Georgia Tech’s A.J. Gray eager to follow big sister’s example

Just as this season, A.J. Gray (15) makes himself known to North Carolina in 2016. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Credit: Grant Halverson

Credit: Grant Halverson

Georgia Tech is off this week, but that hardly means safety A.J. Gray will go without the caffeine rush of competition.

The instincts that guided him to the two-interception afternoon against North Carolina a week earlier should not grow rusty and dull. Because he’s returning home here to this small town 60 miles west of Augusta, where for the first time in many months his entire family will convene. That means he’ll be getting tossed into one of the more vibrantly competitive environments imaginable.

There will be some fierce video gaming going on, he knows. With one stipulation. “My sister can’t play herself. I told her that. It’s only fair because she knows herself, right?” Gray said.

This year they included WNBA players in the NBA Live 18 game, and how complete would that roster be without the current league rookie of the year, Allisha Gray?

Meet the Grays, such pillars in Washington County and its eponymous high school that they really should get equal billing on the signs around town:

The parents Allen and Annie Gray, married 27 years, one of those couples that has put on more miles ferrying children to practice and tournaments than a FedEx truck does in a lifetime of delivering L.L. Bean khakis. For the past 10 years, Allen has been the principal at Washington County High.

Eldest brother Marlo, who went off and played his football at Troy before coming back to teach. Where else but at the home of the Golden Hawks, Washington County?

Sister Allisha, who in the past seven months won a national championship at South Carolina, was drafted fourth overall by the Dallas Wings and got herself selected WNBA rookie of the year. Rather than play overseas this season, she is finishing her journalism degree in Columbia and catching her breath.

A year younger than Allisha is 21-year-old Allen Gray Jr. (A.J. in your program), a junior safety at Tech whose athletic gifts, like catnip to an old manx, make the usually deadpan Paul Johnson get a little frisky. Just a year ago the coach proclaimed that Gray has “the opportunity to be one of the all-time great players at Georgia Tech.”

One more Gray is coming along, too, Ashley, an eighth grader still deciding how to focus her many interests.

From sibling to sibling these kids have passed along the baton of achievement. Who has time for some of the usual petty bickering or jealousies when just keeping up is such an exhausting chore?

Allisha Gray pulls up for a shot for the Dallas Wings. She averaged 13 points a game on the way to being named the WNBA's rookie of the year . (Layne Murdoch/NBAE)

In A.J.’s case, this has meant some interesting listening when he testifies to how his sister was his athletic role model. It’s a bit of gender bending in which he happily, unabashedly participates.

When they played rec-league flag football as tots, it was Ashley who was the quarterback. “She was so good the boys got mad and started tackling her. She was the fastest thing out there,” A.J. said.

Just once, when playing one of their constant games of pickup basketball, A.J. got so frustrated with losing that he pushed Allisha to the ground. That resulted in a spanking from mom that remains to this day No. 1 in the family discipline rankings.

In every other way, the brother and sister closest in age were engaged in continual little games of their own invention.

“In everything we did we competed,” Allisha said. “Pour a cup of milk – see who finished the fastest. Who could eat their bowl of cereal the fastest.”

Their one-on-one basketball games stretched on for hours and often included all kinds of imaginary playoff scenarios.

“It taught both of us how to be tough,” Allisha said. “Playing against the boys definitely toughened me up. And from a mental aspect, I made him tougher.”

Playing basketball as well as football at Washington County, A.J. could have been an easy target. Catcalls of, “Your sister’s better,” hung ripe within easy reach. But he said he didn’t hear that much because they knew it wouldn’t work on him. “I’m happy to see her do good things,” he said

When Allisha signed her scholarship with North Carolina (she subsequently transferred to South Carolina), dad whispered in A.J.’s ear, “OK, now what are you going to do?” Those words echoed in the boy’s head – he can still hear them. What A.J. would do is commit to Tech as a junior and finish out a highly decorated four years as a quarterback/defensive back at a school that takes its football seriously. Do the names Takeo Spikes, Robert Edwards or Brandon Watts ring familiar?

“If there’s a Mount Rushmore of Washington County, he’s up on it,” the Golden Hawks longtime football coach, Joel Ingram, said of A.J.

Each step of the way for A.J. came with an experienced guide.

In the principal's office at Washington County High School, Allen Gray is never far from the reminders of his children's accomplishments there. (Steve Hummer/AJC)

“He got to see the way his sister approached things as far as getting her grades, being on time, being coachable,” said Allen Gray, from behind the principal’s desk at Washington County High. “He watched the whole recruiting process through her. Everything he did he was able to watch her go through it before he had to go through it. Even when she blew out her knee (before her senior year in high school), watching how she navigated through that.”

A.J. currently is that rarest of BCS football player who is a faithful consumer of the WNBA League Pass. Didn’t miss a Wings game all season.

Big sis may have been hogging the headlines lately. But too many more games like his one against the Tar Heels on Saturday, and A.J. will close the gap. And with those kind of performances, defense isn’t so much a dirty word at Tech these days.

“He was dialed in,” Johnson said. “There were several other plays you couldn’t see that he took away what the quarterback wanted to do on some of their run-pass reads and got underneath receivers that they didn’t throw (to). He played really well.”

As well as sharing quiet, unassuming personalities – “They’re as humble as the breeze,” Ingram said – sister and brother have in common a most useful athletic trait. As was demonstrated by Saturday’s game against the Tar Heels, A.J. is gifted with an innate sense of anticipation. As for Allisha, she finished tied for seventh in the WNBA in steals (1.5 per game).

As they both employ their common gifts to their separate pursuits, big sis is sensing a subtle change in the dynamic between the two.

“He always embraced it, he thought it was cool when someone would say to him, ‘Oh, you’re Allisha Gray’s brother,’” she said.

“It made him work harder so it would be like, ‘Oh, you’re A.J. Gray’s sister.’ I kind of get some of that now. And that’s cool.”

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