Kamal Gray can run.
He can pass.
He just can’t play the trombone.
Or the guitar.
“Growing up I tried, but it’s not my thing,” Gray said. “I was just always called to sports. I’d rather pick up a football or baseball or basketball than touch any instrument.”
Gray might have inherited some of his personable nature and considerable athletic ability from his father, also Kamal Gray, the keyboard player for the Philadelphia-based hip-hop group The Roots, which is the house band for The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.
But this isn’t a case of like father, like son when it comes to music.
“I think he could have done it,” the elder Gray said. “But it takes a lot of time. He always wanted to go out and play a game.”
Kamal Gray Jr. is busy making a name for himself as a senior leader of the Pope John Paul II High School football team in Royersford, Montgomery County.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound athlete is among Southeastern Pennsylvania’s top dual-threat quarterbacks. Through the first two games of this season, Gray had passed for 508 yards and eight touchdowns for a team that was averaging 50.5 points.
Last season as a junior, Gray was the Pioneer Conference Frontier Division’s offensive player of the year after passing for 2,250 yards and 28 touchdowns and running for another seven scores in leading the Golden Panthers to an 8-3 record.
“He’s everything that we look for in our quarterbacks,” Pope John Paul II coach Rory Graver said. “He’s fiercely competitive, makes good decisions with the football, and he’s very accurate.
“He’s a great young man. He’s a good representation of what we want our student-athletes to be.”
The elder Gray, a dedicated fan who wears a gold T-shirt with a Panthers emblem and "DAD” emblazoned on the front during his son’s games, played a lot of sports growing up in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy section.
“I was one of those outside kids – at the basketball courts, playing street football, running around the block,” he said. “But my dad saw me as a musician. When I got in trouble, he’d make me play the piano for an hour.”
The elder Gray played safety for a couple of seasons at Martin Luther King High. But he said he had trouble staying academically eligible.
“Every time I got a bad grade [all the time], my dad made me stay home and practice the piano,” he said in a text.
The younger Gray is a top student with a 3.2 grade-point average. He has a scholarship offer from Virginia Military Institute and has drawn recruiting interest from schools such as Army, Bryant, Colgate, and Fordham, among others.
“If he was 6-2 he would have 20 offers,” said former NFL quarterback Jeff Blake, who trains Gray during the offseason. “Coaches see that [height] and they are hesitant. He has great athletic ability and he can take what he learns in practice and do it in a game.”
Blake met the elder Gray when the Roots were hired to serve as the entertainment for the Eagles’ postgame party after Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville in February, 2005. Blake was the Eagles’ backup quarterback at the time.
“It was supposed to be a winners party and it ended up being a losers party,” Gray said of the Eagles’ 24-21 defeat. “Everybody was acting kind of mopey except for Jeff. He was having a good time. I said, ‘I’m hanging with him’ and we’ve been friends ever since.”
His son played youth football for the Conshohocken Bears and spent two years at Archbishop Carroll, starting at quarterback as a sophomore. He has made a major impact at Pope John Paul II, according to his coach.
“He’s very humble and the team gravitates toward him,” Graver said. “He sets the tone for the rest of the team with that.”
Gray said he has been inspired by his father’s success.
“I guess I’ve been blessed with a life that’s well off,” he said. “It’s just driven me to be successful in my own life so I can provide for my family like he provides for us.”
His father commutes weekdays to New York for The Tonight Show so he rarely misses a game. Even when The Roots hit the road, he said he finds a way to support his four kids.
“I’ve flown in to catch a game and flown right back out regularly,” he said.
His son tried the trombone in elementary school. He tried the guitar in middle school.
He didn’t want to disappoint his father. But he preferred swinging a baseball bat or throwing a football.