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Being center stage has always come with the territory for Sonny Gray.
During his days at Smyrna High School in middle Tennessee, he was the starting quarterback for a two-time state championship football team. He was a stud pitcher planting the seeds for a major league career.
And, as it turns out, he was quite the theatre star.
Gray, the soft-spoken right-hander who has emerged as the Oakland A’s ace, took three years of drama in high school and was a stage sensation in his own unique way. One week after leading the Bulldogs to a second consecutive state football title as a senior, he played the lead role in “High School Musical” -– singing, dancing and channeling his inner Zac Efron.
“He wasn’t the best singer in the world, but he knew how to put on a show,” said Shannon Williams, Gray’s drama teacher at Smyrna High. “It was amazing. And people came out. We sold out a couple shows because Sonny Gray was the lead in a musical.”
Gray also played secondary roles in “Grease” and “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”
How much did he immerse himself in his roles? Gray claims he drove his mother crazy walking around the house singing the songs from “High School Musical” as the production drew near. Not that he had delusions about his talents. He received some very honest critiques from those closest to him.
“Oh yeah, I got made fun of by my family so much,” Gray said with a big smile. “Especially my uncles and stuff. It was like, ‘You’re awful!’ But then once they watched, they were like, ‘Well, that was pretty good.’”
It might come as a surprise that a two-sport star athlete would have the courage to branch out beyond his comfort zone and try performing on stage, particularly at an age when teens can be sensitive about how they’re perceived by their peers.
But Gray was far from alone among Smyrna High athletes who dabbled in theatre. And, providing a window into his personality, Gray said he wasn’t self-conscious in the least about how good or bad he was.
“I really just have no care or feeling what other people think about me at all,” he said. “It was just something I enjoyed doing. Even if I thought I was good, I would more like to laugh with people. If someone laughs at me, it never bothers me. I don’t care what people think. I never have, never will.”
Gray didn’t grow up with dreams of being an actor or singer. Williams, a family friend who’s known Gray since he was about 6, nudged him to give drama a try. Williams also worked with Gray on his public speaking skills, such as keeping better eye contact when he spoke, which would come in handy for the countless media interviews that were in his future.
Williams remembers when he first auditioned for a stage production.
“He would start laughing and he’d say, ‘I can’t do this,’” she said. “But once he started and found he could carry a tune, it was like we had opened up a can of worms and you couldn’t stop it. He drove us all a little crazy because he wouldn’t stop singing.
“I wouldn’t put him on American Idol or The Voice, but he held his own.”
Williams picked “High School Musical” with Gray in mind for the lead role of Troy Bolton, played by Efron in the Disney movie. In the script, Bolton is a high school basketball player who gives theatre a try.
Gray began singing his numbers around the house and getting help from his younger sister, Katie.
“He was constantly around here singing,” said Gray’s mother, Cindy. “When he woke up, at night, around the house. Him and Katie would watch the movies together. That was a fun time because she was at an age then when she was really into “High School Musical.” She knew all the words, so he knew all the words.”
Gray was heading to Vanderbilt University to play baseball collegiately, and he invited Vanderbilt head coach Tim Corbin and his family to watch him in “High School Musical.” Clearly, he wasn’t suffering from stage fright. During one scene where the students had their cell phones out, Gray looked in the audience and noticed Corbin’s attention drifting.
“I put my phone on vibrate,” Corbin recalled. “I’m watching the play, and my phone vibrated. Sonny sent me a text from the stage. He said, ‘You’re ugly. Pay attention.’”
These days, Gray’s performances take place primarily on the pitcher’s mound. But he still appreciates good theatre. Last offseason he took a birthday trip to New York and saw a performance of “Wicked” on Broadway.
Williams says Gray hasn’t changed a bit.
“He’s very humble, very down to earth,” she said. “I don’t think he’s aware of his star quality. He’s just Sonny.”