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Yankees Magazine: Solace is Golden

When young Sonny Gray lost his father, he found peace -- and dizzying success -- on the playing field
Yankees Magazine

At the local Walmart, strangers come up to say thank you. At Cheddar's, a woman can't summon the nerve to interrupt his lunch, so she surreptitiously snaps a photo of him seated in the casual dining room. When he makes a surprise visit to the training room at Smyrna High School, weights clank to a halt as wide-eyed student-athletes approach to say, "Nice to meet you, sir."

Sonny Gray is a Legend around here, with a capital "L." A 2011 first-round pick of the Oakland A's out of Vanderbilt -- where he helped the Commodores reach their first College World Series -- Gray has shined on some of baseball's biggest stages. But his rock-star status has almost nothing to do with the national pastime. In this suburban Tennessee town 25 miles southeast of Nashville, Sonny Gray became a household name long before he threw a pitch in the Big Leagues, or even in college.

At the local Walmart, strangers come up to say thank you. At Cheddar's, a woman can't summon the nerve to interrupt his lunch, so she surreptitiously snaps a photo of him seated in the casual dining room. When he makes a surprise visit to the training room at Smyrna High School, weights clank to a halt as wide-eyed student-athletes approach to say, "Nice to meet you, sir."

Sonny Gray is a Legend around here, with a capital "L." A 2011 first-round pick of the Oakland A's out of Vanderbilt -- where he helped the Commodores reach their first College World Series -- Gray has shined on some of baseball's biggest stages. But his rock-star status has almost nothing to do with the national pastime. In this suburban Tennessee town 25 miles southeast of Nashville, Sonny Gray became a household name long before he threw a pitch in the Big Leagues, or even in college.

He may have earned his Yankees pinstripes against the Astros in the 2017 American League Championship Series, but it's Gray's purple-and-gold No. 2 Bulldogs jersey that hangs framed in more than one Smyrna restaurant. Around these parts, football reigns supreme. And what Gray accomplished under the Friday night lights at Smyrna High hasn't been done before or since.

It began with the worst day of Sonny Gray's life.

***

At 5-foot-10 and 192 pounds, with a boyish grin and close-cropped blond hair, Sonny Gray might sooner be mistaken for actor Matt Damon than a professional athlete. But not in this town, and certainly not on this field.

On a frigid Wednesday afternoon in January, Gray is all smiles as he looks out across the gridiron at Smyrna High. Two inches of snow on Monday shuttered the county's schools for the week -- snow removal is not really a thing in the South -- and it's clear from the donut tracks in the parking lot that the teenagers have been enjoying themselves. Gray looks up at the empty bleachers and recalls how packed they would get for football games, with additional spectators standing three or four deep around the chain-link fence that encircles the field.

As a high school quarterback, this is where Gray displayed everything he had been given, and everything he still carries with him. The tenacity, the competitiveness, the will to overcome long odds, the sportsmanship, the leadership -- it all came together here in remarkable fashion.

"Everyone knew what we went through," Gray says. "To be able to push through it the whole time and then go out and do something that this town and this area had never done before was a good feeling, not only for me and my family, but really the whole town."

Inside the school, several of Gray's former teachers and coaches have come in on their snow day to welcome back Smyrna's favorite son. Assistant principal Sherri Southerland has laid out an array of press clippings from Gray's time here. Next to them on the table is a stack of gift-wrapped shoeboxes containing purple-and-gold footwear earmarked for the school's Special Olympians -- a donation from New Balance coordinated by Sonny's wife, Jessica, also a Smyrna graduate.

Gray is all business on the mound, but here on his home turf, he's at ease, cracking jokes and showing off pictures of his 3-year-old son, Gunnar Carmack Gray. He walks the halls grinning widely, stopping to admire the trophy case that he helped fill. He reminisces with drama teacher Shannon Williams about his senior-year performance as Troy Bolton in High School Musical. When baseball coach David Looper asks Gray how he would have pitched to himself in high school, Gray quips, "Shoot, I couldn't get him out. That guy's a stud."

This is and always will be home for Gray. He and Jessica live not far from here, and he hopes to give Gunnar the opportunity to experience the type of childhood memories that mean so much to him.

"To come back to the same high school and the same weight room and see kids looking at you -- calling you 'sir' like they're kind of in shock -- is a really, really cool feeling," Gray says.

