THE DAY JONAS GRAY destroyed your fantasy football team started out innocently enough, with a hot Epsom salts bath and breakfast at a forgettable downtown Indianapolis restaurant with his mom and brother. Had Gray known what would happen later that night, he might have tried to find his family better tickets for the Patriots-Colts game on Nov. 16, 2014. But Gray was an undrafted third-year running back living in a one-bedroom apartment outside of Boston. Nosebleed seats it was.
In the upper deck that night, Jerri Gray-Allen, a retired police officer who drove 300 miles from her Michigan home, tried to low-key it when her son scored his first touchdown. She clapped and high-fived and let out a small scream. But by the time Gray entered the end zone for touchdown No. 3, she had dropped to her knees. “My baby,” she said to herself, “is finally getting his shot.”
Up to that point, Gray’s career had been defined by practice squads and wishful thinking. But that night in Indianapolis, the stars and, most important, Bill Belichick’s game plan aligned. Gray erupted for 201 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the first player in the Super Bowl era to account for more than a quarter of the league’s rushing scores in a week. Those four touchdowns were the first four of his career. That hadn’t happened since 1921.
His underdog story, played out in front of millions of eyeballs on Sunday Night Football, was intoxicating and endearing. Gray jumped into the arms of Rob Gronkowski and playfully head-butted Tom Brady. After the game, Colts quarterback Andrew Luck found Gray and repeatedly, earnestly, told him how happy he was for him.
Gray has a degree in English from Notre Dame, but when NBC’s Michele Tafoya put a microphone in front of his face after the game, he was so nervous he wasn’t sure what would come out. He’d watched those interviews on his TV for years, wondering what it would be like to be the man — the one who gets the game ball and has everyone riveted to what he has to say.
“I remember saying to myself, ‘Wow, this is so cool,'” Gray says. “‘I hope I don’t mess up.'”
In five days, Gray’s moment would be over, all because of a cellphone charger and one harsh reality of playing for the NFL’s greatest dynasty: Game plans trump a good story every single day.
GRAY’S BREAKOUT EARNED him the cover of the Nov. 24 issue of Sports Illustrated, under a headline that read, “Jonas Gray … Because of Course.” Gray’s star was already fading by the time the magazine hit newsstands, but there will always be permanence about that night.
If you’re a hard-core fantasy football owner, Nov. 16 is eternally known as Jonas Gray Day, the anniversary of one of the most seismic shifts in a fantasy football weekend. Gray earned 43 points that night, the second-highest-scoring game by any player in 2014. Two Boston-area brothers, Rob and Dave Gomes, started Gray that weekend and won $1 million in a DraftKings contest. (Gray’s 2014 salary, by the way, netted him less than half of that amount.)
Gray was such an unknown that he was active in just 1.3% of ESPN leagues that week, and, according to ESPN senior fantasy writer Tristan H. Cockcroft, was still available to be picked up, essentially for free, in 91.6% of them.
“When we celebrate national one-hit-wonder day, my timeline on Twitter gets flooded with pictures of Jonas Gray,” says ESPN NFL insider Field Yates. “Patriots running backs are always, for fantasy football purposes, tantalizing. There’s always going to be value there, but it’s unpredictable because they’ve had such a cast of playmakers come through.”
That unpredictability was on full display the following weekend: By then, Gray appeared in 75.7% of ESPN’s fantasy leagues and was started in 32.9%.
He didn’t play a snap.
EVEN BEFORE THE Colts game that made him one of Belichick’s most famous one-hit wonders, Gray was well-versed on the vagaries of football. He had been a four-star recruit out of Detroit Country Day High School but found himself buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame, with just 75 carries in his first three seasons.
Back then, Gray leaned on his sense of humor to keep him going. He did some stand-up comedy in the South Bend area, once opening for Dustin Diamond, who played Screech on “Saved by the Bell.” “If you ask anyone there,” says former Irish teammate Mike Golic Jr., “Jonas was funnier than Dustin Diamond.”
Despite the setbacks, Gray believed he could play with anyone. He cracked the starting lineup in his senior year and exploded for 791 yards and 12 touchdowns on 114 carries. His hopes of being drafted in the NFL were in sight. Then on Senior Day, he tore his ACL, MCL and LCL. His knee, and his dream, crumpled.
Gray stood on crutches in the locker room after the game, and his teammates gathered around him, awkwardly struggling with what to say. But Gray didn’t want their sympathy. He recited a line from one of his favorite books, The Count of Monte Cristo: Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.
