From the endless plains of Odessa, to the imposing mountains of El Paso, to the sprawling cityscape of Dallas, Texas has a reputation for its size. The sheer area of the state, more than 268,000 square miles, is greater than all but 39 countries. Its population, more than 25 million, is equivalent to that of Ohio, Virginia and Colorado combined. It has oversized everything: culture, food, personality.
Most of all, though, Texas is devoted to football. The Cowboys -- America's Team -- play in a palace better suited for a Roman emperor. The Longhorns -- the NCAA's highest-grossing athletic department -- recently launched a $300 million TV network. Even at the high school level, unending obsession reigns. Books, movies and television shows, in some cases all three (Friday Night Lights), revolve around the game.
Simply put: on the gridiron there's Texas and there's everyone else.
It's no small feat, then, that on Sept. 22, Aledo High senior running back Johnathan Gray became the state's all-time scoring leader. He's racked up 992 career points, shattering the previous mark of 899 set by Sugar Land High's Ken Hall in 1953. He's become a local icon: His sophomore highlight video, posted in March 2010, has accumulated more than 120,000 YouTube views.
Yet for all of his on-field greatness -- which, in many respects, is unparalleled -- his off-field accomplishments are more inspiring.
How? Ask Leah Vann.
Before last November, Vann had met Gray only once, during the previous track season, in the trainer's room. In addition to football, Gray is a standout sprinter, and ran a 10.90 in the 100-meter dash at the 2010 UIL Class 4A Track & Field Regionals. The two chatted briefly. "We had a short, casual conversation," said Leah. "I thought I was the coolest person ever [for having talked to him]."
But that was the extent of it. Gray was an all-everything athlete. Vann a sophomore and diehard fan. In a school of 1,500, they were mere acquaintances.
Within a week, that would forever change.
On Nov. 11, 2010, Vann had a doctor's appointment. She had recently experienced some strange symptoms and wanted to make sure they didn't signal anything serious. She felt short of breath walking down the hall, uncharacteristic for someone who ran varsity track as a freshman. A softball-size bruise lingered on her shin, a baffling remnant that hadn't healed in weeks. She was strikingly pale, and most concerning, consistently lacked energy. "I would get so dizzy and all of a sudden blackout and fall on the floor," she recalled.
She went to take a simple blood test. The results were life-changing.
Vann's white blood cell count was off the charts. She was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), the same type of cancer her father, Barry, died from 10 years earlier. She was rushed to the nearby Cook Children's emergency room, panicking as attempts to contact friends and family -- the ER lacked cell phone service -- repeatedly failed. "I'm freaking out and throwing things and crying," she said. "I'm stuck in the room and I can't tell anybody."
At around 5 p.m., despondent, she resorted to a desperate Facebook status.
I can't believe it guys, but I just found out I have leukemia.
Word spread fast. Vann would immediately start chemotherapy, a grueling six to eight month process. She would miss school indefinitely. But, remarkably, that's not what troubled her most. She would also be forced to miss Aledo's playoff opener against Wyatt High, the first in its quest for a second straight Class 4A title. In the hours after her diagnosis, spread across her hospital bed, she listened to the game -- a 56-7 Bearcats' win -- on the radio.
"I was so dedicated to Aledo football," she said. "That was just something that kept me sane."
Six days later, the team, and its star player, would begin to return the favor.
After practice on Nov. 17, in the week leading up to a second-round bout with Waco, Aledo coach Tim Buchanan organized for each member of the team to sign a football for Vann. It was an effort to brighten her spirits, to show her that Aledo -- and her beloved Bearcats -- cared. A touching gesture, to be certain. But it's fairly commonplace in the sports realm.
What happened next wasn't. Gray and three teammates volunteered to personally deliver the gift.
"We've got 50 seniors on that football team," Buchanan said. "And Johnathan, Matt Bishop, Todd Christian and Michael Mann, four juniors, took it."
It was the start of a beautiful relationship. Gray and Mann continued to come back. They spent hours discussing sports, school and the Aledo dating scene -- "basic teenager talk," Vann said.
Under the unlikeliest circumstances, Gray and Vann became friends.
A month later, on Dec. 17, Aledo challenged La Marque for the 4A Division 2 title in Cowboys Stadium. The game featured two of Texas' premier tailbacks: Gray, who rushed for 3,221 yards and 59 touchdowns in '10, and Tim Wright, who tallied 2,218 and 21 scores. It was a prep football fan's dream, replete with exceptional talent and an extravagant scene.
