The gridiron version of Aledo (Texas) senior Johnathan Gray is well known to high school football fans. Record-setting running back, move-the-chains machine, touchdown maker, and now, 2011-12 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year.
Lesser known to fans is Gray's 95 grade average as a senior, his 40-minute round trip day after day to visit a schoolmate he barely knew during her stay in a cancer ward. In other words, the consummate package of student-athlete.
"I'm so honored. This is truly a blessing," the 5-foot-10, 202-pound University of Texas-bound senior said Tuesday after winning the Gatorade award. "It's humbling to have people speak highly of my character. I work hard in the classroom and I help folks off the field because that's what I was taught. That's who I am. I'm so excited to be recognized as a player and a person."
Gray learned he'd won after an early morning practice Tuesday. The surprise news arrived via a phone call to the Aledo fieldhouse from former NFL MVP and current New York Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson, who played high school ball at Waco's University High.
"I'm so glad he was the one who told me," said Gray, 18, whose father, James, earned second team collegiate All-American honors in 1989 and remains No. 2 on Texas Tech's list of career rushing leaders. "He's another Texas guy, and I was lucky enough to meet him once when I was a sophomore. It was pretty exciting to hear his voice on the phone and hear him saying what he was saying."
Gray, the No. 5 recruit in the ESPNU 150, is now a finalist for the Gatorade Male High School Athlete of the Year award, to be presented at a special afternoon ceremony prior to the ESPY Awards in July. This season, he's led the Bearcats to a 12-2 record and a berth in the Class 4A, Division II state semifinals against Corsicana High, scheduled for Friday. Aledo is gunning for its third consecutive state title.
Gray has rushed for 3,435 yards and 59 touchdowns on 295 carries (11.6 yards per attempt) in 14 games this season. The two-time Texas Gatorade Football Player of the Year also has 22 receptions for 458 yards and five scores. Gray owns state records in career carries, touchdowns, points, 100-yard games and single-season rushing touchdowns. This fall, he became the third prep athlete in state history to eclipse 10,000 career rushing yards. Gray needs 50 points to tie the national prep career scoring record and five TDs to tie the national career touchdowns record.
"Gray is everything you want in a back and really doesn't have any discernible weaknesses," said Greg Biggins, of ESPN Recruiting Nation. "He's a powerful runner with a thick frame and really knows how to finish his runs. He is a decisive runner who doesn't dance around much, but attacks the line of scrimmage. He also catches the ball as well as any back in the country, and when you combine his physical tools with his toughness and work ethic off the field, you have one very special athlete."
A three-year veteran of his school's student council and a representative on the Aledo Independent School District Health Committee, Gray has maintained a career B average in the classroom. In addition to donating his time as a youth football instructor and a mentor to special-education students, he has volunteered on behalf of his church's youth group, an alcohol and drug awareness program, and Baylor All Saints Hospital's Helping Hands Foundation.
Gray has challenged and surpassed some impressive milestones in four varsity seasons. He's rushed for more yards -- both in a single season and career -- than former Gatorade National Player of the Year winners Emmitt Smith and Terry Kirby. He's now twice run for more yards in a season than 1982 Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL great Herschel Walker produced for Johnson County (3,167) in rural Georgia in 1979.
Gray's 3,435 yards this fall rank No. 19 in national single-season prep history according to the National Federation of State High School Associations Sports Record Book and records compiled by TexasFootball.com. He is one of five backs in high school history to rush for 10,000-plus career yards according to National Federation records and TexasFootball.com.
Gray joins former Lake Travis standout and ex-Longhorn Garrett Gilbert (2008-09) as the only prep players from Texas to earn Gatorade National Football Player of the Year recognition in the award's 27-year history. Gray becomes the 26th Texas native, second only to California's 57, to claim Gatorade national honors in any of the award program's 12 sports.