Smyrna's Hero Has A Bright Future

MARIETTA, Ga.—Life is pretty simple for most of the 31,000 people who call Smyrna, Tenn., home. The quiet town located a half-hour southeast of Nashville is where Sundays are spent in church and Fridays in the fall are for high school football.

That's where Sonny Gray made his fame. As the starting quarterback at Smyrna High, Gray led the Bulldogs to the school's first state football title when he carried them to Tennessee's 5-A crown as a junior in 2006. At 6-feet, 185 pounds, Gray isn't the biggest man on campus, but small towns have a way of embracing their high school heroes. And when Gray added to his legacy the following spring by helping Smyrna High qualify for the state baseball tournament, his days of walking down Lowry Street without a pat on the back or a crowd of kids clamoring for his autograph were over.

Gray has gradually grown accustomed to the fanfare, but the soft-spoken rising senior seems to be more at ease out of the spotlight at home with his two sisters, Katie and Jessica; mom, Cindy; and stepfather, Barry Craig.

On his way home from baseball practice this summer, Gray glances down at the dashboard of his 1996 Honda Accord. There, wedged in the corner of the speedometer rests a photograph of his father, Jessie.

Practically the whole town has seen Sonny play football or baseball, but after coaching him in both sports from the time Sonny was just 5 years old, his father saw only one of Sonny's high school football games. It was Sonny's freshman year in 2004, a week before Jessie was killed in a car accident.

Cindy woke up Sonny and his sisters that morning when she was told about the accident. They discovered at the hospital that Jessie had not survived. Later that night, Sonny choked back tears before going out and throwing two touchdown passes and rushing for two more in leading the Smyrna freshman team to a 49-0 win.

"I had never felt that, and never wanted to," said Gray, recalling the night he stood on the sidelines during a moment of silence for his own father's death before taking the field, "because that's what he would have wanted me to do."

Gray's life changed completely after that. He began taking more responsibility around the house, and while he continued to play and practice both sports seriously, he began recognizing the importance of things off the field that most people his age pay little attention to.

"He just kind of grew up overnight, because he had to," said Cindy, who re-married, bringing Barry into the family and providing Sonny and his sisters with another positive influence.

It's on the mound where Gray's maturation has been most obvious this summer. Arm strength has long been his forte in both sports, and this spring Gray began dialing his fastball up into the low 90s. He earned district MVP honors after compiling an 11-2, 0.71 record as a junior. He struck out 150 with 27 walks and just 38 hits in 77 innings.

Shortly after the season, Gray proved his mettle against more advanced hitters at showcases and wood bat tournaments, reaching 95 mph on radar guns and locking up a spot in the fifth annual Aflac Classic in San Diego on Aug. 11.

He's tinkered with his repertoire, adding a slider to his fastball-curveball-changeup mix, providing him with four pitches that he shows feel for. Add in his aggressive approach, and Gray is one of the top prospects in the 2008 draft class.

With his senior football season around the corner, Gray won't have much time to relish his appearance in the Aflac game. But Gray, who has committed to Vanderbilt, says he knows where his athletic future lies. While the Commodores football staff has left the door open for Gray to play in one of the country's top football conferences, baseball is his top priority.

"(Football coaches) say I have a strong arm but I might not be big enough (to play quarterback at a major college program)," Gray said. "That's fine with me. I always wanted to go with baseball a long time ago."

Given the adversity Gray has experienced at an age no teenager is emotionally equipped to endure, there's no wonder why decisions such as these seem simple for him to make. Those around town know him for his talent on the field, but those who know him best will tell you Gray's character is what's most worthy of fame.