Putting Tragedy Behind
Thetford’s Gray Gives Team a Lesson in Character
Thetford goalie Brandon Gray, warming up before last week’s season opener with Rivendell Academy, has been a leader and role model for his teammates as he deals with the personal tragedy that surrounds his family. Along with leading the Panthers in soccer, Gray has also been successful on the summer racing circuit. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »
Brandon Gray jockeys with Rivendell’s Tim Stinson before a corner kick during the season opener. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Purchase photo reprints »
Thetford — On the morning of Aug. 13, Brandon Gray was getting ready for work when he received an urgent call from a his aunt, Loretta.
“She told me to hurry over to my grandparents’ house,” the 16-year-old recalled. “I knew right away that something was wrong.”
Brandon didn’t know how right he was. His father, Troy Gray, was the shooter in a murder/suicide in Fairlee that took the lives of both Troy Gray, 45, and his wife, Rhoda Gray, 43. Rhonda Gray was Brandon’s stepmother; he lives with his mom, Kristie Gray, in East Thetford.
The tragedy leaves Brandon and his 19-year-old sister, Brittany, without a dad and their four step-siblings without a mom as the family and community continue to mourn and search for answers.
For Brandon, a standout athlete both for the Thetford Academy boys soccer and basketball teams as well as on the race track, it means continuing to perform in spite of the turmoil.
Just four days after the deaths, on Aug. 17, Gray was back at Bradford, Vt.’s Bear Ridge Speedway — a track where Troy Gray had claimed numerous championships in years past — to continue his season in the limited Late Model Series. He won his second race of the year that night, barely holding it together inside the car during the final laps.
“With about two laps to go, I started losing it (emotionally),” Gray recalled. “I really had to work to keep my head on straight. When I crossed the finish line, it was definitely a sense of relief, but it was hard to stay (composed). My whole family came out and everyone was crying. It was emotional, but I was really proud. All in all it was the greatest experience of my whole life.”
Brandon hadn’t lived with his dad for the past six years, but they still remained close. Over the last year or so they became as tight as they’d ever been, he said.
“We’d go to the races together, ride jeeps together,” Gray said. “We had a lot of common interests, and were getting to be really good friends.”
Police reports indicate a history of domestic violence involving Troy and Rhonda Gray, but Brandon says he rarely, if ever, saw a destructive side to his father.
“There were times where he got mad and you knew he was mad, and I would just walk away. But I never saw him lay a hand on anybody. I never would have dreamed what happened could have happened.
“It was 100 percent shock.”
Gray returned to Bear Ridge for another victory on Aug. 24, his first back-to-back wins of the year. That put him in fourth place in the late model standings despite a number of did-not-finish scores because of mechanical problems this summer.
Working closely in the family garage with his cousins, Jason Gray and Mike Mann, and uncle, Tim Gray, Brandon said he never considered withdrawing from the racing season in the wake of the tragedy.
“We know he wouldn’t want us to give up,” said Brandon Gray, who struggled on a wet track in his most recent race Saturday and placed fourth. “We’ve got to keep going for him.
“The hardest part of this whole thing is to go into the garage to work on the car and know I’m not going to see my father there. But no matter what, he’ll always be with me.”
A junior at Thetford Academy, Gray returned to school last week to face his teachers and peers and resume his duties as a captain and starting goalie for the Panthers’ soccer team. On opening day on the pitch Friday against rival Rivendell, he made 19 saves to help Thetford earn a tie.
“It’s been a little awkward, just being around the kids at school who know what happened, but don’t really know my father,” he said. “It’s been a little hard, but it will get easier.”
With his teammates, Brandon’s positive attitude and leadership qualities haven’t waned. He’s determined to help the traditionally strong Panthers get back to the Vermont Division III title game, where they fell to Stowe last fall.
“If he’s beaten up inside, he sure knows how to keep a lid on it,” said first-year Thetford coach Sean Fitzgerald. “He has stepped up into a leadership role and has really held it together. I work a lot with the keepers and he seems really focused. He’s a great athlete. He’s quick, strong as an ox, vocal... He’s the kind of guy you want to have on your team.”
Gray’s teammate and classmate, Matt Perry, agrees.
“I’m sure he thinks about it a lot, but it really doesn’t seem to be fazing him,” the forward said. “He’s a leader and wants everyone around him to be a leader. I don’t expect that to change.”
A shooting guard with a killer 3-pointer, Gray led the Panthers’ boys basketball team with 12.5 points per game last year, helping Thetford reach the finals. He plans to make himself more of a threat this season with an inside game.
“I love shooting the 3, but by the end of last year I was getting too one-dimensional,” Gray said. “I was way too easy to guard, so this year I want to be more of a dribbler inside.”
That Gray is even thinking about sports after what he’s endured is a testament to his strength. And whether it’s the race track or varsity athletics at Thetford, don’t expect him to give up anytime soon.
Jared Pendak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3306.