Former Pitt football player finds niche in country music

By Brian Batko

Kolby Gray took the stage at Mo’s Place, a country-western bar in Katy, Texas, about 30 miles… Kolby Gray took the stage at Mo’s Place, a country-western bar in Katy, Texas, about 30 miles from his hometown of Houston, and prepared to sing and play his guitar in front of hundreds of strangers.

As a former star high school quarterback, Gray was accustomed to performing under pressure — but not like this. At Pitt, Gray’s live performances consisted of playing for students in the Towers lobby and singing in front of his football teammates in team meetings. But on this night in early March during Pitt’s spring break, it was time for Gray to display his country crooning on a bigger stage.

A whirlwind year later, Gray is nearly finished with his first studio album and just about ready to put his football-playing days behind him. Gray’s decision to make the precarious transition from collegiate football to country music was far from a Hail Mary. It was a choice borne out of hard work, confidence and an unfortunate series of events that started in 2009 when he came to Pitt as a highly rated quarterback prospect.

Calling an Audible

For now, Gray has put college on hold. His typical week consists of band rehearsals for four hours on Monday and Tuesday nights, guitar lessons on Wednesday, vocal lessons on Thursday and then gigs throughout the weekend at bars, festivals and other venues. Rather than studying a playbook or learning new formations, he now spends his days playing gigs and taking guitar and vocal lessons in Houston.

He also makes frequent trips to Nashville, Tenn., where he stays in a hotel so he can record tracks with renowned country music producers David and Dann Huff. The former discovered Gray at Mo’s Place, while the latter has worked with the likes of Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts.

Already well on his way to becoming a country music celebrity, Gray’s official Twitter account has more than 14,000 followers. He’s spawned two fan accounts on the social networking site, but he looks at his newfound fame as similar to the situation of some of his former Pitt teammates.

“It’s cool. I like it,” Gray said of his fast-rising recognition. “But it’s kind of like playing football. You see someone like Ray Graham or Tino [Sunseri], the stars of the team, and you’re out there, and people are calling your name, but what do you have to do? You have to stay focused and just try to stay humble and keep on working and keep on making music because that’s what it’s all about.”

More than the fame and notoriety, Gray said he enjoys writing music that his fans can relate to. His father, Mark, dabbled in country music when Gray was growing up, so singing was always one of his favorite pastimes. The importance of music was instilled in him at an early age, prompting Gray to call himself “a football player that sang.”

“Kolby was always the kind of kid that, anything he did, he was good at, and he was always a big lover of country music and always loved playing the guitar and doing things that like that,” said his father, who also lives in Houston.

Pass Interference

The 21-year-old’s journey from Pitt football player to up-and-comer in the country music world began shortly after he arrived in Oakland. He was rated as a three-star recruit in 2009 and among the 30 best dual-threat quarterbacks by Gray had high hopes of becoming the next great Panther under center, but on the first day of training camp in the fall, something in Gray’s shoulder didn’t feel right. He could still throw, but he noticed his powerful right arm was getting fatigued more quickly over the course of a practice than it ever had before.

As it turned out, Gray’s right labrum, a patch of cartilage near the shoulder socket, had been torn since he was in high school. Just like that, Gray’s quarterback aspirations were derailed.

After a mildly successful move from quarterback to defense and special teams at the suggestion of then-head coach Dave Wannstedt, Gray became part of what was called the “big mess” that hit the Pitt football program.

Just as the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Gray began to get acclimated to his new position on the field, he was blindsided when Wannstedt resigned as head coach.

The coach and staff who brought Gray to Pitt and formed a relationship with him were replaced by Michael Haywood from the Miami University of Ohio. Fewer than two weeks later, Haywood was terminated as head coach after he was arrested on charges of domestic abuse.

But Gray remained on the team when Todd Graham was hired as head coach following the Haywood firing. He even gave it one more shot at his original quarterback position, but pain and fatigue continued to plague his throwing shoulder, eventually leading to his decision to leave not only the team but the University as well.

“I already had uncertainty going into everything [after Wannstedt resigned],” Gray said. “Then when Coach Graham came, I thought that maybe I could give it a chance and even try to play quarterback again, but it just didn’t work out.”

Taking a Shot Downfield

After another brief stint at defensive back under Graham’s tutelage, Gray found that his passion for music was starting to eclipse his passion for football midway through spring training camp.

“While this was all going on, I was working on country music and starting to find myself as an artist as well, so I went to Coach Graham and had a talk with him, and he was very supportive,” Gray said. “He just said, ‘Just do what you feel. You’re going to have a chance to contend for a starting spot next year [on defense], but if [music] is where your heart is, and you need to go back home and transfer, then that’s fine.’”

And that’s what Gray did.

