Tucked behind the school at 36th and Ames Streets in Omaha, there’s an artificial turf football field.
There aren’t any bleachers to speak of because this is just a practice field. Omaha North doesn’t have its own stadium. The football team plays games about five miles away at Omaha Northwest High.
But it’s no trouble. The Vikings have won three of the last five Class A state championships. They’re almost expected to make the trip to Lincoln for the state championship game every year.
That’s only the beginning for Zander Gray, a young man with a world of pressure on his shoulders.
You wouldn’t know it by looking at him.
A wide grin seems locked onto his face, his substantial cheeks lifted high, squinting his eyes. He gestures and jokes with teammates while his backup gets reps at running back. He’s happy and having fun playing football.
The expectations for Gray couldn’t be much higher. He’s a returning all-Nebraska selection, playing for the defending state champions, with a self-imposed goal of breaking records at a school with a recent history of producing top backs.
He’s following All-Nebraska captain Milton Sargbah, who followed Calvin Strong, the state’s all-time leading rusher. Not to mention the chore of balancing media requests, recruiting calls, and school.
But Gray doesn’t really seem phased by it all. He has a stress-free philosophy. “It is what it is,” he said. “Don’t think about the big things.”
And recruiting isn’t a big deal either.
Gray has offers from North Dakota and South Dakota, but he is keeping his decisions unmade for the time being. “Just being patient and keeping it to myself,” he said. “I asked my mom if I should commit early. She wants me to wait.”
His head coach, Larry Martin, agrees. “We’ll just see how the season progresses here. He’s averaging 200 yards a game rushing,” Martin said. “He’s got a big heart and he really, really cares. He wants us to have a good football team.”
He almost didn’t make it this far. By his own admission, Gray had some growing up to do. During his sophomore season, Gray said football became boring. “It was during a process where I was splitting reps. The inner selfishness came out. I was like, ‘why’?”
It’s a situation Martin understands well, given the plethora of talented backs he’s seen in blue and gold. “I think, naturally, kids want to carry the football. They’re used to being the guy,” Martin said. “That’s just common as a kid.”
Thankfully, for his teammates, Gray rediscovered a love of football. He says that growing up and learning to share the success reignited the fire.
But there might be something else to it. Gray seems to feel a responsibility to succeed. It’s not an option; it’s a necessity.
I go so hard all the time because at the end of the day I’m the one to get my family out the hood 💯
— ®ZG🔟⁶👣 (@Zandergray6) August 11, 2018
Back on the practice field, the call comes from a coach. “Zander, get back in there.” The jovial smile disappears. He pulls on his helmet; and suddenly, he’s no longer the gesturing jokester. He’s a menace.
At 6’1″, 240 pounds, he’s not easy to bring down.
In fact, he runs with such ferocity, opponents sometimes hesitate to tackle him, lest they become the next highlight on Gray’s laundry list of truck victims. He also possesses great feet for a big back. His highlight film is littered with almost as many defenders grasping at air as being run over.
It’s a rare combination; agility and power. Then again, Gray embodies rare combinations. Intense and light-hearted. Youth and wisdom. Ferocious and friendly.
Standing on the practice field, where Gray has just completed another workout, his coach puts to words this feeling.
“Zander is a very quality young man.”
Omaha North fans can watch Gray this week when Omaha North takes on Omaha Burke – the game will air live on YurView for Cox video customers and will stream live on YurView.com.
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