On Friday night, as Georgia Tech trampled Louisville, A.J. Gray performed his usual game-day duties as a student assistant. With a coaches headset on, Gray was practically attached at the hip to defensive coordinator Nate Woody.
Dressed in a half-tucked short-sleeve navy shirt and khaki pants, Gray signaled in defensive play calls to the players on the field as Woody did the same next to him, a subterfuge to throw off would-be sign stealers. The role isn’t what he had envisioned six months ago, as he recovered from a torn labrum and prepared for his senior season at safety, where he was a two-year starter with a shot at the NFL.
However, Gray was medically disqualified in May because of an enlarged aorta, ending his career. He has made his transition into the next phase of his life.
“Now, I’m just over (the premature end of his playing career),” Gray told the AJC last week. “I’m at the point, like, it’s life. It had to end someday. Mine just ended earlier than expected.”
Offered the opportunity by coach Paul Johnson to try out coaching, Gray has tested it as a potential career.
As a student assistant, Gray helps safeties coach Shiel Wood at practice. The work isn’t merely setting up cones and holding a clipboard. Gray runs drills – he particularly works with the Stinger linebackers, a group Wood oversees along with the two safety spots – and is in charge of the wide receivers on the offensive scout team. The first time Wood left him in charge of his own players came as a shock.
“It kind of caught me off guard,” Gray said. “He was like, ‘All right, Stingers with A.J.’ I was like, ‘Oh, Lord.’”
While Gray stays close with former teammates, he has begun to discover another side of the game. He has seen the long hours that coaches log. He has heard the coarse dialogue on the headsets. (“Whatever’s said on the headset kind of stays in the headset,” Gray said.) He has developed an eye to pick up mistakes in technique or alignment as he runs players through drills.
“I understand what coaches see that players don’t see,” Gray said.
Gray said he has yet to mete out any harsh words, rather finding his role in encouraging players after the scolding is over.
“I’m the good cop,” he said.
His efforts have been received well.
“It’s awesome,” Stinger linebacker Jalen Johnson said. “I hate what happened – that’s my boy – but just having him in the meeting room is just awesome. I can learn from him a lot because he’s played a lot, but that’s my guy.”
Johnson said he even gave Gray permission to get after him if he needs to do so. (“Nah, he does what he’s supposed to do,” Gray said. “Jalen, he plays really hard.”) Safety Tariq Carpenter said that in the Bowling Green game, Gray encouraged him to trust his eyes if he saw that the receiver he was defending was going to run a slant route to the inside, even if his assignment was to stay outside.
“He knows the game so well,” Carpenter said.
Paul Johnson said he sees coaching material in Gray “if he wants to take that Georgia Tech education and try to go coach.” He sees in Gray a love for football and the personality to build rapport with players.
“I think he’d do a good job,” Johnson said. “He’s got a good work ethic.”
The Georgia Tech education of which Johnson spoke will provide other options. In January, Gray will start an internship at the Atlanta Airlines Terminal Corporation, which handles operations and maintenance of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s terminal facility. AATC’s president and CEO is Kofi Smith, a former Tech football player.
Gray will be interning with the information-technology group, he said. Gray is a business-management major with a concentration in IT. Among skills he’ll bring to the internship is his ability to write code in Java.
“Basically, going in (and) fixing things that crash,” Gray said.
He is on track to graduate in May. After his internship, he’ll decide on a career path – coaching or IT. He said he’s 50/50 on the two options. Neither is the NFL, but, as Gray said, that would have eventually come to an end.
“It’s just a straight blessing,” said Gray’s father, Allen.
Gray’s perspective is deepened by the gravity of his condition and an awareness of what could have been. As a high-school junior at Washington County High, he was prepared to commit to play for North Carolina, where his sister, Allisha, was then starring for the basketball team. However, because of an apparent miscommunication within the Tar Heels coaching staff, he was not offered a scholarship on a visit to UNC. He ended up visiting and committing to Tech shortly after and enrolled in 2015.
As a member of the Yellow Jackets football team, he became part of a sports cardiology research project led by Emory professor Jonathan Kim (also Tech’s team cardiologist). In it, players undergo extensive screening and imaging as freshmen. As a result, Gray’s condition was flagged and monitored, ultimately leading to his medical disqualification.
Gray said he thinks all the time about that change in his life’s path, one that may have saved his life.
“Crazy,” Allen Gray said. “He’s supposed to have been at Tech all along.”
Physically, Gray is fine. He has to undergo an MRI every six months, but does not need to take any medication.
“You never know in this world,” Gray said. “I’m just blessed to be alive. Because I could be like some of the other athletes (with heart conditions) that unfortunately didn’t make it. That’s why I’m just blessed every day and I don’t ask why, because I’m still here on earth.”
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