I view myself as a spiritual football coach. Life is the game, God is the team owner, and I’m a coach. People need to hear and understand the gospel in real terms. Everybody wants to hear your story. Within my story is everybody’s story. – Derwin Gray
As a popular safety at BYU in the early 1990s, Derwin “Dewey” Gray knew how to whip sellout crowds in Provo into a frenzy.
“I distinctly remember running out on the field and waving my arms and 60,000-plus people would go crazy,” Gray said recently. “I remember one game where at the end, one entire section of the stadium was chanting my name.”
That was a validating experience for a non-LDS, African-American young man from San Antonio, Texas, who was raised without a father and around family members that struggled with substance abuse and found themselves in and out of jail.
On top of that, Gray grew up with a stuttering problem, and he lacked confidence in himself.
At that time, his savior was football.
“I had seen so much dysfunction and violence that football for me from the age of 14 wasn’t a game, it was a job,” Gray said. “It was a passport to get me out of where I was. In many ways, I wasn’t religious but football was my God. The religious side didn’t matter to me because football at that time gave me everything I needed. It gave me identity.”
During his four years in Provo, Gray learned to adapt to a new culture on a predominantly white, LDS campus. He enjoyed playing for a legendary coach, LaVell Edwards.
“It was an honor playing for LaVell Edwards,” he said. “I greatly respect him for giving me an opportunity.”
In 1990 against New Mexico, Gray recorded three interceptions — a school-record — including one he returned for a touchdown. He recorded 19 tackles in a game at Penn State in 1991.
BYU is also where he met his wife, Vicki, a track athlete who specialized in the javelin. The Grays have been married for 21 years and they have an 18-year-old daughter, Presley, and a 14-year-old son, Jeremiah.
Ironically, it wasn’t until after he left BYU — while playing in the NFL — that he found religion.
Since retiring from football after a six-year NFL career, Gray graduated magna cum laude from Southern Evangelical Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree.
In January 2010, he became the lead pastor of the Transformation Church, with campuses south of Charlotte, North Carolina. The Transformational Church has been recognized by Outreach magazine as one of the fastest-growing churches in the United States.
Gray — touted as the “Evangelism Linebacker” — is an eloquent, charismatic speaker who has written a handful of books and he writes a blog, titled “Just Marinating”.
The man who used to stammer his way through interviews as a player has delivered speeches in places like India, Germany and all over the country. The man who barely got a high enough score on his ACT to get into college has not only earned a master’s degree, but is working on a doctorate degree and, this fall, will receive an honorary doctorate degree.
“I view myself as a spiritual football coach,” Gray said. “Life is the game, God is the team owner, and I’m a coach. People need to hear and understand the gospel in real terms. Everybody wants to hear your story. Within my story is everybody’s story.”
The naked preacher
As is required of all students at BYU, Gray took religion classes such as studies of The Book of Mormon and missionary prep. But religion was the last thing on his mind.
Gray was at BYU to play football and he was banking on a career in the NFL.
“Back then, I wasn’t diving into things spiritually,” he said. “But I did think the story of the Gadianton Robbers (in The Book of Mormon) was very cool. I do remember that.”
A fourth-round pick in the 1993 NFL draft, Gray was living his dream as a defensive back with the Indianapolis Colts.
After practices in Indianapolis, one of his teammates, Steve Grant, would wander around the locker room wearing nothing but a towel. He would ask his teammates, “Do you know Christ?” One day, Grant, known as “The Naked Preacher” stood in front of Gray’s locker.
“That began a five-year dialogue of him teaching me what the gospel was about,” Gray said. “I thought Christianity was like football. If I do good, God will accept me. But I didn’t realize that God’s standard of acceptance was perfection and only Jesus was perfect. For the first time in my life, I had to depend on somebody else. That somebody was Jesus.”
Gray remembers the day that his life changed forever — Aug. 2, 1997. The day before, the Colts were playing the Cincinnati Bengals in a preseason game. Gray couldn’t play due to turf toe.
“After that game I was like, ‘God’s trying to tell me something.’ The next day, we were at training camp,” Gray said. “After lunch, there was a Grand Canyon-sized hole in my heart. I remember walking back to my dorm room. When I got there I picked up the phone and called my wife. I said, ‘I want to be more committed to you and to Jesus.’ She was silent, I was silent. I could literally feel from my head to the bottom of my toes a transformation happening. I could feel the love of God. It was like the world went from watching black and white TV to high definition.”
While Gray had once thrived on hearing the cheers from the crowd, his perspective is much different now.
