On Wednesday, sitting in the sunlit lobby of the Edge Center at Georgia Tech, former Yellow Jackets safety A.J. Gray was finally able to count the days till graduation on one hand. You could have forgiven him for not believing it.
Doubt was a constant companion as he swam upstream to his degree in business administration. Finally, though, with his last exam over, Gray was able to laugh about the trials of the journey.
Gray’s playing career was eventful – he was a two-year starter at safety for the Yellow Jackets, but his career was truncated last May when he was medically disqualified for an enlarged aorta. But the drama that played out as he inched his way forward in the classroom was perhaps no less tense than the 60-minute struggles he faced on autumn Saturdays on Grant Field. For Gray, an easy semester was a completely foreign concept.
“Some days, I’d be like, I don’t know if I’m going to make it,” Gray told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Some days, I’d be like, I’m going to make it somehow, some way. I just don’t know (how) yet.”
On Saturday, he will put all doubts to rest when he receives his Tech diploma at the school’s commencement exercises at McCamish Pavilion. He’ll be one of 65 current and former Jackets athletes who will receive degrees this weekend, including a number of former teammates such as All-ACC guard Parker Braun and 2018 team captains TaQuon Marshall and Brant Mitchell.
Gray described himself as “relieved” that he was at last graduating from Tech, wearing the battle scars of quizzes, midterms and exams. Gray said that he needed only to look at the first question of a test to know if he was going to pass or fail. How often had he been dismayed by that first question?
“It happened quite a few times,” he said. “But you know, I got through it, though.”
In fairness to Gray, he didn’t make it easy on himself in the classroom. Even before his medical issues took him off the field after three seasons, Gray had decided to pursue a concentration in information-technology management. Gray’s academic advisor, Brandon Pottebaum, said that it is “hands down” among the more difficult concentrations within the business school and the one least pursued by football players majoring in business.
Pottebaum recalled a meeting with Gray and his father, Allen, when A.J. declared that, after looking at the job market, he wanted to get the IT concentration.
“He wanted to challenge himself,” Pottebaum said. “He could have definitely chosen a lot of easier routes.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for computer and information technology jobs was $86,320 as of May 2018.
“He knows, if I can figure out how to do this, I can set myself up,” Pottebaum said. “And he did.”
Last summer, Pottebaum presented Gray his options for his final semester. There were three courses he needed to take to earn the IT concentration – business programming, database management and project management. There were easier options that would have still enabled him to graduate with a business degree, but without a concentration.
“He said, ‘Hey, let’s go for it,’” Pottebaum said. “He never backed down from it.”
It led him to the internship he has had since late February at the Atlanta Airport Terminal Company. Connected by former Tech quarterback Tevin Washington, Gray wrote an email to AATC president and CEO Kofi Smith, himself a former Tech football player.
Smith was so taken by Gray’s story, not to mention his offer to work for free, that Smith created a work co-op program for Gray. (Smith has made it a paid internship.) Working 12 hours a week, Gray has learned 46 IT systems and applications and developed familiarity with the organization from an IT standpoint. He also was given the task of developing a new brochure for the airport chapel. Smith said that Gray has done well and has a grand vision for his career.
“I think of A.J. as a beautiful canvas that we can really start painting on to turn into a beautiful picture,” Smith said. “He has what it takes.”
Gray’s internship has gone so well, in fact, that he will elevate his internship to 40 hours a week after graduation while he looks for a full-time job. In the spirit of a young man who doesn’t back down, Gray will start Monday, two days after graduation.
“I don’t need a break,” he said. “Do as much as I can while I’m young. I’m a big believer (in that).”
Moreover, Smith said that if the AATC board approves proposed changes in the organizational structure, there could be a full-time job in Gray’s future. Smith said that the AATC has had an internship program since 2015, but has never hired someone out of the program. Gray would be the first.
“We’re that impressed with him,” he said.
Gray served an internship of a different sort last fall, helping out the Tech coaching staff as a student assistant. While appreciative of the opportunity, he realized that coaching was not the route he wanted to take.
He didn’t want to put to waste the degree he had worked so hard to earn. He also didn’t like the job insecurity and uncertainties in future income in coaching. He also got a good look at the life of a graduate assistant – his likely next step in coaching.
“I can’t describe the amount of respect I have for GA’s,” Gray said. “Most people don’t know what they go through.”
It is a testament to Gray that last week, when the NFL draft took place, he gave nary a thought to the fact that that could well have been his moment if not for his medical condition. He has instead moved on from football and has visions for a stable job, a two-story home and a Ford Raptor truck in the driveway.
A.J. Gray’s next climb starts Monday.
Said Pottebaum, “I think he’s ready for it.”
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