johnathan, who could cover 100 meters in 10.6 seconds at age 15. But don't question Johnathan's toughness. You don't accumulate nearly 11,000 yards as a one-dimensional back.

Early in the first star-studded practice of the week here on Sunday afternoon, 245-pound five-star defensive end Noah Spence, in a drill planned for half-speed, barreled toward the QB Brewer and met Gray at full speed in pass protection. Spence delivered a crushing blow, but Gray stood his ground.

"I like contact," Johnathan said.

So did James Gray. When he came out of high school, Texas showed some interest, but James picked Tech because he knew it would offer more early playing time. For Johnathan, it likely doesn't matter; he'll play early in Austin despite the presence of Malcolm Brown, who rushed for 707 yards as a true freshman this season.

The decision to attend Texas sat well with his father.

"I told him you've got to put Texas at the top of your list," James Gray said. "I'm a Red Raider first, but I'm from the state of Texas. And I think it would be a great honor to represent the University of Texas."

Johnathan considers it his greatest honor to follow in his father's path -- and to someday exceed his accomplishments by making it big in the NFL.

"It's very important," Johnathan said. "It's something I'll put my mind to. I believe what I put my mind to, I can do."

Don't doubt him, said his dad.

"At this age, he's 10 times better than me, mentally and physically," James said. "It's a scary thought."

Mitch Sherman is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mshermanespn@gmail.com. Follow Mitch Sherman on Twitter: @mitchsherman