When the right Achilles of Texas Longhorns junior running back Johnathan Gray burst on a non-contact play against West Virginia last fall, his 2014 was immediately in jeopardy.
"I thought one of my linemen had kicked me in the back of my foot real bad, and I looked back, and no one was behind me so I was like 'I think I just tore my Achilles.' I couldn't walk," Gray said on Monday. "I don't know how Kobe walked off the court. For the most part it feels just like someone kicked you and you can't walk and your calf is tight."
But with an incredible recovery that has been been faster than the typical eight to 12 months, Gray says that he's now 95% healthy and expects to be at full strength when the season opener against North Texas arrives on August 30.
"It feels good to be back and we've been going through a long process during the summer with getting me back and getting Jordan Hicks back," he said. "I feel great out there. A little soreness, but that's expected. For the most part, I feel great and it feels great to be back on the field and get some handoffs. Towards the end of the summer, the end of workouts, I felt like I was ready to go. I was cutting well, running well and just felt great all over. It's a blessing to be back."
Aided by a remarkable work ethic that dates back to his record-setting prep days at Aledo High School and beyond, Gray's determination to get back at full strength by the start of his junior season has paid off in a major way.
"I was determined to get back," said Gray. "For a minute I was kind of mad because I couldn't be with my team and help my teammates out, but I helped them from the sideline trying to be a leader. For the most part I'm back, healthy, and ready to play. They told me (my recovery) would take about eight months to a year."
"From previous surgeries, I'm a fast healer from what I've experienced. I just knew this was a bump in the road and took it day by day and let God work on me and he brought me back. Everybody was surprised at how (quick) I came back, but like I said, with months of rehab and being in the training room constantly and trying to get back, it really paid off."
In fact, Gray underwent surgeries on both of his shoulders in high school, one after his sophomore season and one after his junior season.
But there was definitely some added incentive for Gray to get back quickly under the new regime.
Per the policies of head coach Charlie Strong and strength and conditioning coach Pat Moorer, Gray spent time this spring in The Pit while he rehabbed his Achilles. If the Texas ball carrier needed any extra motivation, The Pit is certainly the type of place that can provide it.
"Oh my gosh," Gray said when asked the experience. "It was every day, lifting ten sets of ten of heavy lifting in the hot sun and Coach Moorer yelling at you, pretty much telling you to build a house and dig dirt. It helped us and it made us want to be back more with the team and help out teammates out. It was good, it helped us out, and got us back. You don't want to be in 'the pit' and not be practicing, that's for sure."
The major question mark surrounding Gray since his injury hasn't been about his ability to return to the field -- that always seemed like a given with his attitude. Rather, the concern has been whether his speed and agility would return, two attributes that made him a five-star prospect coming out of high school and a top-10 prospect overall.
According to Gray, he hasn't lost a step because of his injury.
"My speed came back, thank God, and I'm ready to show it."
After depth at the position took a major hit with the dismissals of senior running back Joe Bergeron and sophomore Jalen Overstreet, getting Gray back for the start of the season went from being a luxury to a necessity.
Now, Gray will carry the load with senior Malcolm Brown and freshman Donald Catalon. He says he's ready.
"As backs we always feel like it's our job to get the offense going, regardless of if we have receivers or not," said Gray. "It kind of hurts when you lose two weapons you can use in games and they can help you, but like I said, we have to step up to the plate and help our teammates.
As for Catalon, Gray plans on being a "big brother" to the younger player, who he believes has a chance to make an impact for the Horns quickly.
The good news is that Gray's recovery decreases the pressure on Brown and Catalon to carry a heavy load. And Gray's probably happy not to be in The PIt any more.