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VOL. 132 | NO. 149 | Friday, July 28, 2017

Memphian Donald Gray’s Journey To Being MSU’s No. 1 Receiver

By Don Wade

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When Donald Gray was just a boy, not yet 10 years old, he played in a church basketball league. His father, Donald Gray Sr., remembers that his son had a good time playing with the other kids. It was fun, something to do.

But it was not a passion.

The passion came when one day young Donald and a friend did what his father had told him never to do: cross busy South Mendenhall Road without adult supervision.

“He and his friend got over to Fox Meadows and saw all these boys practicing football on a field,” the elder Gray said. “He came home all out of breath, ‘Mama, I need you to sign these papers! I gotta play football!’”

Mississippi State senior Donald Gray (6), a White Station High School product, is the Bulldogs’ No. 1 wide receiver this season. Gray says he learned a lot from former WR Fred Ross, adding, “There’s not a day that goes by you shouldn’t do something to perfect your craft, run better routes.”  (AP File Photo/Jim Lytle)

And so it began.

Today Gray, who graduated White Station High School, is about to start his second, and senior, season as a wide receiver at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs’ all-time leading receiver, Fred Ross, is gone and trying to make the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent.

Gray, who caught 41 passes for 709 yards and five touchdowns last season (he ranked fifth in the SEC in with 17.3 yards per catch) now steps up to be the No. 1 receiver for quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and coach Dan Mullen, and to take on a leadership role for a corps of mostly freshmen and sophomores.

“I learned a lot (from Ross),” Gray said. “There’s not a day that goes by you shouldn’t do something to perfect your craft, run better routes. I still look to him for help.”

Mostly, however, Gray has been big on helping himself. Out of high school he failed to qualify academically and had to detour to Copiah-Lincoln Community College. An injury cost him his first season, but he became a junior college All-American as a sophomore when he caught 55 passes for 989 yards and 10 TDs.

He got his academics in order, too, and now at MSU already has earned his undergraduate degree in sociology.

“I’m very proud of that,” said his father, who works as an investigator for the Memphis Fire Department.

But let’s go back to childhood. Because it is there that you find the clues – his determination, his single-mindedness in purpose. Like the time his dad gave young Donald a bicycle with training wheels, telling him to get used to the feel of things and then he would teach him to ride on two wheels.

“He couldn’t wait for me to do that,” Gray Sr. said. “He was in the garage getting the pliers and taking the training wheels off.”

His first solo ride did not go well. He crashed, cut his chin, and Dad had to take him to the emergency room for stitches.

Still, he was undeterred.

“I can honestly say he learned to ride it on his own,” his father said.

Then there was the time when he was just 4 years old and was fastened into the car seat in Dad’s Isuzu Rodeo. Dad stopped at Grandma’s house and ran inside for just a minute to pick up something.

“I left the car running and while I was in there I heard the engine revving,” Dad said. “He had climbed out of his car seat and he was flooring it. But he didn’t know to put it into gear.”

Close call then, a story that brings a smile now.

Meanwhile, on the football field, Gray has easily moved from one gear to another. But after last season ended, Mullen made clear that Gray must keep going – that now is the time to floor it, if you will.

“You’re going to have to do something special,” Mullen said. “So you better become desperate every single day in how hard you work. (The NFL) is not going to just take the best receiver off every team. They want the best receiver in the Southeastern Conference.

“So don’t just compare yourself to guys that are on our roster,” the coach said, “compare yourself to everybody in the conference. Compare yourself to everybody in the country. Compare yourself to people already established at the next level.”

Gray heard him loud and clear.

“I feel like I’m working to be a complete receiver,” he said. “Hand placement catching the ball, coming in and out of breaks, knocking the DB’s hands down when at the line, getting off the jam.”

Really, it’s no different than when he was a kid. He can’t afford to wait. If that means running across a busy street, so be it. If that means finding Dad’s pliers and stripping a bicycle of its training wheels, so be it.

And if that means practicing longer and harder than all those guys you’re competing against, well, that’s fine, too. At this point, Mullen says he’s used to looking out his window and seeing Gray catching balls from the JUGS machine, working on refining his routes.

“One of the first guys in the building, last one to leave,” he said. “Every single day. Working to make sure he’s uncovered every stone to develop himself to be the best player he can be.”

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