With his focus still mainly on football, he transferred to Baylor University — just three hours from his hometown — in mid-May and reunited with one of Wannstedt’s former assistants. But after spending the fall at Baylor working out and once again playing defense rather than the quarterback position he had grown to love, Gray came to a realization. He was improving so rapidly as a musician that it came time for him to ask himself, “Do I want to play football and just be a country music singer, or do I want to become a country music singer?”

He chose the latter, withdrawing from school at Baylor and focusing on music full-time. While he can technically re-enroll at Baylor next fall and rejoin the football team by using this past season as a redshirt year, Gray doesn’t envision that happening. Between playing live shows with his band, recording tracks in the studio and continuing to hone his craft, Gray has as much on his plate as he ever did as a Division I student-athlete.

“I wanted to take this seriously,” Gray said of his curious decision to turn down a scholarship in favor of “trying to make it” in music. “I knew that for me to be successful as an artist, I’m not going to be able to juggle both worlds. I tried, but it just doesn’t work like that.”

Under Review

Unsurprisingly, Gray’s decision to forgo football — and in turn, free schooling and a shot at the NFL — elicited some skeptical reactions. While his friends and family didn’t exactly tell him he was crazy, Gray said the typical response was more along the lines of, “Uh, what are you doing?”

“I don’t think they realized the magnitude of what we’re doing and who we’re working with as far as producers and managers,” Gray said. “I think people were kind of like, ‘Oh, he just wants to be a singer. He doesn’t want to do the whole school/work thing.’”

Gray said that wasn’t the case at all. He simply realized that after spending the last 10 years of his life concentrating completely on football, he had a lot to learn about the music industry, and that if he wanted to succeed, he had a lot of work to do.

“You know what ruined it?” Gray asked. “‘American Idol.’ That’s what made people think that anybody can do it. You just have to go on ‘American Idol.’ It’ll be easy.”

Gray said that the guitar and singing lessons are only a small part of life in the country music world. The rest revolves around the business aspect of music, such as learning how to protect himself as an artist with copyright laws and not getting swindled by anyone in the industry.

While Gray ultimately chose to “go with his gut” in deciding to chase his country music dreams, it didn’t hurt that he had his dad’s support.

“I guess I always looked at football as something that was going to pay the bills for him someday, and everything else were just hobbies,” his dad said. “But the way Kolby is and the way football is, he had a lot of downtime while he was at Pitt just sitting in dorms, and he spent all that time practicing on his guitar and playing songs, and he got great at it.”

From Oakland to Nashville

Though he was nearly 1,500 miles from home, Gray started to come into his own as a songwriter at Pitt. Gray’s former teammate and freshman-year roommate, current Pitt wide receiver Devin Street, remembers Gray playing his guitar “24/7,” often as soon as they would get home from practice.

Quarterback Tino Sunseri, who spent significant time with Gray when he was still playing quarterback, said Gray would often start singing in the meeting room.

“Whenever Kolby came in, one thing he brought to the table was his great personality,” Sunseri said. “He was one of those guys that would go into a room and really light it up. So whenever he got here, he would start singing little bits and pieces here and there and we would just say, ‘Kolby, what are you doing?’ Then he would go further into a song, and I was like, ‘Kolby, you’re not just good; you’re great.’”

When Gray was thinking about transferring, Sunseri said Gray came to him to ask for advice. The incumbent starting quarterback for the Panthers told Gray not only to follow his passion but also that he had a special talent worth pursuing.

Gray wrote four of the songs on his album while he was still on the football team at Pitt and chalks up a lot of his success to his time as a Panther. He still keeps in touch with many of his former Pitt teammates, especially linebacker Joe Trebitz, who said Gray welcomed him to join his entourage if he ever hits it big. Whenever he gets a chance, Gray will tune into a Pitt game to check out what the offense looks like and how old friends like Trebitz, Street and Sunseri are doing.

But Gray doesn’t watch his former school and long to be back at Heinz Field in blue and gold. He said he understands that he went with a different option, one that in his mind actually bears some striking similarities to the gridiron.

“Music has a lot of direct parallels to football,” Gray said. “As far as preparation, performing under pressure, there’s all kinds of stuff you can directly relate to it.”

While his former Pitt teammates take part in spring practice with the annual Blue-Gold Scrimmage right around the corner, Gray is playing gigs at crawfish festivals and country saloons throughout Texas, not to mention shopping potential singles to record labels. Like many athletes, Gray knows he’s been afforded a special opportunity to make money doing something he loves, but he’ll be the first to tell you he still has a long way to go.

“It’s super hard,” Gray said. “There’s so much you have to do and have to learn if you want to compete with people that are at the top of their game. At the end of the day, it’s still a business, and I still have a lot to learn.”

Nevertheless, he’s already come a long way from that night in Katy, Texas, on spring break. It was a winding road — one that led through two universities and countless football practices — but in a lot of ways, the real adventure for Kolby Gray is just beginning.