It’s been more than 11 years, but
“Every weekend that it’s hot out, you’re hearing about so many homicides and so many people getting shot,” Gray said with a tinge of disappointment. “It brings back memories of my situation and my brother getting shot.”
He sees another headline and suddenly he’s standing in the window of his childhood home in Morgan Park near 114th and Elizabeth streets on June 28, 2001. A car carrying his 21-year-old brother, Percy, aka “Trae,” and his friends pulls up. Seconds later, Gray’s life changes forever.
“A few of my brother’s friends get out of the car and all of a sudden another car pulls up behind and just gets to shooting,” Reggie recalled. “It came to the realization that it was a real gun and there were guys out there shooting in broad daylight.”
When the dust settled and the smoke cleared, Trae had been shot in what police called a gang-related shooting as his little brother watched in horror. But the worst was yet to come.
“We got to the hospital and got word that he was shot in the back of the head,” the 28-year-old Dolton resident said. “The bullet went through one end and came out the other. Realistically at that time, we knew he wasn’t long … .”
It’s a moment that would forever shape him as a man.
Gray said two people were arrested in connection with his brother’s killing but had this to say about who he believes was the main person involved: “I was able to point out a few guys, but the main person who was involved got away scot free. Even if justice didn’t do what it was supposed to do, [the main shooter is] gonna have to answer to God someday.”
Gray, who would go on to become a record-setting wide receiver at Western Illinois University that summer and for the Rush years later, decided he wouldn’t go down the same path his brother did.
“He was running with the wrong crowd,” Gray said. “He used to always tell me, ‘Don’t be like me.’ He’d say, ‘Play your sports and play your sports to the fullest.’”
He’s doing much more than that.
There’s more to the man they call “Big Play” Reggie Gray than scoring touchdowns in front of adoring masses at Allstate Arena in Rosemont. During the week, he’s a difference-maker off the field as a mentor for at-risk youths at his full-time job as a residential adviser for Youth Outreach Services in Riverdale.
His boss, Gwen Adams, said you’d never know of Gray’s more prominent side job by the way he deals with his charges.
“I think he’s just Reggie to them,” said Adams, program manager for Youth Outreach Services. “He has an ability to connect with the young men. They know that he plays football, but I don’t think they look at the fact that he’s playing for this team. They look at him as he’s just a regular person who’s there to assist them.”
“Looking at me gives them hope that they can make it out of the streets of the city of Chicago,” Gray said with a shrug.
And while he still has designs on making it to the NFL, Gray remains devoted to helping the city curb its alarming rise in violent crime.
According to RedEye’s homicide tracker, there have been 91 homicides within a 2-mile radius of Gray’s childhood home since New Year’s Day 2007. Gray attributes this to a lack of options for youths in the area, who may not have a stable and successful role model.
“All they know is the ’hood and it’s sad because they think shooting someone is street credibility,” he said. “These guys have to realize there are consequences. Their graduation from the streets is to go to jail.”
Changing that culture is an uphill battle, and Gray said he’s seen more failures than successes in his time as a mentor. Nevertheless, he says it’s a fight worth fighting if he can save at least one young man from the same fate that befell his brother.
“You can’t save them all, but if you can get a few to realize there’s a better life out there, that could be the difference between them pulling the trigger and running,” Gray said.
Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.
It’s been more than 11 years, but