His father would have been extremely proud.

***

Jesse Carmack Gray only wanted the best for his kids. He and his wife, Cindy, had raised Sonny and his two sisters, Katie and Jessica, in Una, a Nashville neighborhood hard by the airport. Money was tight, so Jesse would work two jobs to make ends meet, but whatever spare time he had was spent with family.

He named his middle child Sonny to honor his own father, Donald "Sonny" Gray, and Jesse -- a talented football and baseball player in his youth who pitched one season at Austin Peay -- nurtured the boy's love of sports. On weekends, father and son would pile into Jesse's pickup truck and drive to a local ballfield to hit buckets of balls or toss a football around. It wasn't long before Sonny stood out from his peers.

"It was kind of annoying because he was good at everything," says Jeremy Holt, a close friend since childhood who Gray trains with during the offseason. "He was super humble, so it wasn't annoying in that sense. It was annoying in that we could never beat him."

Jesse coached Sonny in baseball and football, teaching him the fundamentals in both. But while he urged his son to go the extra mile, he also stressed the importance of having fun, making friends and being a good teammate. Holt says Jesse treated every kid on the team like his own, creating an environment that was enjoyable for everyone.

"People talk about finding your happy place, your comfort zone. That's what [sports have] been my whole life," Sonny says. "That's been where you need to go if there's something going on outside of baseball. You always can go there, and that's kind of what I've always done."

Longtime Rutherford County resident Stork Montgomery has combined his passion for football and communications by videotaping and broadcasting youth games, sometimes as many as eight a day. He'll never forget seeing the pint-sized Gray as a 10 year old, playing like he was an NFL quarterback. "He was the smallest guy on the field, but you could just tell by non-verbal action, the way he commanded the field, the way he helped his other teammates up," Montgomery says. "I knew it right away. I said, 'Right there is the best football player on the team.'"

Montgomery and Jesse Gray became close friends, and like Sonny -- who writes the word "Dad" underneath the brim of his baseball cap -- Montgomery keeps Jesse in his thoughts, telling stories about him often. Like how Jesse knew Sonny's future was in baseball, and that he wanted him to end up at Vanderbilt rather than University of Tennessee -- "too much partyin' going on there," the elder Gray would say of Knoxville.

Montgomery's favorite tale, however, might be of the time he and Jesse were at Blackman High School in Murfreesboro to watch Sonny play in a middle school jamboree. All the high school coaches in Middle Tennessee were on hand, and as Jesse was walking back from the restroom, Riverdale coach Gary Rankin -- "the Bear Bryant of Rutherford County" -- stopped him to chat about his talented son.

"I saw you talk to Gary Rankin; what did he say?" Montgomery eagerly asked his friend.

"Aw, he wants me to bring Sonny down to Riverdale, said we'd win a couple of state championships," Jesse replied. "I said, 'I think we'll just go to Smyrna and win two there.'"

Sonny smiles at the recollection of his father's outlandish prediction. Smyrna had never made it to the state title game. The school had never even beaten Riverdale in football -- not once. Telling Rankin -- now Tennessee's all-time winningest coach who led Riverdale to nine Class 5A title games and won four in his 16 years there -- that they'd win two at Smyrna was like telling Bill Belichick that you're going to win two Super Bowls with the Jets. But Jesse had a plan. He wanted his kids to go to a good school that wasn't far from Nashville, so one day he packed up his family's belongings and moved them into the Charleston Hall apartments near the bowling alley.

With sports becoming an increasingly important aspect of his life, Sonny settled in to his new surroundings. As an eighth grader, the 13-year-old Gray quarterbacked Smyrna Middle School to an undefeated season and a conference championship. "He's special," head coach Danny Williams said at the time. "He's a leader on offense and defense. I hate to repeat myself, but he has a lot of heart and is a very competitive person."

Although he was clearly talented, Gray was still a bit undersized as he entered high school. Not wanting to risk injury, the coaches at Smyrna High decided to put him on the freshman squad. Still, things were looking up. Then, on the morning of Aug. 26, 2004, Gray's life was changed forever.

***

Cindy Craig greets her guests warmly and speaks softly with a gentle twang, but underneath that Southern charm is one strong woman.

