The choir started singing, but MarQueis Gray tuned the music out. He had been absorbed all week, all month, all fall, about his status as a college football dropout, or more precisely, kick-out, and his future was on his mind again as he sat that Sunday morning in Olivet Missionary Baptist Church. So he didn't hear it at first.
"I made it through my storm, my test, Because you were there to carry me through my mess ..."
How had it come to this? A year earlier, it seemed every college football coach in the country knew his name, knew what sort of miracles he could pull off with ease on a football field. His high school had produced a Super Bowl champion in Corey Harris, an NCAA basketball champion in Randy Wittman and an Olympic gold medalist in soccer star Lauren Cheney -- but Gray, talent scouts judged, might outdo them all.
And yet here he sat in late 2008, in a pew next to his mother instead of a locker room with teammates, his football career scuttled by paperwork. By a test score that didn't look right to the NCAA, by a whisper campaign that had labeled him a cheater, by a bureaucracy that had left him feeling helpless.
"I would've lost my mind a long time ago, If it had not been for you..."
As he sat contemplating his plight back in late 2008, "still a little mopey," his mother judged, about the most difficult year of his life, Gray began listening to the lyrics of the Marvin Sapp hymn. Began hearing the soloist describe the same resolve that he suddenly felt within himself.
"I got this weird feeling in my body. I didn't want to be the one to let my family down, to let myself down," Gray says. "That song gave me a good feeling about life in general, that if I take it one step at a time, I can still achieve my dreams."
"And I can say I'm stronger, I'm wiser, I'm better, so much better ..."
Gray looked at his mother, Alicia, laid his head on her shoulder, "and just busted out in tears," he says. As the singers roared, he described to his mother his newly steeled resolve to play football, to go to college, to overcome everything that seemed to be conspiring to hold him back.
She began crying, too.
"I took his head in my hands and said, 'This is what you want, then do it. You'll be all right, don't you ever doubt it,'" Alicia Gray says. "That's when I knew this all would happen, because he wasn't going to let it not happen."
And all this is happening, it really is. MarQueis Gray is about to become the Gophers' starting quarterback, the leader of his team and focal point of his offense, and the adversity he has survived makes it all the sweeter. A broken arm, the shock of his grandmother's death, the NCAA and its cursed red flags, and a roadblock in the form of a veteran quarterback and a position switch -- Gray has survived, outlasted and overcome it all.
"I had some doubts," the 20-year-old quarterback says, just a few days before his debut at Southern California on Saturday, "but I tried to be more like, when will it come, not if. I just can't wait for that day."
• • •
MarQueis Gray has been an athlete since he was 3. First there were karate lessons, in a toddler-sized robe, then Little Dribblers basketball, then tee-ball, and always with a lesson: You join, you live up to your commitment.
MarQueis and his older half-brother, Damarcus Ganaway, once wanted to quit baseball, "but they wouldn't let us," Gray says of his parents. "We had to finish the season, because we had said we would."
Football, the sport his father, Donald, coached, was what he really wanted to play, though, so he would tag along to pee-wee practices, a 5-year-old trying to do push-ups with the 7-year-old players. His father gave him a whistle, and MarQueis would do a little coaching, too, smacking players on the head if they didn't follow his pipsqueak orders during callisthenics.
His dad tried to sneak MarQueis onto the pee-wee Tigers' roster a year early, but other players' parents complained to the league office about the precocious tyke and he was kicked off the team.
How familiar that feeling would become.
Gray grew into a football coach's dream, a 6-4 block of Indiana limestone who happened to possess the fastest legs and strongest arm on his Ben Davis High School team. Recruiters swarmed, and by the summer before his senior year, Gray had heard from half the teams in college football. He took a liking to Minnesota's new coach, Tim Brewster, and his top recruiter, Thomas Hammock, and came to Minneapolis on an official visit just a month into Brewster's Gophers career. The coach asked the wiry adolescent from a high school barely 2 miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to lead the team on its pregame "victory walk" into the Metrodome, and the reception he got from Minnesota fans floored him and his mother.
"So many people knew MarQueis' name, it scared me. 'MarQueis, we love you.' I said, 'OK, this is getting freaky now,'" recalls Alicia Gray, who divorced Donald when MarQueis was in fifth grade. "He ran around giving everyone high-fives, like he's Deion Sanders."
He eventually announced on national TV, during NBC's telecast of the U.S. Army High School All-America Game, one of the biggest victories of Brewster's career. "He proved we could recruit to Minnesota. He's one of the best athletes in the country," Brewster, fired as Gophers coach last October, said last month. "I know he'll do spectacular things."
But things had already begun going spectacularly, even tragically, wrong for Gray. After being tackled on the final play of his senior season's second game, Gray felt a piercing pain in his left arm. When the trainer asked him to squeeze a football, he couldn't. The diagnosis: broken arm, which kept him idle until the season's final weeks.
That seemed like a minor annoyance compared to the pain in his heart. A day after his grandmother, Melinda Rosse, moved in with his family, Gray heard the kitchen tap running nonstop. He descended the stairs to find his grandmother lying dead on the floor. He called 911 and his mother, and tried to keep his younger brother Dondrell upstairs.
And one more event would bring tears, and put a halt to Gray's career. He had taken the ACT exam as a freshman, and hadn't taken it particularly seriously, he says. When he retook the test early in his senior year, his score rose sharply -- suspiciously so, the NCAA believed. Some recruiters quit calling, scared off by rumors -- untrue, Gray swears -- that he had cheated. But the problem was behind him, he believed, when he moved to Minnesota for college.
Gray was resting in his dorm room one night during training camp, just a week before the season opener, when Hammock called. He told Gray to meet him outside, where he delivered more devastating news: The NCAA had rejected his ACT score and declared him ineligible. He couldn't receive a scholarship until he took the test a third time -- and he had to go home until then.
"It was hard. I cried, to be honest. Coach Ham, he cried with me," Gray says. "I had worked all summer, had gone through camp with my teammates, and now I couldn't play. I wasn't sure if I would ever play again. It was a heartbreaker."
He went back to Indianapolis, lined up a tutor to make sure he passed, and got a job selling electronics at Target, even handled the Black Friday sunrise rush. His mother deflected calls from coaches interested in luring him away from Minnesota while encouraging Brewster to stay in touch, and he followed the Gophers from afar.
But it wasn't until that breakthrough, or breakdown, at Olivet Missionary that he was sure he was going back. That he found the determination to finish the job.
• • •
Of course, it wasn't that easy. Adam Weber, holder of every career passing record at Minnesota, was in the way for two years, so Gray learned to catch passes as a way to stay busy. He never complained about rarely playing quarterback -- "You didn't even see bad body language out of him, because he wanted to contribute to the team," said BTN analyst Howard Griffin -- out of respect to Weber and to his own past. "With everything I had gone through, I wasn't going to" cause dissension on the Gophers, Gray says. "I just wanted to play football."
And now he will, as the man in charge of a new offense, for a new coach and a new staff. "The guy that's without question the best athlete on our squad is MarQueis Gray," said Jerry Kill, Brewster's successor. He reminds Kill of Terrelle Pryor, a former Rose Bowl MVP at Ohio State, with his elusiveness as a runner. "If MarQueis had had a lot of quarterback reps his first two years, he would be scary right now."
Instead, he's simply joyous, as bubbly as a 20-year-old can be while trying to absorb an entirely new offense before his big debut.
"It's work, but it's fun, too. I always have fun," Gray says. "But now that I'm going to be the quarterback, it's more fun. Way more fun."