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Gray hoping Skyhawks will be better

August 17, 2003|MIKE MARSEE

It's been a long time since John Gray has played for a winner. But as he prepares for his final football season, there are signs that he has been a winner all along.

Gray grew accustomed to winning while playing for Danville, but he has endured more losses than he cares to remember in his four years at Tennessee-Martin.

So there's only one thing on his wish list for his senior season.

"Just wins. That's the one thing that really counts," said Gray, a 6-3, 250-pound defensive end.

Given Gray's competitive nature, it's easy to understand his sentiment. But he might be missing the mark just a bit.

So far, Gray has no championships and only a handful of wins to show for his efforts at Martin. But he has accomplished plenty during his four years at the school, and he has a clear picture of what he wants to accomplish once his days there are done.

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He says, for instance, he isn't satisfied with what he has done on the field for the Skyhawks.

"Not the least bit," he said. "The record speaks for everything. I really haven't been happy."

But in his next breath, he said he knows the experience will help him after college.

"It's all been a learning experience to help me later in life," he said.

Gray wants to become a coach, either on the high school or college level. And he wants to pass along his love for the game and his desire to win to tomorrow's players.

"Football is life, and if you have a passion about life, then it's easy to have a passion about football," he said. "I've said it to myself before: I really can't handle kids that just want to be there, that want to say, 'I was on the team,' to put it on their college resume."

Gray does not suffer losing gladly, and he has little use for those who do. That's why he is optimistic that Martin's fortunes might take a turn for the better this fall.

"We'll probably have the best team since I've been down here as far as talent-wise," Gray said. "When I first got here, there wasn't too many guys passionate about playing football, but it's changed."

Much has changed since Gray first arrived in Martin in 1999. He came as a linebacker, but he will leave as a defensive end, the result of a position change in the spring following his sophomore season.

But before he could take his new position for a test drive, a broken hand suffered in preseason camp forced him to redshirt during the 2001 season.

Gray bounced back last season to record 35 tackles in nine games. He made five tackles for losses and had one fumble recovery and one blocked kick.

This year, Gray will be one of the Skyhawks' three senior captains, having been so elected by his teammates in the spring.

"It's just showing that my teammates respect me and think highly of me," Gray said. "It's an honor, but at the time we had some other seniors that probably deserved it much more than I did."

Gray said he is the quiet type and doesn't consider himself much of a leader. But first-year coach Matt Griffin said Gray and the other two captains, offensive linemen Michael Jackson and Lee Lawrence, are just what he is looking for in a leader.

"(They) epitomize the type of character we want," Griffin said in a press release. "They are outstanding student-athletes and extremely hard working.

"John is an intense competitor. He has overcome adversity on and off the field. He is a winner."

Gray has seen the view from the top and bottom in his football career. That view was never better than during his days at Danville. Then he went to Martin, which has been at or near the bottom of the Ohio Valley Conference ever since it moved up from Division II in the early 1990s.

The losses come often, and they often are ugly.

"I hate to lose at anything," he said. "Growing up and going through the Danville system, you lose one game and some people consider it a down season.

"Coming down here and losing as much as we've done, it'll help me when I become a coach."

That's what's next for Gray after graduation. He said he decided about two years ago that he wanted to become a coach, and he plans to become a teacher.

He said he thinks he'd like to work in western Kentucky or west Tennessee, near the area that has been his second home for more than four years, "anywhere someone gives me an opportunity."

Then again, there's always his dream job.

"I would like to take over Danville someday, but I don't think coach (Sam) Harp is going anywhere any time soon," he said.

What really intrigues him, aside from taking over the Admirals, is taking a program from the outhouse to the penthouse.

"Some coaches can take a program from rock bottom and build them up. That'd be a goal of mine," he said.

In the meantime, Gray's goals involve settling some scores and getting some wins in his last trip around the OVC.

He said he would love to get a win over Murray State, Martin's nearest rival in the league, and quarterback Stewart Childress, whom he faced when Danville lost to Caldwell County in the 1999 Class A state finals.

"I'd love to sack Stewart once before the season is over," Gray said.

He'd also like to beat OVC powerhouse Eastern Kentucky when the Skyhawks come to Richmond on Nov. 8 for Gray's last game.

But Martin is grasping for any success, and Gray would love to enjoy some of it before his time is up.

"We're a lot closer, the closest I've ever been," he said.

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