He was eventually signed by the Dolphins, then spent the 2013 season on the Baltimore Ravens‘ practice squad. He joined the Patriots on a futures contract in January 2014. Though he missed out on the 53-man roster heading into the season, Gray, who stood 5-foot-10 with a walloping 230-pound frame, impressed in training camp. Belichick, in those first weeks of the season, told him, “You’re close.” In mid-October, after a knee injury sidelined Stevan Ridley, Gray was promoted and amassed 131 yards on 32 carries in his first three games.
Nobody could’ve predicted that Gray would get 37 carries against the Colts. But Belichick is a master at modifying his personnel to each opponent, plugging in no-name players with particular skill sets that expose every weakness. His practice squads are fluid, and they weigh heavily into this game of chess. “They can move you up at any moment,” says former Patriots guard Chris Barker, who spent six rotations on New England’s practice squad. “They can literally call you the Friday night before the [team] flight and say, ‘All right, you’re activated.’ You’ve got to be ready to play.”
The Indianapolis game came after a bye week, which gave Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels extra time to prepare. And fresh in their minds was the Colts-Pats matchup in the AFC divisional round 10 months earlier. In that game, a 43-22 Pats win, another bruising back named LeGarrette Blount had pounded his way for 166 yards and four touchdowns. (Blount, by the way, would have just five carries the next week in the AFC championship.)
Belichick had also noticed a weak spot in the Colts’ defense, with run-stopper Arthur Jones out that week with an injury. So they stacked their offense with six linemen, two tight ends and a plan: Feed the 24-year-old Gray constantly. In the days before the game, Patriots owner Robert Kraft stopped Gray in the locker room and offered encouragement. “I think this is going to be a big week for you,” Gray recalls Kraft saying.
All those years of waiting, and now Gray had a wall of blockers and the ball. It was his show. He ran up the middle and off left tackle. He scored his first touchdown with 8:37 remaining in the first quarter, bulldozing into the end zone before some of the Lucas Oil Stadium crowd could even settle into their seats.
“I was like a kid in a candy store,” Gray says. “It was like nothing I could describe. To get to that point, the dedication it takes, the hard work, it’s hard to even describe it to people. I mean, it’s a blast.”
After the game, a reporter in the locker room snapped a picture of Brady shaking Gray’s hand and sent it to Gray’s mother.
In that moment, Gray felt something he hadn’t for years. He felt as if he belonged.
GRAY’S AGENT, Sean Stellato, is based in New England and has represented numerous Patriots over the years. He knows the Patriot Way, and the expendability implicit in that philosophy, but after watching that Colts game, Stellato was certain that Gray was going to be a star.
“When you have a client that has a huge game,” he says, “it’s like, ‘Wow, this is the break he needed. This is the breakout.’ But like I tell all my clients, you’ve got to stay paranoid. You obviously don’t ever want to take the pedal off the gas when you have success. It can come and go, as we know, in the snap of a finger.”
On the Patriots’ plane ride back from Indianapolis, Gray thought of none of that. He could barely sleep, already thinking ahead — if he could finish strong in the last six games, maybe he could make the Pro Bowl. Sure, it was premature, but anything felt possible.
The next day, LeGarrette Blount, by then with the Steelers, left the field during a Monday Night Football game at Tennessee after receiving zero carries. He was subsequently released, and the Patriots picked him up on Nov. 20, a Thursday. Blount was a proven veteran, and his addition seemingly made Gray redundant on the Patriots’ roster. But Gray wasn’t particularly worried. He figured that he could learn from Blount, that Blount would only help make him better.
The Patriots were playing Detroit that weekend, a team Gray had followed since he was a kid growing up in Michigan. Thursday night, Gray stayed up late watching film of the Lions on his cellphone and iPad, lying on his couch with ice packs on his legs.
He plugged his phone into a charger and fell asleep on the couch. Gray was too tired to notice that the charger was dangling precariously out of the wall socket.
ONE OF THE first things you learn in the House of Belichick is to never, ever be late. A tardy is the same thing as an absence. Bryan Stork, a rookie center for the New England Patriots back in 2014, once contemplated buying a snowplow blade just in case he got caught in a nor’easter on his way to a team meeting, but he eventually decided it would have been over the top.
The Patriots had an early team meeting on Friday, Nov. 21, and like always, Gray had set the alarm on his cellphone the night before. It never went off. He awoke to the sun, glanced at the kitchen clock and saw, to his horror, that it was 8:30 — one hour after the meeting had started. He scrambled for his phone, which was dead. In the agonizing minutes it took to charge the battery, Gray was awash in panic. When the phone finally turned on, he saw a text from veteran nose tackle Vince Wilfork. “Are you OK?”
