By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
Arlington’s Max Gray showed up to a recent interview wearing a T-shirt with this slogan:
“When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe.”
It didn’t take long to realize just how much those words mean to Gray.
Prior to his sophomore season, Gray was attending a football camp at the University of Puget Sound and was in good spirits after an impressive showing — but everything changed in a matter of seconds.
“A pass came to me and I dove for it and I knew right when I landed that there was something wrong,” Gray said.
Initially, doctors told Gray it was just a sprain and after taking it easy for about a week, he continued to prepare for the upcoming season. As he worked, the pain persisted.
“It was probably the worst pain of my life,” Gray said. “It got to the point where I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t lie down, I couldn’t relax, and I couldn’t sit.”
Gray visited another doctor, who broke the bad news.
“He basically sat me down and said, ‘Max, you’ve had a fractured back this whole time,’” Gray said.
The doctor continued by telling Gray he would have to wear a back brace and likely would never play football again. The news devastated Gray, who said he became depressed as he watched his peers play the game he loved, frustrated that he could not join them.
Gray stumbled upon a motivational video on Facebook that he clicked on. That click put Gray on the road to recovery.
“Instantly, I knew this video was going to change my life,” he said.
The video, How Bad Do You Want it, starred Giavanni Ruffin, a former East Carolina football player.
One of the sayings used in the video is the slogan on Gray’s T-shirt.
Fueled by a desire to get back on the football field, Gray started rigorous training. He made it back for the track season of his sophomore year, but in the summer the pain had increased and his confidence subsequently decreased.
Then he got another pick-me-up from his new role model.
“I got a text that said, ‘hey, I’m in Seattle, do you want to meet up?” Gray recalled.
Gray didn’t recognize the number and asked who it was.
He got a return text, “This is Giavanni Ruffin.”
“I was shocked, completely shocked,” Gray said. “My inspiration and my role model had just texted me.”
The two met, Ruffin signed Gray’s back brace and the two have stayed in touch ever since.
Meeting Ruffin was the extra push Gray needed to get back on the field.
“Without that, I don’t know where I’d be,” he said.
Gray returned to the Eagles’ football team for his junior season and was very productive, though not a standout compared to receivers throughout the state. But he proved by playing an entire season that injury was behind him. He is pain free today, he said.
Gray has attended several camps this summer that would suggest that 2013 could be his breakout season. His busy summer started in early June at the Puget Sound Elite Camp. The following weekend he attended the Northwest Elite Camp in Mercer Island along with more than 700 other athletes. At the end of the day, Gray was named one of the MVP’s at the wide receiver position.
“That’s when I got a lot more exposure,” he said.
Then it was off to Oregon for the Nike SPARQ combine and the Nike Football Training Camp at Autzen stadium in Eugene.
“That was the biggest camp I’ve ever been to,” Gray said. “It had the most competition and a crazy environment just being in that huge stadium.”
Two weeks later Gray attended a camp at Portland State University and finished up with the Northwest College Showcase the following weekend at Interlake High School.
Gray was determined to have another great weekend at his final camp.
“I knew it was the last camp I was going to (for the summer),” he said. “All of the other camps I was giving it my all, but this one I was like, ‘I’ve got to ball out, I’ve got to do everything I can.”
Gray told his quarterback, “every time you throw it, it’s going to be a touchdown.” He then backed up his promise by finding the end zone on four consecutive catches — and turning a few heads in the process.
In addition to the camps, Gray has spent a lot of time this summer working with former Washington State University football and basketball player Michael Bush.
“He doesn’t let me get away with doing something wrong,” Gray said. “We will do it over and over and over again until I can’t get it wrong.”
Arlington head coach Greg Dailer said Gray’s success this summer has given the young man a surge in confidence.
“That’s the biggest change I’ve seen between last year and this year,” Dailer said. “He’s had a lot of success at those camps and I think that has helped with his overall confidence.”
That confidence might be enough to turn a very good receiver into one of the best in Washington State.
“Last year, he was a great receiver for us, but nothing eye-popping in terms of numbers,” Dailer said. “We are hoping it will be a breakout year for him.”
That kind of season also would go a long way toward helping Gray accomplish his other goal of getting an offer to play college football. Aside from improving to help the Eagles this season, Gray said he hopes some of his performances in this year’s summer camps have him on some colleges’ radar.
“My plan was just to work on my routes,” Gray said. “I know what college coaches really look at is one-on-ones because they want to see what you can do when someone is in your face pressing you. I train a lot for what I do. I was just training every day trying to get noticed.”
As for this season, Gray said the goal is to help Arlington win the Wesco championship and to make it further in the playoffs than it did a season ago, when the Eagles scored a stunning 21-14 upset over No. 6 Kentwood to advance to state.
The same kind of belief that helped Gray return from his injury is what helped the Eagles pull off what almost no one outside of their locker room thought they could.
“We won the game before kickoff,” Gray said. “We saw them and they were just kind of moping around not worrying about anything. We won the game and we knew it. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we had to do it.
“Once we finished that game we felt like we could beat anyone, but we didn’t realize how good Camas really was.”
Camas defeated the Eagles 62-6 in the first round of the 4A state playoffs. If the Eagles move beyond that point this season, Gray will likely play a big role.
“He is going to be our go-to receiver, so we are going to expect big plays out of him,” Dailer said. “You can’t put too much pressure on a kid, you just kind of have to let the game come to him, but I think when we need big catches that he will be the guy we need to go to.”
Aaron Lommers covers prep sports for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.