Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.|
Finally past injuries that limited him in the past, West Morgan High graduate Eric Gray played in all 13 Alabama games this season and started against LSU and Auburn.
Finding his way with Bama
After overcoming hamstring injuries, West Morgan grad Eric Gray shows Tide fans what kind of player he is
By Josh Cooper
email@example.com · 340-2460
Alabama's Eric Gray normally doesn't shoot the gap on kickoffs.
He usually waits in the open holes, hoping to stop the return man if he breaks through. In those situations, Alabama uses him often as one of the last lines of defense.
On Dec. 28 in the fourth quarter of Alabama's 34-31 Independence Bowl loss to Oklahoma State, something told Gray not to be patient. Something told him to take that chance.
The Tide had just scored a touchdown to close the score to 31-24, and Gray knew his team needed a big play. On the ensuing kickoff, he went for the hole to try to nail the runner.
When Gray encountered Cowboys kick returner Grant Jones, Gray's helmet struck the ball, popping it loose. Alabama recovered and eventually scored a tying touchdown.
"I didn't even know what happened," Gray said. "I just heard the crowd cheering. I saw (Alabama teammate) Matt Caddell, and he said the ball came out and we started celebrating. It was one of those moments I will never forget. It was a chance to help our team in a positive way, and at that time we really needed it."
Shooting the gap was a risk — if Gray had missed, he wouldn't have had anyone behind him covering his back.
It was a chance that he couldn't take years ago.
As the West Morgan High graduate and 2002 Decatur Daily Class 1A-3A player of the year heads into his senior season this fall, he took a moment recently to look back on his collegiate career.
He couldn't do that without thinking of a major setback he suffered early on.
Following Gray's redshirt year in 2003, the pain started.
During two-a-days that summer, Gray felt a rip in his right hamstring.
An intense competitor, Gray wanted a chance to compete for plenty of playing time as a defensive back, but the pain wouldn't let him. He wanted to develop into a more complete player, but instead, his injury limited him to time-consuming rehabilitation.
And even when he thought it was over, he felt the same tinge behind his right leg in the summer of 2005.
"When you're an athlete and your hamstring is screwed up, there's not a whole lot you can do," said Anthony Madison, a former Alabama defensive back and close friend of Gray's.
"It is like a horse with a broken leg."
In the midst of Gray's hamstring problems, he and Madison began having troubles of another kind — they struggled with their faith.
Like most typical college students they took part in the collegiate lifestyle — the drinking, the partying, going out to clubs on weekends. They said they never took it to an extreme level, but they went out enough to question what they were doing.
It all came to a stop when Gray, the son of a pastor, was helping Madison move out of his apartment during the summer of 2005.
"He was like, you know what, I need to take God more seriously," said Madison, now a Pittsburgh Steelers player. "I was like, you know what. I need to take God more seriously, too."
Gray began going to Greater New Testament Church in Tuscaloosa.
While there, he realized that he needed to roll with whatever punches football doled out. He understood that he wasn't going to be healthy all the time and that the best way to combat injuries was not to fight them, but deal with them.
"I learned a lot about what was inside of me, stuff I didn't know I had, to just keep on working, no matter what the expectation," Gray said. "I didn't come here to go through injury after injury. I came here with a purpose."
That purpose was tested when he felt a familiar of soreness in his leg before the 2005 season.
But with his renewed faith guiding him, the 6-foot-2, 188-pound Gray worked through the injury without any doubts.
He missed the season-opening game against Middle Tennessee State but didn't dwell on it. He wound up playing 115 snaps in eight games, becoming an important part of the playing rotation.
This past off-season, Gray started working out almost immediately after spring drills. He wanted to make sure his body was in prime condition for the start of the 2006 season. He did not want to feel the pain again.
"I knew down the line it would keep my body in line," Gray said. "And as you could see, as the season progressed, I picked up more playing time."
This past year, Gray was used on special teams and primarily as the extra defensive back in Alabama's nickel package.
He played in all 13 games and finished with 17 tackles. Toward the end of the season, he started against LSU and Auburn, and his 310 snaps for the season more than doubled the 241 he had in his previous two years combined.
Gray even earned a new nickname from former Alabama defensive backs coach Chris Ball.
"His nickname is the Predator," Ball said, referring to the alien villain in the 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. "He has those long dreadlocks now. I told him he looks like the Predator in his face."
While the nickname was sort of tongue in cheek, it had a halfway serious meaning to Gray.
He said he wants to be the player stalking his prey out on the field. With his body feeling healthy, Gray feels he can do that next year.
"Eric not playing was because he couldn't stay healthy — not because he wasn't good enough," Madison said. "It's just at a point where he has such a strong faith and he believed and kept it going. If he had not had that faith, he would have lost hope and given up."
Eric Gray at a glance
Graduated from West Morgan High. As a senior in 2002, he rushed for 1,965 yards and 21 carries. On defense, he had 30 tackles and four interceptions as the Rebels finished 11-1.
Had 4,504 rushing yards for his career and 50 touchdowns. Also had 175 tackles and 13 interceptions.
Made all-state in 2001 and ‘02, and earned The Daily’s Class 1A-3A player of the year award in 2002.
Signed with Alabama as a defensive back and redshirted in 2003.
Played in nine games in 2004 and made four tackles.
Played in eight games in 2005 and made six tackles.
As a junior in 2006, played in all 13 games, starting against LSU and Auburn. Made 17 tackles for the season, including a career-high six in the Tide’s loss to Oklahoma State in the Independence Bowl.
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