When it comes to high school running backs, Johnathan Gray is considered by many to be the best ever in America.
The guy rushed for over 300 yards and eight touchdowns in a state championship game, for goodness sakes, one of three consecutive titles to which he led the Bearcats. His 205 touchdowns as a Bearcat are more than any high school running back in history and his 10,889 career yards ranks sixth all-time nationally.
But despite all the memories Gray created for himself and others from 2008-11 as a Bearcat, one that stands out is his days as a freshman — before he became a high school legend and the No. 1 running back in his recruiting class.
“Coming to high school, I had to study film, defensive schemes. I wanted someone to teach me,” he said.
Now, it is Gray, at age 29, who is doing the teaching in his first season as an assistant for his alma mater Aledo High School, which has won a record 10 state championships. The Bearcats (12-2) fact Longview (14-0) in a 5A Division 1 semifinal at 2 p.m. Saturday at Kincaide Stadium in Dallas.
Head coach Tim Buchanan, a legend himself in the coaching ranks, brought Gray onboard to coach running backs.
“Johnathan is such a good young man, and he’s as hard a worker as I’ve ever come across — that’s what made him so great. He had amazing talent, of course, but his hard work ethic is what pushed him greatness,” Buchanan said.
“He coaches like he played. He demands perfection, and if these running backs will listen to him they’ll have the opportunity to do great things also.”
Case in point is junior running back Hawk Patrick-Daniels. After carrying one time for 3 yards in the opening game, Patrick-Daniels moved into the starting tailback position and picked up 628 yards and scored nine touchdowns the next four games.
“Hawk is very good. He’s coachable, and that’s only going to help him get better,” Gray said. “All the running backs are competitive right now. They’re growing and you can see it happening.”
Gray is working with some athletes who weren’t even in elementary school when he performed his magic on the field. And those who were had barely walked through the front door as he was wrapping up his historic career as a Bearcat.
But they know of his greatness, Buchanan said.
“They heard the stories and the legend,” he said.
Gray is also an eighth-grade health teacher at McAnally Middle School in Aledo, where certainly none of those students ever saw him wear a Bearcat uniform. But, just as he embraced the challenge of rising to the top in football, he’s equally excited to be the best teacher he can be.
“It’s getting to their level, understanding their thinking,” he said. “It’s similar to coaching, in that you have to realize they’re not just athletes. To teach them, you have to understand them.
“I’m really enjoying it. It’s interesting, fun. It’s a challenge, sure, but I like challenges.”
One of Gray’s greatest attributes has always been his ability to be humble, a trait he learned from his father, himself a record-setting running back for the Texas Tech Red Raiders from 1986-89. And, just like Johnathan, James went on to become a coach at Texas Tech, where he was likewise a standout running back.
So, after playing for the Texas Longhorns for four seasons and graduating from the University of Texas, Johnathan took the same path — though not right away. In 2017 he started Johnathan Gray Sports and Performance in Austin, later moving it to Athletic Performance Ranch in Fort Worth.
“Then I thought, why not get into coaching?” he recalled. “It’s always been a goal of mine since I was a kid, not even to be a running back in the NFL, but to help others. And even had I played in the NFL, I’m sure I would have become a coach after.”
Injuries in college prevented Johnathan from reaching his potential and getting drafted into the NFL. He tore his right Achilles tendon in 2013 and his left in 2015. Still, he rushed for over 2,600 yards in four seasons and caught passes for over 400 more, scoring 18 touchdowns in all.
He played for the Frisco Fighters this past season in the Indoor Football League, helping them to a league-best 15-3 record and into the second round of the playoffs.
“I was one of the old heads on the team,” Gray said with a laugh. “But it was a lot of fun. Football in a blender we called it. People were flying over the walls.”
While admitting it would be tempting to return to the Fighters for another season, Gray said he is happy with his decision to move into the next chapter in life. He and his wife Marie, whom he met while at UT, live in Benbrook. She is a therapist with Wild Cactus Therapy in Fort Worth.
And he said he still finds it amazing that he’s come full circle back to Aledo.
“Any time you can come back to a place where you did a lot of things with coaches and teammates, where you have so many great memories, it’s really special,” he said. “You want to give back to the kids and hope they can even do more than you. We preach growing greatness.
“To come back and be a part of something you helped build, that feeling is really hard to put into words.”
The Bearcats had one state championship — in 1998 — before Gray arrived on the scene. They won titles from 2009-11 and since have added more in 2013-14, 2016 and 2018-20.
My freshman year, when we lost (11-1, second round of playoffs) I remember looking around at the peewee teams and I thought we could always be special here in Aledo,” Gray said.
What has made Aledo special, Gray said, is unity. As great as he was, he said he knew and he knows now that no one person wins championships.
“When I look back, it’s always ‘We accomplished a lot,’” he said.
Gray has been asked many times why he chose to play for the Texas Longhorns instead of the TCU Horned Frogs. He said he gave great consideration to playing for then coach Gary Patterson’s team.
“If TCU had been in Austin it would have been harder to choose UT,” he said. “But TCU was just too close to home.
“I remember my dad made me call the coaches of the schools I said no to — the few on my final list — and tell them I wouldn’t be coming. I think that is still one of the hardest things I ever had to do, but I’m glad I did it.”
Mack Brown left as head coach of Texas following the 2013 season. However, he and Gray became close and remain in contact to this day, Gray said.
“It took a toll on us when Mack left. Mack is more than just a coach to me. He’s a father figure. He’s a keeper,” Gray said.
Gray is optimistic the Longhorns are on their way to greatness again under head coach Steve Sarkisian. He was impressed with their near upset of mighty Alabama (a 20-19 loss), and he liked what he saw from another former Bearcat playing for the Crimson Tide, junior running back Jace McClellan, who had an 81-yard touchdown run in that game.
“I like the fact that Jace has grown. He scored against my Longhorns — that was an impressive run,” Gray said with a chuckle. “I think he can do some things in the NFL.
“And what Texas is starting to do, that’s what it’s going to take when they join the SEC. I’m excited to see Sark get us back on the map.”
Of course, he has to pinch himself to make sure he’s awake and working alongside his mentor, Buchanan, isn’t a dream.
“It’s a surreal moment working alongside Buc. I just don’t think it could get any better,” Gray said.
Well, there is one thing that could make it better, he said with a smile. Now that he’s back, Gray would very much like to add to that total.
“To win a state championship as a player and as a coach, that would be phenomenal — much less at the same school,” he said.
Buchanan believes Gray has what it takes to be a championship head coach in his own right.
“He’s going to be a great head coach. He’s got that ‘it’ factor,” Buchanan said.
And while he and Marie don’t yet have children, just as his own dad did, Gray has visions of his son growing up to be even greater than he was. That might mean he’d have to relinquish some of his records, but he’s perfectly fine with that.
“Oh man, that would be an honor. That would be something to see and I’d love every minute of it,” Gray said. “Only thing better would be if he did it all at Aledo.”