Sonny's mother is seated on her living room couch, across from the fish tank and next to a cage housing a noisy pet bird. Her home is a shrine to family -- not just to her famous son but her two daughters, her stepchildren and her grandkids, as well. Memory cards of loved ones lost adorn a wall, and while Sonny and his stepdad, Barry, sneak off to the attached garage for a cigar, Cindy tries to remember the details of that fateful day.

It was around 4 a.m. when she got the call. Jesse had been in an accident, and she needed to come to Vanderbilt University Medical Center immediately. Cindy would soon learn the tragic details, that Jesse, traveling up Murfreesboro Pike around 1:30 a.m. after working in the kitchen at her brother's restaurant, ran a red light. His Toyota pickup rammed into the driver's side of a Kia Sephia driven by 21-year-old Robert Garrett II, a basketball player at Nashville's Trevecca Nazarene University. No alcohol was involved, but neither driver was wearing a seat belt. Both were killed.

It's all still a blur, but Cindy will never forget what Sonny said to her as they sat in a waiting room after deciding to donate Jesse's organs. "He was like, 'Momma, I'm going to play football tonight. Daddy would've wanted me to play, and I've got to do it.'"

By that time, the family's inner circle had rushed to the hospital to lend whatever support they could. When Sonny told his coaches that he needed to get to school so that he would be eligible to play that night, they pleaded with him to reconsider, but there was no stopping Sonny Gray.

"That's just kind of the way that my mom and my dad had raised all of us," he says. "You can go through some tough times; how are you going to come out the other side? That moment right there, in a 10-minute period you're aging 10 years. But things [still] need to be done, and I felt like that was just something that he would've wanted me to do more than anything else."

Gray took the field for Smyrna that night and honored his father much the same way Brett Favre had done eight months earlier on Monday Night Football -- with a performance for the ages. His coach let him call the first play of the game, and he threw a 75-yard touchdown -- his first of four TD passes in a 28-6 win.

Thus began The Legend of Sonny Gray.

That spring, armed with a fastball in the low 90s, Gray started his varsity baseball career 6-0 with a 0.00 ERA. He was the only underclassman named to The Tennessean's 2005 All-Midstate Baseball team -- a list that included future Major Leaguers Bryan Morris, Mike Minor and Caleb Cotham. That fall, Gray and his fellow sophomore, wide receiver Rod Wilks, ushered in a new era of Smyrna football, leading the Bulldogs to a 7-5 record.

Gray carried on his father's legacy off the field, too. As a freshman, he visited Mitchell- Neilson primary school in Murfreesboro and read to second graders. As a sophomore, he spoke out in favor of drug testing high school athletes. "If students are doing drugs and are playing sports, you know they don't care about the team," he told The Tennessean.

Video: Quick Hits: Always Sonny

With Jesse's prediction echoing in his mind, Sonny began his junior year with lofty goals. He and Wilks helped the Bulldogs get off to a 6-1 start, and when they got set to face 6-1 Riverdale that October, it was the region's biggest regular season game in years. The thousands of fans that descended upon Smyrna's Robert L. Raikes Stadium anticipated seeing the Bulldogs break through against the Warriors for the first time in 17 tries.

"The Game of the Year" turned out to be a 49-0 butt-kicking by Riverdale -- its 34th straight win over a Rutherford County opponent. For Smyrna, a state title seemed about as close as Pluto.

But coach Philip Shadowens used the humiliation as motivation, and Gray bought in to the belief that the season was anything but over. The Bulldogs won their next four games, setting up a quarterfinals playoff matchup against their tormentors from Riverdale.

With 20 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Gray managed to fight off a furious Warriors pass rush and deliver a 60-yard touchdown strike to receiver Josh Crouch that put Smyrna ahead, 9-7. In the fourth, Riverdale marched deep into Bulldogs territory, but Jonah Hendricks -- another childhood friend with whom Gray remains close -- recovered a fumble at the 11. An interception thrown by Gray gave the Warriors another late chance to take the lead, but they missed a 34-yard field-goal attempt with 2:30 to play and Smyrna hung on for its first-ever victory over Riverdale.

The Warriors haven't won a title since.

"That was the game that broke Riverdale's back," Montgomery says.

