Tyler Gray left Templeton on Wednesday night and hopped on a flight headed east.
When Gray got off nearly 3,000 miles later, the former Templeton High School football star and Boise State graduate was far from home, but much closer to his dream of playing in the NFL.
“I have been wanting to do this my whole life it seems like, so I finally get an opportunity to,” Gray said during a phone interview hours before his flight to Miami, where he joined the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent for their rookie minicamp that started Friday.
While Gray is chasing his dream of playing in the NFL — a dream he said he’s had for as long as he can remember — he is also chasing history. If he is able to make the opening day roster and find his way onto the field, he would be the first football player in Templeton High School history to do so.
But first comes training camp, where the competition is stiff. And anyone who has seen HBO’s Hard Knocks knows the cutthroat nature of the business.
“One day you’re in and one day you’re out it seems like in the NFL,” Gray said. “The guys who last are the ones who act and play like that day could be their last day there.”
Some media are predicting that Miami will have seven linebackers on its roster when the season opens. With 12 linebackers with the team heading into camp, that means five might find themselves on the practice squad or headed home all together.
“I can’t take anything for granted now,” Gray said. “There is one opportunity you get, and I’m at the bottom of the barrel for sure. I just have to work my way up.”
Gray said he will focus on coming to practice early and leaving late when training camp opens. But when he first got the call from the Dolphins on Saturday, he just enjoyed it.
“Building up to that moment, I was anxious and worried,” said Gray, adding he didn’t expect to be drafted. “When I got the call and signed with them I was really excited.”
Miami was the team that both Gray and his agent felt would be the best fit because of the team’s defensive scheme (4-3) and the type of linebacker they were looking for: tall and lanky. At 6-foot-3, 232 pounds and athleticism that made him a top running back in San Luis Obsipo County during his time at Templeton, Gray fits the mold.
Although he is still a long shot to make the final roster, it is not at all unheard of for undrafted free agents to make an impact in the NFL. Kurt Warner, Antonio Gates, Arian Foster and Tony Romo all went undrafted and went on to become stars.
And Miami has a history of turning undrafted players into starters. Current Miami defensive end Cameron Wake and former wide receiver Wes Welker both received playing time early in their careers with the Dolphins.
There were nearly 500 undrafted players in the NFL in 2015 (486 made a Week 1 53-man roster), and there are 15 current members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who also went undrafted, according to NFL.com. Gray will battle fellow undrafted linebackers Akil Blount (FAMU) and James Burgess (Louisville) for a spot on a Dolphins team that ranked near the bottom of the league in every major defensive category.
“I am not expecting anything or feel like I am entitled to anything. I have to do the work and prove that there is something about me that can make their team a little bit better,” Gray said.
Gray had a solid career at Boise State — 191 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, five sacks, six forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries, 11 pass breakups and three interceptions — but frequently served as a backup to Ben Weaver, who led the team in tackles last season as a junior. It was likely his outstanding play at the end of the season and his pro-day workout that pushed him onto the Dolphins radar. He had seven tackles and recorded seven sacks in the final game of his college career — a 55-7 Broncos win over Northern Illinois in the Poinsettia Bowl — and a 4.6 40-yard dash time. A few highlight tackles didn’t hurt either.
“Just to see that kid come along and take the next step, I’m proud of him,” Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates told the Idaho Statesman at the end of last season. “I know he wanted to play at the next level and between (linebackers coach Andy Avalos) and myself, I sat him down and said, ‘Hey, if you want to have the opportunity to play at the next level ... .’ He had to play good these last few games, and I think he did.”
Boise State had one of the top-20 defenses in the nation, and three players were drafted, including fellow linebacker Kamalei Correa (Baltimore Ravens), Darian Thompson (Giants) and Rees Odhiambo (Seattle Seahawks), with all three going in the second and third rounds. Gray will also join a former teammate, Dolphins running back and Boise State graduate Jay Ajayi.
“I watched the draft, and it was kind of cool to see all my teammates get drafted,” Gray said.
Gray, who said he has been to Miami once before for a camp at the University of Miami, said he knows what to expect when it comes to the weather — hot and humid — but everything else will be a new and exciting experience. The first three days of minicamp will be spent in the classroom learning about life in the NFL, dealing with media and on strength and conditioning. The on-field portion of the camp begins Thursday. The day-to-day grind of team workouts — where every day will be a job interview — lasts until June.
“It all starts with work ethic,” Gray said. “I think what I’m looking forward to most is just that I have been given this opportunity and it’s up to me to take it as far as I can.”