ALEDO, Texas -- A month ago, a phone call from New York Jets running back and former NFL MVP LaDainian Tomlison delivered the news to Johnathan Gray that he’d won 2011-12 Gatorade National Football Player of the Year honors. Thursday, The Bus delivered the trophy.
“I saw Jerome Bettis out of the corner of my eye and my heart skipped a beat,” said Gray, who led Aledo (Texas) to a third consecutive Class 4A state title this past fall and rushed for 10,889 career yards to rank No. 2 in state history. “I was actually holding the trophy, and he just ran up to me and tackled me. I was thinking, ‘Oh no, we’re going to lose the trophy, I’m going down and Jerome Bettis is tackling me.”
If Gray can approach the career rushing totals of Tomlinson or Bettis at the next level or beyond, the high school senior will embody one of the most productive running backs ever. Tomlinson (13,684 career rushing yards) and Bettis (13,662) rank No. 5 and No. 6 in NFL history.
“This kid is outstanding,” said Bettis, 39, who was named a finalist this week in forthcoming voting for induction into the NFL Hall of Fame, “what an outstanding young man.
“People told me he’s a bit shy,” added Bettis, the 1989-90 Gatorade Michigan Football Player of the Year, “but he opened right up to me. He has a great spirit. I’m impressed.”
Gray led the Bearcats to a 14-2 record in 2011 and a 4A, Division II state championship three-peat. The 5-foot-10, 202-pound senior running back finished the season with 3,886 yards and a state-record 65 touchdowns on 347 carries. The state’s returning Gatorade Football Player of the Year, he also caught 26 passes for 517 yards and 5 TDs. His 205 career rushing touchdowns are a national record, and his 1,232 career points rank second nationally.
Gray was announced as Gatorade’s National Player of the Year on Dec. 6, but state association University Interscholastic League rules prevented him from receiving his trophy until after his final varsity campaign was complete. ESPNHS manages the award’s selection process.
The No. 5 recruit in the Class of 2012 as rated by ESPNU, Gray set state records in career carries, touchdowns, points, 100-yard games and single-season rushing touchdowns. He became the third prep athlete in state history to eclipse 10,000 career rushing yards, ranking second overall with 10,889 behind Sugar Land legend Ken Hall (1950-53). Since the season concluded, Gray has been more of a patient than a prospect -- nursing a dinged up right shoulder, an inflamed left knee that required a fluid drain and a high ankle sprain suffered at last week’s Under Armour All-America Game in Florida, which has restricted him to a walking boot.
Gray, 18, 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.
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, whose father, James, earned collegiate Second Team All-America honors in 1989 and remains No. 2 on Texas Tech’s list of career rushing leaders, 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 3,886 yards last fall rank fifth in national prep single-season history according the National Federation of State High School Associations Sports Record Book and records compiled by TexasFootball.com. He is one of five high school backs in history to rush for 10,000-plus yards according to National Federation records and TexasFootball.com.
Gray and former Lake Travis standout and ex-Longhorn Garrett Gilbert (2008-09) represent the only prep players from Texas to earn Gatorade National Football Player of the Year recognition in the award’s 27-year history. Gray is the 26th Texas native -- second only to California’s 57 -- to claim Gatorade national honors in any of the award program’s 12 sports.
Want to know who won Gatorade Football Player of the Year in your state? Click here. Visit the ESPNHS Player of the Year blog and be the first to know who wins 2011-12 Gatorade Player of the Year hardware in 10 other sports by following the ESPNHS team that manages the award program’s selection process.