Dinner tradition built unity for Marysville Pilchuck football team

Every Sunday there is a tradition at Alex Gray’s house.

What started as a dinner for the Marysville Pilchuck High football team has evolved into a weekly family dinner where the Gray family invites friends and family to come spend time together and eat good food.

Last Sunday was a particularly special dinner. It turned into a graduation party for three MP players who aren’t quite done with their prep football careers. Gray, Chris Jones and Dante Fields will represent Marysville Pilchuck on the West squad in the annual East/West All-Star football game Friday at 7 p.m. at Lions Field in Moses Lake.

“We started it so just anybody that wants to come by and can stop by and eat,” Fields said. “It gets everybody together to have some fun. It’s a really good time.”

“Honestly, I don’t remember how that started,” Gray said. “It just kind of did. One week we just said, ‘Let’s have dinner together’ and invited some friends over. Then we did it again the next week.”

The origin of the dinner appears to be a couple of years ago when the Gray family hosted a team dinner for the Marysville Pilchuck football team. Afterwards, Alex’s mother, Che-Mai Gray, chatted with Dante’s mother, Angelique Fields, who suggested the two families should try the impromptu dinner every week.

And a tradition was born.

Every Sunday since that team dinner two years ago, the Grays and the Fields families — who happen to be next door neighbors — have gathered together for family dinners.

“It always seems to work,” Angelique Fields said. “Even when things are busy it seems to always work out. And there’s always enough food. We never run out.”

It’s often not just members of the two families who wander in the door. The dinner is an open invitation to friends as well, and averages about 15-20 people, although it has had anywhere from eight guests to about 40. It begins around 6 p.m. and includes games — basketball and whiffle ball are popular summer activities — for all to take part in.

The menu varies, but according to Fields, her husband’s fried chicken is one of the more popular requests.

“It’s not stressful. It’s amazing,” Che-Mai Gray said. “Some days, you’re not sure you want to clean the house and do the cooking. But by the time people start coming it’s just such a great community. It’s great. There’s friendship and support and it’s just good to know everyone’s there for you.”

Everyone came to celebrate Fields, Jones and Gray last Sunday as they celebrated their graduation from Marysville Pilchuck High School. The trio plays one more football game as high schoolers and are looking forward to wearing red and white, Marysville Pilchuck’s colors, one last time.

“It’s really exciting and humbling feeling,” Jones said. “You don’t ever think you’ll get selected for an all-state game when you’re out working hard in the summertime. … I was kind of in disbelief, but at the same time I felt I deserved it and was happy for the chance.”

Fields is excited at the opportunity to play with his two teammates one last time.

“Our families are really close so it’s kind of cool that we get to go down together,” he said. “I’m really excited. It’s really cool to get to go with two other guys.”

Said Jones: “I’m glad that I get to go with these guys. It just makes it better that we can all share it together.”

The trio helped lead Marysville Pilchuck High to the 3A state football quarterfinals the past two seasons, while establishing the Tomahawks as one of the strongest programs in Washington.

“Honestly, nothing can compare to MP football,” Fields said. “Football has been the best experience, hands down, in my high school career. It’s kind of sad, but I’m honestly just so excited for it — to go play my last high school game.”

Marysville Pilchuck head coach Brandon Carson was thrilled that his three players were selected for the West squad.

“We were thoroughly excited that they made it,” Carson said. “They don’t play positions that get a lot of recognition but they were probably amongst the best at their position in the league. … They all work really hard. They did the things that you want your football players to do. This is their reward. They’re reaping the benefits of not only their natural ability but their hard work.”

Two of the three will continue playing football after high school. Fields at Central Washington University and Jones for the Red Raiders, a local junior college football team. Gray was originally committed to Central Washington University, before deciding to stay in the area and play baseball for Everett Community College.

Gray said baseball is his “first love” and the sport he wants to pursue. However, he did get a bit nostalgic early last week when he went to pick up his pads for the game.

“I was like, ‘Oh wow. This is the last time I’m going to wear these,’” Gray said. “… It’s going to be a blast.”

Gray and Fields, who grew up as good friends living next door to each other, welcomed Jones with open arms when he moved to Washington before his junior year. With his family returning to Georgia this summer, Jones is going to live in a spare room at the Gray house with Alex and his family.

“Really my only family here are these guys,” Jones said.

Each player has a goal for their final high school game. Gray, an all-Wesco 3A North first-team linebacker who had six interceptions last season, wants to “get one more pick” before he’s done. Jones, who at one point last season led the state in punt return yards and was an all-Wesco 3A North first-team kick returner, wants to score one more touchdown — ideally on a punt return. And Fields, a first-team all-league selection at defensive line, just “wants to show what I can do against the best athletes in the state.”

After the game a lot will change for Jones, Fields and Gray, but one thing will remain constant: family dinners.

“We have no plans to stop,” Che-Mai Gray said. “Our big kid might be going away but there’s enough kids and friends around here that we have no plans to stop.”

Added Angelique Fields: “We will keep on going. People are just used to coming. We still have kids that go to college that will come home on the weekends and stop by for dinner. I don’t think it will be in jeopardy at all. We’ll be fine. We’ve got to eat.”

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