Kevin Anderson, who was the Patriots’ football operations manager at the time, texted and stopped by to check on Gray. (The Patriots’ fear, according to Gray, was that the instant success might’ve made him vulnerable — maybe he was celebrating and had too much to drink. Gray says Anderson made note that he had not been drinking.) Anderson told him to stay home until he called him later. But the waiting was killing Gray.
He texted teammates, family and former coaches. He apologized for his mistake. Sometime around 5:30 p.m., Gray showed up at the Patriots’ facility to talk to Belichick. He wanted to explain everything — that he did his job but the phone charger didn’t.
The coach didn’t appear particularly angry, Gray says. Belichick was on a treadmill walking and reading notes. He repeatedly told him, “We just can’t have it.” He said there would be repercussions for the game against Detroit, though he didn’t specify how much Gray would sit. (Belichick, through a Patriots spokesperson, declined to comment for this story.)
Two days later, Gray didn’t play a single snap against his hometown Lions. When Belichick was asked in the postgame why Gray didn’t play, he told reporters, “We do what we think’s best, and that’s what we did today.”
At least outwardly, Belichick didn’t blame Gray’s absence on the missed meeting, or on the tweet that Gray sent the day before the game — a comment about “how fast people can turn their back on you.”
Gray had quickly deleted the tweet, which also mentioned that he would “keep it moving and grind harder.” And it seemed as if Gray did.
“Whenever I saw him around, he was positive and happy,” Chris Barker says. “I’ve never seen him mad about his opportunity to play.”
But Gray believes that late wake-up forever changed his trajectory with the team. In the next game, against the Packers on Nov. 30, the Patriots used four running backs for 17 carries. Blount received 10 of them. Gray had one.
For the rest of the season, Gray recorded double-digit attempts only once — 11, for 62 yards, against the Dolphins. In all, he had just 91 yards after his monster game against the Colts. He was a healthy scratch for Super Bowl XLIX.
EVEN THEN, GRAY believed he’d get another chance in 2015. He played well in the first game of the preseason, ripping off a 55-yard touchdown run against the Green Bay Packers. He spiked the ball and flexed his arms like he had in that extraordinary November game.
A few weeks later, Belichick and Nick Caserio, the director of player personnel, called him in for a meeting. Belichick told him they were going in a different direction, that they didn’t need any bigger backs in 2015. He said it didn’t diminish the role Gray played in their Super Bowl championship. “Still, to this day, it gets to me,” Gray says, fighting back tears.
“I was pretty shocked.”
He went to Miami but got caught in a numbers crunch. He had high hopes after signing with Jacksonville in December, but then tore his quad during training camp in 2016.
Now Gray is 29 years old and stuck in an existential limbo. Is he still a football player? Or a guy who continually works out because he can’t let go?
Gray has three kids now and is back in the Boston area working for an energy company. He spends what little free time he has working out, and he says he’s ready if football calls. He takes inspiration from his mom, who struggled to raise two boys alone before deciding, at 28, to enroll at a community college. Jerri Gray-Allen didn’t abandon her dreams, and she went on to be a crime scene investigator with the Pontiac Police Department — and she says she’d never tell her son to quit football.
“He loves the game. That’s what he wants to do.
“Of course I was disappointed in the system,” she says. “But I was never disappointed in Jonas. I know what type of person he is, and I know what type of player he is. I’m not just saying that because he’s my son.”
Because he hasn’t played in a few years, Gray considers his football age to be closer to 25 than 29. He is filled with confidence. He watches the NFL and believes he’s as good as, if not better than, some of the running backs who have opportunities he doesn’t.
He wonders where he’d be right now if his phone had been charged on that November day.
“I don’t think I’d still be with the Patriots,” he says. “But I’d definitely be in the NFL. I probably would be somewhere with a large contract playing on a team. I probably would’ve left New England because they couldn’t pay me.”
EVERY NOVEMBER, THE memories rush back to that game in Indianapolis. He can’t believe it’s been five years. Gray says that he carries no ill will toward Belichick and that he “respects the hell out of him.”
Gray attended an XFL summer showcase in July, and Stellato said his client is in the best shape of his life. But Gray wasn’t selected in last month’s draft. An XFL player personnel staffer, who spoke under the condition of anonymity, said that teams simply preferred younger running backs in the draft, though Gray could still be added to a roster before the league launches in 2020.
In the meantime, Gray waits for his chance. Every once in a while, he’ll think of something funny and write it down for a comedy skit maybe somewhere down the road. But a comeback? That’s no laughing matter to Gray. If an unknown kid can blow up the NFL, and fantasy football, on one November weekend, anything is possible.
“I think it’s gonna happen,” he says. “I really do. My story is still being written.”