Nine minutes into the game, leading 7-0, Gray received a handoff from quarterback Matthew Bishop. He circled left, shuffling behind the line of scrimmage. Then he broke upfield. More than 27,000 fans watched as he bolted 40 yards -- untouched -- to the end zone.
Two minutes later, he burst up the right seam for a 66-yard touchdown. Then he found the end zone from two yards out. With 1:28 remaining in the half, he sprinted left, juked a defender and raced 42 yards to pay dirt. In the biggest game of his career, on the biggest stage, he was having the performance of his life.
"It was like they were afraid to tackle him," said Bishop. "They were running the other way."
Gray wasn't finished. After doubling his production in the second half (four more touchdowns of 9, 16, 13 and 54 yards), Gray registered a legendary stat line: 29 carries, 325 yards and eight scores. The eight touchdowns gave him 59 for the season, snapping the Texas single-season mark also held by Ken Hall.
"Going into a state championship game, you're hoping that your team can score three or four touchdowns," said Buchanan. "To think that a kid is gonna score six or more in a state championship is just crazy."
Teammates mobbed the 5-10, 202-pound back after Aledo's 69-34 triumph. Scouts hounded him. Gray remained calm, driven by a little-known inspiration.
"My biggest motivation is this girl, Leah Vann," he said later. "Seeing what she had to go through just touched me in my heart. I battle on the field for it."
As winter turned to spring, with temperatures climbing into the 80s, speculation over which school Gray would commit to ballooned. The state championship served only to heighten expectations, tipping his top three -- Texas, Texas A&M and TCU -- into an unabashed frenzy. "Coaches wanted you to call them every night," he said. "Fans were sending letters. The recruitment process was crazy."
With rumors circulating, Gray had enough. He called a press conference at 9 a.m. on April 22, his 18th birthday, to officially announce his decision.
There was just one conflict: On the same day, the Bearcats were also conducting offseason testing, requiring players to complete 40-yard dashes and open quarter-mile sprints. It allows coaches to gauge the team before spring ball. It's also one of the most grueling sessions of the year.
Just 15 minutes remained until the press conference. Buchanan offered Gray a chance to skip the session, to clean up before addressing the media. He declined. He didn't want to be above the team.
"Most kids would've taken that opportunity," said Buchanan. "Most of them will fake an injury to get out of an open quarter. I gave him an out and he wouldn't take it."
After a hurried shower, still soaked in sweat, Gray finally announced his decision: Texas.
Longhorns' fans fantasized about landing the next Earl Campbell. Aggies' and Horned Frogs' faithful sulked. Leah Vann, a Michigan fan in honor of her father's alma mater, pledged her allegiance to the burnt orange and white.
"I'm gonna have to secretly cheer for Texas," she said. "There's no way I can oppose J-Gray."
Three weeks earlier, Gray had solidified those sentiments. As Vann's condition improved, doctors granted her permission to attend Aledo's home track meet on March 25. There were strict precautions -- she had to wear a mask, limit interaction and sit in the upper box seats, where she'd be less exposed to harmful germs -- but she didn't mind. She teemed with excitement.
When she arrived at Bearcat Stadium, she noticed students wearing ribbons on their left wrists. They were orange, the color of leukemia, signifying that Leah had left cancer. Sherri Mann, Michael's mother, came up with the idea. Nearly everyone on varsity had one.
Then she saw Gray. He was wearing five.
"He's got them all tied around his wrist," she recalled. "He's like, 'I'm wearing these for you.'"
On June 21, 2011, Vann was at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis. She spent the past month there undergoing Natural Killer Cell Transplant, an experimental stem cell procedure. It takes white blood cells from a parent -- Leah's mother, Elizabeth Vann-Stenzler, in this case -- and infuses them intravenously in the patient. The cells then attack the remaining leukemia cells that machines can't detect.
Discovered five years earlier, it's an unproven procedure. But it's safer than the alternative. The other option is a bone-marrow transplant, laden with life-threatening complications; Leah's father died from the procedure in 2000. Understandably, Leah had reservations. "It's such a dangerous and disheartening treatment," she said.
There was one problem. To qualify for an NK Cell Transplant, patients must maintain a percentage of leukemia below 0.01 percent. Despite persistent pleas to send her to Tennessee, Leah's most recent reading registered 0.05 percent. She held out hope. But she was a longshot.
