Aledo's Gray more than top talent
Johnathan Gray rushed for 325 yards and eight TDs in the '10 state championship
Gray formed a relationship with Leah Vann after she was diagnosed with leukemia
An all-time high school great, Gray possesses uncommon talent -- and character
From the endless plains of Odessa, to the imposing mountains of El Paso, to the sprawling cityscape of Dallas, Texas has a reputation for its size. The sheer area of the state, more than 268,000 square miles, is greater than all but 39 countries. Its population, more than 25 million, is equivalent to that of Ohio, Virginia and Colorado combined. It has oversized everything: culture, food, personality.
Most of all, though, Texas is devoted to football. The Cowboys -- America's Team -- play in a palace better suited for a Roman emperor. The Longhorns -- the NCAA's highest-grossing athletic department -- recently launched a $300 million TV network. Even at the high school level, unending obsession reigns. Books, movies and television shows, in some cases all three (Friday Night Lights), revolve around the game.
Simply put: on the gridiron there's Texas and there's everyone else.
It's no small feat, then, that on Sept. 22, Aledo High senior running back Johnathan Gray became the state's all-time scoring leader. He's racked up 992 career points, shattering the previous mark of 899 set by Sugar Land High's Ken Hall in 1953. He's become a local icon: His sophomore highlight video, posted in March 2010, has accumulated more than 120,000 YouTube views.
Yet for all of his on-field greatness -- which, in many respects, is unparalleled -- his off-field accomplishments are more inspiring.
How? Ask Leah Vann.
Before last November, Vann had met Gray only once, during the previous track season, in the trainer's room. In addition to football, Gray is a standout sprinter, and ran a 10.90 in the 100-meter dash at the 2010 UIL Class 4A Track & Field Regionals. The two chatted briefly. "We had a short, casual conversation," said Leah. "I thought I was the coolest person ever [for having talked to him]."
But that was the extent of it. Gray was an all-everything athlete. Vann a sophomore and diehard fan. In a school of 1,500, they were mere acquaintances.
Within a week, that would forever change.
On Nov. 11, 2010, Vann had a doctor's appointment. She had recently experienced some strange symptoms and wanted to make sure they didn't signal anything serious. She felt short of breath walking down the hall, uncharacteristic for someone who ran varsity track as a freshman. A softball-size bruise lingered on her shin, a baffling remnant that hadn't healed in weeks. She was strikingly pale, and most concerning, consistently lacked energy. "I would get so dizzy and all of a sudden blackout and fall on the floor," she recalled.
She went to take a simple blood test. The results were life-changing.
Vann's white blood cell count was off the charts. She was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), the same type of cancer her father, Barry, died from 10 years earlier. She was rushed to the nearby Cook Children's emergency room, panicking as attempts to contact friends and family -- the ER lacked cell phone service -- repeatedly failed. "I'm freaking out and throwing things and crying," she said. "I'm stuck in the room and I can't tell anybody."
At around 5 p.m., despondent, she resorted to a desperate Facebook status.
I can't believe it guys, but I just found out I have leukemia.
Word spread fast. Vann would immediately start chemotherapy, a grueling six to eight month process. She would miss school indefinitely. But, remarkably, that's not what troubled her most. She would also be forced to miss Aledo's playoff opener against Wyatt High, the first in its quest for a second straight Class 4A title. In the hours after her diagnosis, spread across her hospital bed, she listened to the game -- a 56-7 Bearcats' win -- on the radio.
"I was so dedicated to Aledo football," she said. "That was just something that kept me sane."
Six days later, the team, and its star player, would begin to return the favor.
After practice on Nov. 17, in the week leading up to a second-round bout with Waco, Aledo coach Tim Buchanan organized for each member of the team to sign a football for Vann. It was an effort to brighten her spirits, to show her that Aledo -- and her beloved Bearcats -- cared. A touching gesture, to be certain. But it's fairly commonplace in the sports realm.
What happened next wasn't. Gray and three teammates volunteered to personally deliver the gift.
"We've got 50 seniors on that football team," Buchanan said. "And Johnathan, Matt Bishop, Todd Christian and Michael Mann, four juniors, took it."
It was the start of a beautiful relationship. Gray and Mann continued to come back. They spent hours discussing sports, school and the Aledo dating scene -- "basic teenager talk," Vann said.
Under the unlikeliest circumstances, Gray and Vann became friends.
A month later, on Dec. 17, Aledo challenged La Marque for the 4A Division 2 title in Cowboys Stadium. The game featured two of Texas' premier tailbacks: Gray, who rushed for 3,221 yards and 59 touchdowns in '10, and Tim Wright, who tallied 2,218 and 21 scores. It was a prep football fan's dream, replete with exceptional talent and an extravagant scene.
Nine minutes into the game, leading 7-0, Gray received a handoff from quarterback Matthew Bishop. He circled left, shuffling behind the line of scrimmage. Then he broke upfield. More than 27,000 fans watched as he bolted 40 yards -- untouched -- to the end zone.
Two minutes later, he burst up the right seam for a 66-yard touchdown. Then he found the end zone from two yards out. With 1:28 remaining in the half, he sprinted left, juked a defender and raced 42 yards to pay dirt. In the biggest game of his career, on the biggest stage, he was having the performance of his life.
"It was like they were afraid to tackle him," said Bishop. "They were running the other way."
Gray wasn't finished. After doubling his production in the second half (four more touchdowns of 9, 16, 13 and 54 yards), Gray registered a legendary stat line: 29 carries, 325 yards and eight scores. The eight touchdowns gave him 59 for the season, snapping the Texas single-season mark also held by Ken Hall.
"Going into a state championship game, you're hoping that your team can score three or four touchdowns," said Buchanan. "To think that a kid is gonna score six or more in a state championship is just crazy."
Teammates mobbed the 5-10, 202-pound back after Aledo's 69-34 triumph. Scouts hounded him. Gray remained calm, driven by a little-known inspiration.
"My biggest motivation is this girl, Leah Vann," he said later. "Seeing what she had to go through just touched me in my heart. I battle on the field for it."