“Jesus has performed for you so the applause and love of God the Father is given to you because of Him,” Gray said. “You now live from His performance because of His grace. When I got that, that was a game-changer. That totally changed my entire life.”
'We're just a team'
Another life-changing moment for Gray occurred during his freshman year at BYU. He remembers being at the athletes’ weight room when he noticed a female athlete lifting weights.
“I thought to myself, ‘I hope she asks me to give her a spot,’” Gray recalled. “Lo and behold, she said, ‘Can you give me a spot?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ I gave her a spot and that was it. She walked off.”
The woman’s name was Vicki Ensign, who was also non-LDS. She hailed from a small town in Montana.
A short time later, Gray saw Ensign playing basketball at the Smith Fieldhouse with other athletes. He enlisted the help of a teammate, Rick Wilson, to let her know he would like to speak to her.
“I really wanted to talk to her,” he said. “But I was really shy.”
The two struck up a conversation, during which Vicki informed him that she had a boyfriend. So Gray backed off.
A couple of weeks later, he saw her in the hallway of the athletic department, and he asked if she still had a boyfriend. Vicki said no.
“And the rest,” Derwin says now, “is history.”
Vicki invited him to an off-campus dance with her roommate.
“We were pretty much attached to each other from then on,” Vicki said.
She’s been by his side through more than 20 years of marriage, and has played a big role in his career path.
“My wife and I are like Pippen and Jordan, Batman and Robin,” Derwin said. “She’s my partner. We’re just a team.”
“Even though we came from very different backgrounds, there were some core things that we had in common that were stronger than the environments we came out of,” Vicki said. “That’s probably why we connected so quickly and were pretty much inseparable. A big part of that was sports and the desire to achieve, work ethic. That was an immediate connection.”
Vicki has witnessed the transformation in her husband’s life.
“When we first met, he would do interviews being on the football team and he’d struggle through those,” she said. “He’d do it because he wanted to honor the request, but he was a stutterer. He still stutters some, not near like when he was younger. He wasn’t very confident talking into a camera or talking to a lot of people. That’s what he does all the time now. It’s pretty amazing, actually. He’s grown in confidence. God has done a great work in him.”
The Grays’ daughter, Presley, is a freshman at Clemson. Their son, Jeremiah, is a football player like his dad.
“He’s twice the athlete I ever was. He’s my height now, size 14 shoe, dunks a basketball,” Derwin said. “He’s a phenomenal athlete, a great young man. I’m training him to be a cornerback simply because receivers are so big now. The Lord passed him some pretty good genes. He got dealt a pretty good deck of cards.”
An unexpected journey
Gray never imagined 20 years ago that he’d be a church pastor.
“I am as surprised as anyone with the unfolding journey that God has me on,” he said.
Gray played in the NFL from 1993-98, including his final season with the Carolina Panthers.
What he has accomplished off the field is just as impressive. Gray has had to overcome plenty of obstacles along the way.
“The very things you think are your disadvantage, God will use in your life to your advantage,” he said. “I didn’t grow up with a father. It made me long for my Heavenly Father, which now makes me, according to my wife, a great father. Because I experienced verbal and physical abuse as a little boy, the way our church is geared, we have a lot of teenagers and pre-teens that are part of our church that serve and we build them up and encourage them. I grew up as a compulsive stutterer. Now I get to speak around the world because of the power of God. In 1999, I was invited to speak in Columbia, South Carolina, and I literally cried and argued with God because I was like, ‘God, surely you can send somebody else to go and talk seeing how I can’t talk very good.’ In the midst of crying and wrestling, I could sense God saying, not in audible words, but in my heart, ‘If I can make my son raise from the dead, I can make your tongue move so you can talk, trust me.’”
Gray appreciates the role BYU played in his life.
“It was very good for me to go to BYU because it gave me some social skills that are helping me now,” he said. “You learn to get along with people who are different. If I was going to survive at BYU, I needed to understand the people and the culture. Those are skills that help me to this day … I respect the LDS culture and the commitment to the cause to which they live by.”
Vicki said her husband has always been a genuinely kind person, but being a pastor helps him accomplish acts of kindness on a larger scale.
“His eyes have been open to how much God loves people. It’s helped him to love people even more,” she said. “People know that he genuinely cares for them. I think that’s one of the reasons why Transformation Church has grown the way it has.”
Gray, who once could get BYU fans excited about a football game, now stands in front of crowds on a different stage these days, devoting his life to getting others to come closer to God.
“There are a lot of people who helped me get to where I am. Jesus teaches us that He’s going to help you," he said. "That pattern in my life is, I want to wake up every morning and say, ‘Whose life can I make better today?’ The more I do that, the better my life gets.”