July 31, 2009
He is reminded of him every morning he wakes up and again every time he puts on his hat before a game. It has almost been five years since his father, Jesse, was killed in a car crash, but it seems like just yesterday to Vanderbilt pitcher Sonny Gray.
Each morning when Sonny rises in his dorm room he sees his father's name on a plaque Smyrna High School gave to him upon graduation. In each of the hats he wears on the baseball field, he has inscribed "DAD" under the bill.
His father's spirit lives on with Sonny.
Sonny was a freshman at Smyrna High School, 25 miles southeast of Vanderbilt's campus, at the time of the crash. His father was coming home late from work one evening when the car he was driving was hit by another driver.
Jesse was rushed to the hospital, but there was nothing that could be done.
"It was something completely unexpected, and it just happened," Sonny said. "It was the longest day of my life."
When Sonny, his two sisters (Jessica and Katie) and his mom, Cindy, arrived at the hospital they called friends and relatives, who joined them. One of those friends was Shawn Middleton, an assistant baseball and football coach at Smyrna High School.
"He called me up at 6 a.m. the morning of a freshman football game and said `My dad had a car wreck and I need you to come down to the hospital,'" Middleton said. "At the time, I didn't think it was too serious, but when we got to the hospital we realized it was really bad. He is more mature about handling the situation than I am."
The experience Sonny went through is something Middleton couldn't imagine going through as a 14-year-old boy.
"He basically took his two sisters and his mom under his wing and handled it," Middleton said. "I'll never forget that right before Jesse died, he said, `Coach, come back here and see him. I just want you to see what I had to see.' He cried a little bit, but it was amazing how he handled it."
Because of the tragedy, Middleton had already written off and forgotten about the freshman football game he was supposed to coach against Lebanon later that night. He needed to spend time with Sonny and his family, but Sonny didn't want to sulk.
"I had already called the school and called the assistant coaches and told them I was going to stay with Sonny and talk about some things and get through them together," Middleton said. "Sonny looked at me and said, `Coach, we are going to the game. We are going to be there, and that is what my dad would want me to do.'"
For Sonny, the decision was easy.
"I just told everyone that that is what my dad would want me to do," he said. "You have to face adversity head on, and that is what we tried to do...not just myself, but my whole family."
What ensued was one of the most magical nights of Sonny's athletic career. He threw four touchdowns in the team's 28-6 win, but none was more special than the first one.
"I had him call the first play of the game, and of course it was a pass play and it went for 75 yards," Middleton said. "It was almost like a Brett Favre moment. I was out on the field and I was hugging the kid, while getting a 15-yard penalty at the same time. Of course, who cares at that point, it is just one of those moments that you will never forget."
With the loss of his father tearing him up inside, Sonny needed an outlet to take his mind off the tragedy. Sports immediately became that outlet.
"After my father passed away, I had to find somewhere to go. I chose to run to sports," Sonny said. "It allowed me to take my mind off of everything. There were a lot of friends that surrounded me, and I had a lot of family to lean on. I just tried to run to sports and use it as an outlet."
Each time he turned to sports, he saw more success. On the football field he quarterbacked Smyrna to back-to-back state championships. On the baseball diamond, he was ranked as the No. 52 draft prospect by Baseball America as a senior.
Despite his success on the football field, he always knew baseball was where he had the brightest future. Part of the reason was his height (a generous 5-foot-11), another part of it was his arm (he was throwing in the 90s as a sophomore in high school). The biggest reason was his love for the game.
"Baseball has always been my favorite sport," Sonny said. "I loved football and I considered playing in college, but didn't pursue it nearly as much as I did baseball. I always knew I had a brighter future in baseball unless I grew about six inches."
Sonny received offers to play football in college, and Middleton believes he absolutely could have been successful at it, but he knows baseball provided him with the best opportunity.
"Everyone we talked to about him playing Division I football was concerned about his size," Middleton said. "The thing that I saw about Sonny was that he found throwing lanes even though he was smaller. He found a way to get the ball where it needed to be, and he read defenses so well that it didn't even matter. He was going to find a way to get it where it needed to be.
"There was no doubt baseball was his sport, though. From the very get go he was so superior on the mound in baseball. He came in as a freshman throwing 88. His sophomore year he was in the low 90s."
