ARLINGTON, Texas -- The final game of Johnathan Gray's storied high school career played out much like a sappy love story.
Scene: Class 4A Division II Texas state championship game in front of 43,359 fans at Cowboys Stadium.
Predictable plot line: Gray, the nation’s top running back and one of the best running backs in the history of high school football, entered the game one touchdown away from breaking the national touchdown record of 204 he shared with Michael Hart (Nedrow, N.Y., 2000-03). He had five last week and a combined 12 touchdowns in his previous two state title games. Gray and the record seemed destined for each other.
Obstacles to overcome: Aledo’s opponent, Manvel, came in with a 15-0 record and was allowing only 162 rushing yards per game in the postseason. The Mavericks were led by FBS recruit Taiwan Johnson, who checks in at 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds.
Suspense: Gray had to be tended to for a brief moment in the first half after he dinged up his right shoulder. He walked off just fine but hadn’t scored to that point.
More suspense: Gray led Aledo into the redzone three times with runs of 43, 50 and 33 yards. The Bearcats scored touchdowns every time but he was never the one to score. Would he ever?
Predictable finish: Sooner than later he was going to find his way in.
The part in the movie where the guy matriculates through rush-hour traffic and gets to the airport just before his girlfriend’s plane takes off had to be included in this script too, right?
Indeed. And it happened just as you’d expect, with Gray breaking two tackles then using his breakaway speed to beat the final defender to the goal line to finish off a 36-yard touchdown run with 6:49 to play. It gave Aledo a 42-28 lead in a game it wound up winning 49-28.
“It was just a hard run,” said Gray, the Gatorade National Football Player of the Year. “The team looked at me and said, ‘Hey, we need to get you in the endzone.’ The guys got a great push and we got in. It means a lot. It means that our team has worked that much harder than any other team.”
Gray, who is always quick to deflect praise to his teammates, celebrated like a player who has broken a record or two before -- by not celebrating at all. He was more concerned with getting the victory, which at the time was still not a given.
“Our No. 1 goal is to win football games, and if Johnathan breaks a record that’s great,” Aledo coach Tim Buchanan said. “If Johnathan would have broke that record and we don’t win that game, he is going to be the most disappointed kid on the field. Now 20 to 30 years from now it might not seem that way. I guarantee you he wants that ring a lot more than he wants that record. Am I right?”
“Oh yeah I do,” Gray responded.
It was the only touchdown he scored all game, which brought his career points total 1,232. Had he scored two more times he would have tied Hart for the most career points scored.
One more touchdown would have given him the national single-season record for all-purpose touchdowns. But he’ll gladly accept a tie with T.A. McLendon of Albemarle, N.C., who scored 71 touchdowns in 2001.
As the credits rolled on Gray’s day, with cameras following his every step and congratulatory handshakes and hugs coming from every direction, Gray made his way over to his father, James Gray, for a brief moment. The two hugged before Gray made his way back with his teammates.
James Gray, a former running back for Texas Tech, could hardly talk he was so choked up.
“I’m speechless,” said James, with tears streaming down his face. “He had a great career. I am happy for him. It’s amazing when you work hard individually and together as a team, as you can see you can win three in a row. I’ve doubted him all year. It’s just amazing what you can do.”
Gray finished with a ho-hum 241 yards on 30 carries. It wasn’t quite the 325-yard, eight-touchdown effort he had in last season’s title game against La Marque. Or even the 252-yard, four-touchdown game he had in the championship game against Brenham as a sophomore.
But it was still a performance worthy of a handshake and an appreciative nod from Texas co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite and offensive line coach Stacy Searels after the game.
Shortly before that brief encounter, the two coaches congratulated Buchanan, who jokingly told them, “He’s all yours now. Don’t screw him up.”
Even if they tried, that just seems impossible to do.