After a week of rigorous tests, doctors took a final reading: 0.00 percent leukemia. Leah had the procedure. She was rid of cancer.
"It was kind of a miracle," she said. "I had done no chemo between those two points."
Following a week of observation, she packed her things, departed for Memphis International Airport and hopped the next flight back to Texas. Her battle -- long, exhaustive and terrifying -- was finally over. "I was crying my eyes out with happiness," she said. "I ran around the airport screaming I was in remission."
Throughout treatment, Vann was a model of courage. She didn't show her brother, Harrison, how she looked bald until three months into chemo. She carefully put on makeup each morning, emulating her pre-cancer routine. She even relearned piano, a skill she neglected once high school sports picked up. She wanted to keep herself occupied, to focus on anything but leukemia.
Visitors, however, became less frequent. As with many cases, the shock factor -- Leah Vann has cancer -- wore off. People resumed life as normal, somehow at terms with a once unfathomable situation.
Not Gray. He made five or six visits after his initial trip, forgoing parties and recruiting events to drive more than 20 miles to Cook Children's. As the adage goes: A little goes a long way.
"Your true friends, the people who really care, continue to visit throughout the whole course of treatment," Vann said. "That's what Johnathan did."
Six games into the 2011 season, Gray continues to torch the competition. He's broken the state's all-time touchdown record, previously held by Cayuga High's Traylon Shead, and is averaging 258 yards per game. Though the Bearcats have struggled -- losing two of their first three to snap a 29-game winning streak -- he's showed no signs of slowing down.
Texas fans remain giddy for his arrival. Malcolm Brown, the Longhorns' freshman phenom out of Cibolo Steele High, has rumbled for 381 yards through five games. A tandem with Gray could produce historic results, a precocious two-pronged attack. Buchanan envisions offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin playing both at once, Brown in the backfield and Gray in the slot. It prompts the question: Who do you stop?
"We're gonna have defensive coordinators goin' crazy," Gray said. "I can't wait to get down there."
In Austin, it's the stuff of dreams. But for Gray, it's a distant goal. His current concern is bettering Aledo football -- and everybody attached to it.
In addition to Vann, Gray has a strong relationship with Brodie Sharp, a 27-year-old Aledo native born with cerebral palsy. A team manager as a student, Brodie remained with the Bearcats following his graduation in 2004. He was promoted to assistant coach two years ago -- an embodiment of the magnanimous culture Buchanan has created -- and even received championship rings for the team's back-to-back titles in '09 and '10. "They said they need me as much as I can be there," he said. "Football allowed me to be part of the community."
During games, Brodie sits on the field, spinning down the sidelines with a water bottle rack welded to his electric wheelchair. It's the only water that Johnathan will drink.
"That's just John," Buchanan said. "He's the type of kid you'd want your daughter to date."
Gray has also remained close with Vann, accompanying her on her daily walk to English class. They gossip about the same seemingly trivial things -- sports, school and dating. It's "teenager talk" all over again.
But it's more than that. It's also a reminder of Gray's character, one that transcends his superstar status and uncommon talent.
"He could've stopped after that first visit," Vann said. "He could've said, 'Oh yeah, I visited Leah.' But, no. He kept coming."
In 2008, Gray was set to start for the freshman team. He would spend a year developing against lesser foes, learning the ins and outs of Aledo's scheme. That plan was derailed once he started making runs better suited for video games: His forward progress stopped, Gray would reverse fields, gallop into the backfield and blow by defenders for a did-you-see-that touchdown. Then he'd do it again. And again.
"He'd outrun everybody, run back 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage and still score," Buchanan recalled. "He could do it on JV, too."
It was an unorthodox strategy, but it worked. And it prompted Buchanan to promote the youngster to varsity. He'd match up with opponents twice as fast. It would force him to learn the mantra increasingly popular in the football world: adapt or die.
Or so Buchanan thought. "The scary thing was he was able to do it against some of the varsity teams," he said. "We knew he had the potential to be a really good player."
A legend was born. And since then, he's only added to his lore. He's sliced through helpless defenses, changing direction on a dime. He's decimated the record books, accounting for 9,490 yards and 165 touchdowns. His numbers more closely resemble typos than conceivable football statistics. As his game has matured (don't lose 20 yards before gaining 60), he's secured a spot among the all-time great high school running backs. He's a Texas-sized talent.
His impact off the field is even bigger.