Eventually, people outside Smyrna began to notice his prowess on the mound. Soon there were scouts from all 30 Major League teams watching Sonny pitch.
"We would go down to the bullpen, and we would have 30 grown men down there from different teams," Middleton said. "It was a special moment, and I wish his dad would have been around to see all the attention he got."
Instead, Middleton was there to see it. With his father gone, Middleton did his best to fill the void in his life of a father figure.
"At the point Jesse died, I was the immediate fill in just because I was here, and I was the closest thing to a father to him," Middleton said. "Jesse and I would talk till two in the morning about football and baseball because he knew Sonny was special, too. He said, `Make sure you don't give him anything.' I would get all over (Sonny), and I think that is what he wanted. He didn't want anyone to give him anything. Sonny wanted you to be just as tough on him or tougher, like his dad was, and that is what I did. I think that is why we bonded at the very beginning."
As more scouts began to notice Sonny, the more they liked him, and even though he had already committed to Vanderbilt, there was uncertainty in the air up until a week before the draft when Sonny wrote a letter to every MLB team thanking them for their interest and notifying them of his intent to go to Vanderbilt. Despite the letter, he was still drafted in the 27th round by the Cubs.
"It was a big concern," said Vanderbilt Head Coach Tim Corbin about Sonny turning pro. "There was a time there that I thought we'd lose him, but he hurt his ankle and what happened then was some of the teams drew away from him a little bit because of the injury. Plus, he had the desire to go to Vanderbilt and be here, so it wasn't like he was a kid who had an unbelievable desire to play professional baseball. He wanted to play, but at the same time we developed a close relationship with him and his family, so it would have been tough for him to walk away."
Playing a large role in Sonny's decision to come to Vanderbilt was the desire of his mom, stepdad (Barry) and coaches, who urged him to go to college. But during the decision process, Sonny also thought of his dad and what he would want him to do.
"I know he would have wanted me to go to college even though he never got to see me play high school baseball," Sonny said of his dad. "He'd always talk about going to college and getting an education and doing stuff that he didn't. That is one thing I remember. He had an opportunity to go to college (Austin Peay), but he got kicked off the team and made some wrong choices."
Along with Sonny's desire to get his education, Middleton believes part of why he ended up at Vanderbilt was because of the relationship he had with Corbin.
"(Coach Corbin) does such a good job with the kids," Middleton said. "He comes to their games when possible and what he does differently from a lot of coaches is he contacted us, too. He got to know him as a person more than just a player, and that sold Sonny from the get-go."
Just as Corbin was selling him on Vanderbilt, Sonny was selling himself to Corbin in even more ways beyond baseball. Away from athletics, Sonny proved he was more than just an athlete with his acting ability on stage, which included playing Troy in "High School Musical" as a senior.
"When we were recruiting him, the first thing that stood out was his competitiveness," Corbin said. "He was a real competitor in everything he did. I saw him play football numerous times, saw him play baseball and went to his high school play. His high school play was such that he texted me from the stage when he was in this play and I just thought, `This kid is going to be different.' He's just got a uniqueness about him you don't see with a lot of kids."
That uniqueness was on full display on May 8 when Sonny made his first collegiate start in front of a sold-out crowd at Georgia. He worked six innings, surrendering just three hits and one earned run, while striking out seven batters to lead Vanderbilt to a 10-2 victory.
This summer, Sonny had much of the same success when he earned a spot on the USA Baseball National Team (Collegiate) that finished 19-5, while playing in Japan, Canada and the U.S. Gray finished with a microscopic ERA of 0.75, while posting a 3-1 record in 24 innings pitched.
Being drafted out of high school, winning state titles in football, starting as a freshman in the SEC and playing for the national team are all things most athletes never get to experience, but the one thing he knows he can't get by pitching well is the thing he would like the most -- his father. He wishes his father could watch him in college or could have seen him throw a single pitch in high school, but more than anything it is the simpler things in life that Sonny misses most about his father.
"Just throwing out in the backyard is something you do with your dad, and I miss that," Sonny said. "That is something we would do as a father and a son."
Even though his dad is not there to play catch with him in the backyard or watch him pitch, he's always with Sonny as he takes the mound, in spirit and inscribed on the bill of his cap.