Gray, a 6-foot-1, 165-pound sophomore surpassed those of his coach and himself when he led a young Rock Bridge team to a 6-4 record this year and completed 54 percent of his passes for 2,029 yards and 16 touchdowns.
The numbers are staggering considering that when former Rock Bridge quarterback Chase Patton was the same age, he completed 42 percent of his passes for 949 yards and five touchdowns. Patton started the final eight games of his sophomore season after splitting time in the first two with senior Andrew St. John.
Patton finished his Rock Bridge career as the all-time school leader in career passing yards (6,521), completions (431) and touchdowns (58). As a starter, he led the Bruins to three consecutive winning seasons.
Rock Bridge coach A.J. Ofodile said the comparison between the two quarterbacks is flawed. The Bruins are running the ball less than they did during Patton’s sophomore year. Ofodile also emphasized the two were different quarterbacks in terms of physical stature and the way they handle the duties of the position.
Despite the differences he is excited about the potential Gray has shown.
“I think he’s well on his way to being an excellent quarterback,” Ofodile said. “As far as productivity, I’m blessed to have two extremely productive quarterbacks that get me through a six-year span.”
Gray proved to be worth the risk Ofodile took when he made him quarterback despite his inexperience. He had not thrown a single pass at the varsity level but was nonetheless thrust into the spotlight as Patton’s successor.
Ofodile said he felt confident that Gray learned a lot from watching Patton and would be capable of leading the Bruins.
“I think he realized what the potential for the position was by looking at Chase,” Ofodile said. “There was no better role model than Chase as a person and a quarterback. So I think he absorbed a lot. I think he learned a lot and he definitely benefited from the relationship.”
Gray said that trying to step in for Patton was difficult in the beginning.
“At first, it was kinda tough,” he said. “There were high expectations after Chase broke every record ever at Rock Bridge passing-wise. You just gotta kinda come in and do what you can do and not try to worry about that and just play within yourself. That’s what I think I did. I think most of the pressure is gone now.”
Gray began his freshman year as a wide receiver at Rock Bridge and watched Patton lead the Bruins to an 8-2 record and a North Central Missouri Conference title in 2003.
While attending a summer football camp at Missouri, Gray met Skip Stitzell, who runs an offseason clinic for young Missouri quarterbacks. Stitzell has attended more than 15 football clinics since 1997, including camps held by Oklahoma, Iowa, Nike and the St. Louis Rams.
Gray worked with Stitzell the last part of the summer hoping to be ready to lead Rock Bridge to a strong season and help fill the void left by Patton’s graduation.
In his first appearance as a starting quarterback, Gray’s 5-yard touchdown pass with 9:11 left gave Rock Bridge a 7-0 victory against the Marshall Owls.
Gray grew up in a family that was obsessed with football. He said that in his house, football is almost as important as going to church. It wasn’t long before he decided he wanted to play.
“Just growing up and seeing them on TV and stuff, it looks like it’d be so much fun,” he said. “You just kinda want do what those other guys are doing. You find out how fun it really is.”
Gray began playing in sixth grade in the Columbia Youth Football League and played nearly every position.
He first played quarterback on the junior varsity team at Rock Bridge and has developed into one of the area’s leading passers.
Despite not coaching him during the high school season, Stitzell often attends Rock Bridge games and tells Gray what he thinks of his performance.
“Week to week, I watch him get better,” Stitzell said.
“I know a lot of people, myself included, tried to prepare him for all the pitfalls that he was going to run into, but he seemed to work through them. I was very proud to watch him learn from his mistakes, better himself, and also watch him become more and more of a leader for the team.”
Gray said the most difficult thing he had to deal with during the season was throwing interceptions.
“It’s kinda rough when you throw a couple interceptions in a game,” Gray said. “You’re mad about it, but you just gotta forget about it.”
Gray threw 12 interceptions this year, including four against top-ranked Webb City and Hickman.
His best game came on Oct. 8 against Francis Howell Central. He threw for 290 yards and five touchdowns in a 52-25 rout.
Gray is intent on improving as a player. He has attended football camps at several universities, including Purdue, Kansas and Missouri. He expects to attend more this summer, including camps at Louisiana State, Florida State and Georgia to help improve his game and gain more experience.
Gray said he hopes to continue playing after he graduates Rock Bridge.
“Ever since I was a little kid, you always think about playing college football and pro football,” he said. “I’m just trying to pursue my dream, and hopefully it happens.”