Posted: Wednesday October 12, 2011 11:00AM ; Updated: Thursday October 13, 2011 2:06PM
Ben Glicksman
Ben Glicksman>INSIDE HIGH SCHOOL

Aledo's Johnathan Gray is more than top talent (cont.)

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Johnathan Gray carried Aledo to the Class 4A Division 2 title with 325 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Johnathan Gray carried Aledo to the Class 4A Division 2 title with 325 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
Courtesy of James Albritton/SaltForkImages.com

As winter turned to spring, with temperatures climbing into the 80s, speculation over which school Gray would commit to ballooned. The state championship served only to heighten expectations, tipping his top three -- Texas, Texas A&M and TCU -- into an unabashed frenzy. "Coaches wanted you to call them every night," he said. "Fans were sending letters. The recruitment process was crazy."

With rumors circulating, Gray had enough. He called a press conference at 9 a.m. on April 22, his 18th birthday, to officially announce his decision.

There was just one conflict: On the same day, the Bearcats were also conducting offseason testing, requiring players to complete 40-yard dashes and open quarter-mile sprints. It allows coaches to gauge the team before spring ball. It's also one of the most grueling sessions of the year.

Just 15 minutes remained until the press conference. Buchanan offered Gray a chance to skip the session, to clean up before addressing the media. He declined. He didn't want to be above the team.

"Most kids would've taken that opportunity," said Buchanan. "Most of them will fake an injury to get out of an open quarter. I gave him an out and he wouldn't take it."

After a hurried shower, still soaked in sweat, Gray finally announced his decision: Texas.

Longhorns' fans fantasized about landing the next Earl Campbell. Aggies' and Horned Frogs' faithful sulked. Leah Vann, a Michigan fan in honor of her father's alma mater, pledged her allegiance to the burnt orange and white.

"I'm gonna have to secretly cheer for Texas," she said. "There's no way I can oppose J-Gray."

Three weeks earlier, Gray had solidified those sentiments. As Vann's condition improved, doctors granted her permission to attend Aledo's home track meet on March 25. There were strict precautions -- she had to wear a mask, limit interaction and sit in the upper box seats, where she'd be less exposed to harmful germs -- but she didn't mind. She teemed with excitement.

When she arrived at Bearcat Stadium, she noticed students wearing ribbons on their left wrists. They were orange, the color of leukemia, signifying that Leah had left cancer. Sherri Mann, Michael's mother, came up with the idea. Nearly everyone on varsity had one.

Then she saw Gray. He was wearing five.

"He's got them all tied around his wrist," she recalled. "He's like, 'I'm wearing these for you.'"

*****

On June 21, 2011, Vann was at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. She spent the past month there undergoing Natural Killer Cell Transplant, an experimental stem cell procedure. It takes white blood cells from a parent -- Leah's mother, Elizabeth Vann-Stenzler, in this case -- and infuses them intravenously in the patient. The cells then attack the remaining leukemia cells that machines can't detect.

Discovered five years earlier, it's an unproven procedure. But it's safer than the alternative. The other option is a bone-marrow transplant, laden with life-threatening complications; Leah's father died from the procedure in 2000. Understandably, Leah had reservations. "It's such a dangerous and disheartening treatment," she said.

There was one problem. To qualify for an NK Cell Transplant, patients must maintain a percentage of leukemia below 0.01 percent. Despite persistent pleas to send her to Tennessee, Leah's most recent reading registered 0.05 percent. She held out hope. But she was a longshot.

Following Johnathan Gray's commitment to Texas, Leah Vann became a Longhorns' fan.
Following Johnathan Gray's commitment to Texas, Leah Vann became a Longhorns' fan.
Courtesy of Leah Vann

After a week of rigorous tests, doctors took a final reading: 0.00 percent leukemia. Leah had the procedure. She was rid of cancer.

"It was kind of a miracle," she said. "I had done no chemo between those two points."

Following a week of observation, she packed her things, departed for Memphis International Airport and hopped the next flight back to Texas. Her battle -- long, exhaustive and terrifying -- was finally over. "I was crying my eyes out with happiness," she said. "I ran around the airport screaming I was in remission."

Throughout treatment, Vann was a model of courage. She didn't show her brother, Harrison, how she looked bald until three months into chemo. She carefully put on makeup each morning, emulating her pre-cancer routine. She even relearned piano, a skill she neglected once high school sports picked up. She wanted to keep herself occupied, to focus on anything but leukemia.

Visitors, however, became less frequent. As with many cases, the shock factor -- Leah Vann has cancer -- wore off. People resumed life as normal, somehow at terms with a once unfathomable situation.

Not Gray. He made five or six visits after his initial trip, forgoing parties and recruiting events to drive more than 20 miles to Cook Children's. As the adage goes: A little goes a long way.

"Your true friends, the people who really care, continue to visit throughout the whole course of treatment," Vann said. "That's what Johnathan did."

*****

 
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