AUSTIN, Texas -- Nearly two weeks ago, Johnathan Gray posed a question to a Texas assistant trainer out of pure curiosity.
“How does it feel if you tear your Achilles?”
Who knows how long he’d wondered, but this came to mind sometime after Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks went down for the season with that tear.
The answer? It feels like somebody has kicked you from behind, like they’ve stuck a knife just below your calf.
Gray isn’t making up that anecdote. He says he asked the question. He got a much more definite answer a week later.
“I felt like I kind of jinxed myself,” Gray said Monday.
The sophomore running back’s season is over. He had surgery on Wednesday to repair the torn Achilles he suffered against West Virginia last Saturday, and by all accounts the operation went well. Now he’s in for a long road to recovery, carrying the hope he’ll be back in time for the start of the 2014 season.
“God puts us here in weird positions and we have to overcome them and get through adversity,” Gray said. “That’s what I plan on doing.”
And Texas, with three high-stakes games and a bowl left, must find a way to keep its run-heavy offense rolling without the third-leading rusher in the Big 12.
When he turned after hauling in a third-quarter pass from Case McCoy at West Virginia, Gray felt the pop. He’s seen the slow-motion TV replays that show a ripple in his right leg after trying to plant his foot. He skidded to the ground.
“Sure enough, I looked behind me and nobody was behind me. It felt like somebody kicked me,” Gray said. “I knew right then when I went down I’d tore it. It sucks, but you have to get through it.”
He’d notched more than 330 touches in two seasons and proved to be Texas’ most durable running back. Gray didn’t have much of an injury history in his time in Austin. That’s why his teammates were stunned.
“I was shocked. Like, damn,” tackle Donald Hawkins said. “It’s Johnathan, you know? The guy who's always smiling, always encouraging people. To see him on crutches was surprising.”
What didn’t shock fullback Alex De La Torre was the way Gray reacted. When he went down near the sideline, he unbuckled his chinstrap, took off his helmet and asked for some help.
“I don’t think he even yelled when he got hurt,” De La Torre said. “He was just like, ‘Hey, I’m hurt.’”
If the former five-star recruit is hurting right now, he’s hiding it well. Gray was all smiles on Monday, in his boot and crutches, and is staying overwhelmingly positive about the setback.
That duo is now responsible for powering an offense that has averaged more than 49 carries per game in the past month. And Gray will be with them throughout, barking out orders as a volunteer running backs coach in practice and offering his in-game encouragement when he returns to the sidelines.
“We've got a good thing going for us: defense playing well, offense playing well, special teams playing well. Anyone can step up and play any position on this team,” Gray said. “We have talent on this team. I told the guys to keep going forward and keep my goal in mind, and that’s to win out and make it to a good BCS bowl and win that.”
Co-offensive coordinator Major Applewhite said Gray has always been one to choose optimism. His running back had the same smile when Texas was 1-2 as he did after beating Oklahoma. The attitude is infectious, and Gray will have a presence in the locker room no matter his health.
And just as Gray will tell you, Texas isn’t necessarily sunk without him. The four backs left -- Brown, Bergeron, Daje Johnson and Jalen Overstreet -- have combined for 3,130 career rushing yards and 45 touchdowns.
Applewhite spent the last five years coaching Texas running backs. He knows what he’s working with. When it comes to Brown and Bergeron, the coaching staff will ride the hot hand on Saturday.
“The carries and the rotation, except for certain situations, is kind of handled by how they’re playing and how they’re taking care of the ball,” Applewhite said. “Both those guys will play a whole bunch.”
Gray wants to be there for them. He can't be on the sideline Saturday afternoon, but coach Mack Brown made sure Gray and defensive tackle Chris Whaley join everyone else at the team hotel this weekend. He wants them to miss out on as little as possible.
Teammates say they’ll miss Gray as much off the field as on it, but the ever-faithful back says he’ll be fine. He’s keeping his head up. He wants a Big 12 title more than ever now, and he believes his fellow Longhorns can deliver.
“Those guys have nothing but victory in their eyes,” Gray said. “I know they’ll get the job done.”