Elgton Jenkins and Juantavius “JT” Gray were teammates all the way from peewee through college football, but Sunday night, the two were on opposite sides of the field for the first time ever.
Both are 2014 Clarksdale High School graduates, played for the Clarksdale Lumberjacks together as young boys and were Mississippi State Bulldogs teammates. Gray, a defensive back and special teams player, signed with the New Orleans Saints in 2018 and is in his third season. Jenkins, a starting offensive lineman who has played left guard and right tackle, went to the Green Bay Packers in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
The two met when the Saints (1-2) hosted the Packers (3-0) on Sunday Night Football. The Packers defeated the Saints 37-30, but the Clarksdale Wildcats football program, family and friends all talked about the inspiration both Jenkins and Gray provided to the community.
“I’m extremely proud of both of those young men,” said Wildcats coach Henry Johnson. “I think they are the ultimate role models for our kids here in Clarksdale, somebody that they can relate to, somebody they grew up in the same community with that went and played Division I college football and made it to the NFL.”
Johnson said he does not root for either team when Jenkins and Gray play one another. He is a longtime Pittsburgh Steelers fan.
“I have to root for both of them,” Johnson said. “I have to root for Elgton and JT. That’s basically what I have to do. I can’t root for a team. I have to root for an individual.”
The undefeated Packers have scored at least 37 points in all three games of the season.
“It says big things about him,” said Johnson of Jenkins. “He’s got to be doing something right if they’re scoring a lot of points.”
Gray is a contributor in two phases of the game – defense and special teams.
“He’s just always been an unselfish guy,” Johnson said. “He’s always been a humble unselfish young man. He didn’t have a whole lot to say, but his actions spoke very loud.”
Johnson reflected on watching an old Wildcats at West Point game during Jenkins and Gray’s senior season. Clarksdale won to spoil West Point’s homecoming and Johnson said both showed they were phenomenal athletes that night.
Just as Clarksdale is practicing social distancing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gray and Jenkins are doing the same in the NFL. Johnson believes staying safe is easier in the NFL.
“I think NFL because they’ve definitely got more resources, so they’ve got more testing capacity,” Johnson said. “They don’t have to go to school. They can go home every day and be disciplined to stay at home. They have team doctors and trainers and all that.”
Johnson said the community is proud of Gray and Jenkins and he looks forward to the possibility of them putting together a football camp during the summer and showing them the new football stadium.
Some family and friends stayed back in Clarksdale to watch the game while others made the trip to New Orleans.
Michelle Gray, mother of Juantavius “JT” Gray, was in a group of approximately 15 with family members and friends of Gray and Jenkins seated together at the game. With the limited capacity and restrictions, the group was not able to visit with either player.
“Due to coronavirus, they have to keep them distant,” Michelle Gray said. “We were together, but certain families were distant due to social distancing.”
Sammie Ray, a senior running back for the Wildcats, is Jenkins’ cousin and he stayed home for the game watching with his parents, Sammie and Sheila.
“I really think it was just an honorable moment because they played together in high school and now they’re in the big league playing against each other,” said Ray, adding he was rooting for the Packers since Jenkins is family.
Michelle Gray said she was rooting for the Saints to win, but wanted to see both former Wildcats perform well.
“I had my black and gold on. It was black and gold during that time,” Michelle Gray said. “It was a black and gold moment for me, but I also am cheering for him as well. I feel like it really wasn’t a loss. It was a win at the end of the game.”
Ray has not had many opportunities to talk with Jenkins lately, but Jenkins has encouraged him to work hard, be the next man up, keep doing what he is doing, pray and put God first.
“When we’re around, he gives me football advice on what to do in college and now, so I just take it,” Ray said. “He’s big now, so I just think it’s good to take advice from him.”
Ray has looked into continuing his career in college at the University of Memphis, Belhaven University and Northwest Mississippi Community College. He also said would go to Mississippi State like his cousin Jenkins.
Wildcats senior middle linebacker De’meric Strong is also friendly with Jenkins, watched the game at home and wanted the Packers to win. Strong got to know Jenkins when visiting Mississippi State. He was not surprised the Packers won.
“I feel like they had a better team due to the Saints injuries and all that,” Strong said.
Strong would like to play college football for Mississippi State, Ole Miss or Memphis and Jenkins has advised him, “Just work hard, do well in school, stay motivated and stay patient.”
“He just tells me to keep working and get better game by game,” Strong continued.
Michelle Gray said the community going all the way back to Gray and Jenkins’ coach with the Clarksdale Lumberjacks, Tyrone Smith, is very proud of both athletes.
“I’m very proud to be an NFL mom and to be a part of this experience,” Michelle Gray said. “I’m elated to be a part of this experience. Overall, it’s the feeling that you can’t really describe, but I’m happy. I’m proud of both of them because they both worked so hard to get to this level. They’ve always been together ever since peewee league. It’s really kind of hard for them to actually play against each other because they’re so used to playing on the same team, so they went from friends to foes, but after the end of the game, it was back to being friends again.
“I hope they both continue to succeed in their careers and may God continue to bless them. If it wasn’t for Him, they wouldn’t be where they are now. I always give all praise to God first.”