On the full-color front page of the sports section the next day, there was Gray in his purple-and-gold uniform, leaping into Crouch's arms with his right index finger aloft under the headline, "Finally, a first for Smyrna." The picture on the bottom of the page was of a Riverdale player in tears.

Riding high from the historic two-point victory, Gray marched his team to a three-point win over undefeated Ooltewah in the semifinals, then avenged his team's only other regular season loss by routing defending Class 5A champion Ravenwood, 35-14, in the title game and delivering Smyrna its first football title in school history.

"Losing 49-0 and then about six weeks later, we were able to beat [Riverdale] in the playoffs; it was just an amazing win," says Billy Harris, a former coach who has been assistant principal and athletic director at SHS since 2006. "I've spoken to many teams over the years, and I use that game from 2006 to show that anything is possible. It's a very good motivation for our students."

Gray's prep career was far from over, though. On the diamond, he began his junior season 6-0, drawing interest from big-time college coaches and Major League scouts every time he took the mound. After striking out 18 batters one Monday afternoon, he came back on three days' rest and tossed a two-hit shutout to propel Smyrna to its first state baseball tournament. On the eve of that appearance, Gray announced his commitment to Vanderbilt.

It was another moment that Jesse would have been proud of. Sonny could have been emotionally crippled by his father's passing, or found less positive ways to cope. Instead, he continued to nurture the gifts he had been given -- an exercise made possible thanks to a foundation at home that remained rock solid.

"When you're 14 or 15 years old, it's hard for you as a kid and it's hard for a lot of people, but I couldn't even imagine what it was like for my mom," Gray says. "The older I get, it puts a lot more stuff into perspective, and looking back through the whole thing, I don't know if I ever even saw her physically shaken up. She was always making sure that I knew and my sisters knew that everything was going to be OK. It might not be the way that we thought our lives would go, but everything was going to be OK. Now, I kind of realize there was a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff that she did not let us see that was very difficult, and that just shows you how strong she was to me and my sisters. It was always going to be OK, and it always was."

***

After the Cinderella run the previous fall, Gray became the hunted as a senior, with huge expectations put upon Smyrna. Fulfilling Jesse's vision of two titles would be no small task.

Of course, Sonny was up to the challenge. He led the Bulldogs back to the Class 5A state title game and, with a 46-20 domination of Independence on Dec. 8, 2007, cemented The Legend of Sonny Gray.

Through it all, Sonny stayed true to himself and to the people around him. When he was invited to participate in a prestigious east-west All-Star Game for the state's top seniors after beating Indy, he politely declined. Celebrating the 2007 state title with his Bulldogs teammates was the perfect ending to his football career -- a memory he still cherishes. He never let the games or his increasing fame go to his head, maintaining his sunny disposition and not taking himself too seriously.

"He called me 'Dog,'" says Vanderbilt's Tim Corbin, the 2014 Collegiate Baseball National Coach of the Year who started scouting Gray when he was a freshman. "That was how he approached me; it was never 'Coach,' it was, 'What's up, Dog?' I don't know how anyone can use the word 'dog' to a coach and make it sound respectful, but he did. I was never offended by it. … Sonny just has that personality where he's just so common, you know, he's just so real; the fibers are so real."

Before heading off to Vandy and beginning his journey toward the Big Leagues, Gray graduated from Smyrna High with the Class of 2008. He was a popular honor roll student, named Best All Around by his peers. In his senior yearbook, Cindy submitted one of those congratulatory messages that parents often do. Above a photo of Sonny and Jesse in their Una baseball jerseys, posing with a trophy that's about as tall as the young boy, Cindy wrote:

We are so proud of you and love you very much. You have accomplished so much yet have managed to stay humble. You've grown into a wonderful young man. Your Dad would be so proud of the man you have become. We hope all of your dreams come true. The best is yet to come. -Mom, Jessica & Katie

As usual, Mom was right. Gray has been an All-Star Major Leaguer, has shined in the postseason, has made millions of dollars and, at 28, he still has many more good years ahead of him. He'll take the mound at Yankee Stadium this year with fire in his eyes, ice in his veins and the memory of his father etched in his heart. He'll compete the only way he knows how -- with unyielding intensity. What else would you expect from Jesse's kid, the pride of Smyrna, Tennessee? Sonny Gray is a Bulldog, with a capital "B."

Nathan Maciborski is the executive editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, Sonny Gray