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Jackson grad Xavior Gray staying focused on football, social justice

Andy Harris
Suburbanite correspondent
Jackson right tackle Xavior Gray blocks during a game against Akron East. Gray is now a sophomore lineman at the University of Akron.

JACKSON TWP. Two major topics have been the centerpiece of society across the United States for the past few months: the COVID-19 pandemic and the issue of social justice and racial equality.

Both have filtered into so many aspects of life, including the sports world. As such, University of Akron sophomore offensive lineman Xavior Gray has seen those effects on multiple fronts.

As a college student athlete whose upcoming season is in doubt because of the pandemic and whose campus was closed for a time amidst the crisis, he's working through an unprecedented time for sports and society.

As a young black man, he is also figuring out how he can be a part of affecting change and reform when it comes to racial justice, equality and policing.

"It’s hard working everyday not knowing for sure If you’re going to be able to showcase the work this year or not, but I feel like it’s all a matter of perspective," Gray said of the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the upcoming football season "The way I look at it is, no matter what drills I do or how much I train I’m only getting better and it may not be this season but when the time does come I’ll be ready and better than ever before."

The pandemic has had far-reaching effects across college sports, but especially at Akron. The university has already eliminated three sports because of the financial impact of the pandemic and last week, hundreds of university employees - including some within the athletic department - lost their jobs.

A road game against Clemson that would have paid $1 million has already been canceled and there is a chance that additional games will be canceled as well.

Amidst all of that, Gray and his teammates have worked to stay in shape, partially on their own when campus was closed and since then, in small, socially distanced workout groups while adhering to health and safety protocols.

"They’ve definitely been a lot different then what I’m use to, but it’s all about adapting to whatever life throws at you," Gray said. "It was a lot harder staying motivated when your used to having your teammates around you to push you but you have to have the discipline to continue grinding no matter the circumstances."

In Gray's favor is the fact that he lost more than 150 pounds in high school to get healthy and in the process, improve both his health and chances to play college football.

Drawing on that same determination, he did what he could to stay in shape in recent months.

With gyms closed and no free weights at home, building muscle and improving strength was tough, so he focused on speed, endurance and footwork.

His position coach sent Gray and his fellow linemen jump ropes and that proved helpful in working on mobility.

"The first day we returned to campus and did a couple drills, guys noticed that I was moving better than before, so I was okay with giving up a little strength and lifting to build up speed and endurance," Gray said.

When it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement and all that's being done in the areas of social justice, racial equality and reform of policing nationwide, Gray knows that he's part of a generation that has a chance to affect significant change.

Many athletes have used their platform to advocate for different aspects of the movement and plan to do so whenever their sport returns to the field of competition.

Gray believes it's important to be thoughtful and stand up for what one believes in and to make the best use of whatever platform one has to advocate for change.

"I think athletes should speak out on how they feel about the matter. I know we’re athletes and held to a higher standard on what we say and post, but at the end of the day we’re human and have a voice too," Gray said. "I’m actually in a group with athletes across the country working to come together and find a way to better society for everyone. This world is a crazy place and people with a voice need to speak up and be the change they want to see."

The group of students, who have give their group the name College Athletes United, are looking for ways to make a positive impact and be part of the movement for change.

After playing in four games and starting two as a freshman, he is eager to continue fighting for an expanded role going forward. Doing so would help him achieve more of his football goals and it could also elevate his profile and give him more chances to speak out on social issues.

"Being able to get an opportunity to start and then running with it was an amazing feeling," Gray said. "This pandemic hasn’t changed my mindset at all. Day in and day out I still train hard, sleep well and eat healthy. It’s part of being an athlete. There’s no better feeling than hearing your name on live TV. It only motivates me more to get better and train harder."

His motivation to get better is always close at hand. His wallpaper for the home screen on his phone is a top defensive end for one of the teams on Akron's schedule for this fall. Every time he looks at his phone, it's a reminder that he needs to outwork that star defensive end so that when they meet on the field, he's ready.

Neither the pandemic nor the ongoing fight for social justice and racial equality appear likely to fade from the national consciousness any time soon and while they've brought with them a time of challenge, change and uncertainty, Gray is trying his best to tackle those challenges and play a role for both his team and in the effort to create sustained social and societal change.