He was the national record-setter in high school whose quick-twitch explosiveness was surpassed only by his work ethic.
He was a three-time state champion and a three-time all-state running back.
He was the ultimate can’t-miss five-star recruit.
He was on his way to proving all the prognosticators right during his sophomore season in college when it happened the first time.
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Then, just more than two years later and at the most inopportune moment, it happened again.
Now, as NFL 53-man rosters are all but carved in stone heading into the opening week of the season, Johnathan Gray is just hoping for a chance.
The NFL career that seemed to so many a foregone conclusion is all of a sudden almost out of the question after the second of two Achilles tendon tears.
But don’t tell that to Gray, the former Aledo and Texas running back who wants any NFL general manager to know how “amazing” he feels just seven months after surgery on his left Achilles. His first Achilles tear (the right tendon) happened in November 2013 against West Virginia.
205 High school touchdowns scored by Johnathan Gray, a national record.
“My Achilles is healed,” Gray said during an interview at his parents’ home in Willow Park. “Now I’m training and cutting and running like I would in a real game. It’s feeling better, like I can do this all day. The timing will work out on its own.”
That’s quite a zen attitude for someone whose livelihood and future on the football field has been potentially cut short twice by one of the cruelest injuries for a running back. The timing of both injuries has been anything but forgiving.
The first time he felt that stabbing pain, like someone had kicked him in the back of the foot, came without contact from the West Virginia defenders tasked with keeping an eye on Gray, who on that play was Case McCoy’s safety valve in the flat.
“Case looked at me, checked it down, I turned and looked and it was nothing but open field,” Gray said. “As soon as I went to hit it for that next gear, it was like, pow.”
Gray had rushed for 780 yards and four touchdowns through the first eight games of the 2013 season. His development as a college running back was trending upward at about the same rate it did when he was a sophomore in high school, according to former Aledo coach and current athletic director Tim Buchanan.
Gray would go on to score a national-record 205 touchdowns and rush for 10,908 yards at Aledo.
“If it hadn’t have happened, he was getting ready to bust loose and do what we all thought he would do, very similar to his high school career,” Buchanan said. “I’m pretty sure that if Johnathan stays healthy, [Texas wins] the Big 12 that year and Mack Brown keeps his job.”
Fast forward to January of this year. After combining for 1,126 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons and dealing with the fallout of regime change at Texas, Gray was by all accounts still in the conversation for finding his way onto an NFL roster.
During a training session at the College Gridiron Showcase at Bedford’s Pennington Field, Gray was participating in special teams drills, as he was also Texas’ special teams gunner, tasked with getting downfield to the opposing return man first.
“As I was getting off the guy in front of me, he had jammed me, and I went to correct and run right by him,” Gray said. “And as soon as I went to take that explosive step …”
The all-too-familiar “pow,” this time coming from Gray’s left Achilles tendon.
Buchanan remembers Ken Rucker, Texas’ former director of high school relations and player development, telling him that Gray was going to make a camp.
“Then, 24 hours later I heard he tore his other Achilles and I thought, OK, he’ll be done,” he said.
That assumption comes from years of experience, seeing careers of once-explosive athletes derailed by the snap of the connective tissue between the calf muscle and the heel. Skill position players are especially vulnerable to productivity loss after just one severe Achilles injury. Many never regain the first-step ability they had before the injury.
If he can come back from this one, he’s Superman, and I think he might be.
Former Aledo coach Tim Buchanan
Gray, at one point or another, has allowed the thought the NFL might not be in his future creep into his mind. But he isn’t ready for his first chapter to end and still lives in Austin, focused on getting the attention of just one team, one general manager, or even one NFL scout. Though he also has one foot in the coaching door after receiving his kinesiology degree. He splits his time between training under former Longhorns running back Jeremy Hills and coaching youth football (running backs, of course) at Westlake Football Academy, a starting point for Austin Westlake High School football hopefuls.
“I’m fine-tuning things. The bounce is there, the explosiveness is coming back, and I’ll be ready for a phone call anytime,” Gray said. “Most teams my agent has been in contact with are more about, ‘Is the guy ready to play?’ than specific measureables.”
Gray said the Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans, Philadelphia Eagles and San Diego Chargers have shown interest, but none has invited Gray for a workout.
“There is no doubt in my mind Johnathan’s going to get there,” said Hills, whose client list also includes Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas and Jacksonville Jaguars rookie defensive back Jalen Ramsey. “I 100 percent expect to see him on an NFL practice squad before the midpoint of the season.”
With the NFL regular season mere days away, the door might have already closed on Gray’s chances to play at the NFL level in 2016, but that doesn’t mean the dream is over. Count Buchanan as another who wouldn’t be surprised to see Gray realize it.
“If he can come back from this one, he’s Superman, and I think he might be,” Buchanan said. “He may not have that ability anymore to break those 70- and 80-yard runs because he’s lost that explosiveness and that speed, but he’s still going to have that ability to fight for two yards when it looks like there’s nothing there.”