By Alex Byington
and Kevin Posival
Killeen Daily Herald
Even as the words left Ken Gray's mouth, the assembled Shoemaker football players could barely believe what they were hearing.
After 11 years of being the only head football coach the Grey Wolves had ever known, Gray announced his retirement Thursday, almost exactly two months before the start of fall practices.
"I went in there with him when he told the kids and they just had a look on their face like 'Where did this come from?' I don't think they really knew what to say," Grey Wolves assistant football coach James Showers said. "The kids were just really shocked. We talked to one or two of them afterwards, but they all just kind of jumped in their cars and left.
"They didn't want to talk to anybody, some of them cried."
Gray finishes with a 29-81 record at Shoemaker and retires in the midst of a 22-game losing streak that dates back to 2008, the Grey Wolves' lone playoff appearance.
"It's a shame that a coach is judged by his wins and losses because it's more to it than just winning and losing," Killeen head football coach Sam Jones said.
Reactions to Gray's abrupt retirement - coming after an end-of-year meeting with KISD Athletic Director Tom Rogers and Shoemaker principal Ronald Gray - ran the gamut from shock and reverence to anger.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Roy Miller, a former Shoemaker and University of Texas standout, voiced his frustration at the perceived position Gray was put in.
"I've just heard from other people that they put him in a corner to make some sort of quotas and stuff, (but) with me being around practice, just being around those guys, I really think he was doing the things that he should have been doing," Miller said.
"Where they winning? No. But some of the things that they tried to force him to do, I don't think it was straight."
For Miller and other former players, it's not how it ended that they'll remember most.
"He just really took the time to show us how to be young men," Miller said of Gray. "And I think more than anything that he's done, more than any play that he's called, more than any kind of drills that he put guys through, he's taught kids how to be men, and to me that's more important than anything that you can do - especially as a mentor and a coach."
Miller, a U.S. Army All-American as a senior in 2004, still maintains a close relationship with the Gray and the Grey Wolves program even after being drafted by the Bucs in the third round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
"He was a guy that Shoemaker needed, and still needs," Miller said. "They need somebody that cares about those kids, because there's a lot of kids going through bad situations and they just need somebody that cares about them on and off the field."
That relationship proved to be an important part of the players' development away from the field.
"He was the first coach in my life that you could tell that he cared about you more than just on a football level. He wanted guys, helped raise us to be young men," said former quarterback Keith Smith, who wrapped up a five-year career at Purdue this year.
"In that area, especially because it's an area of military families and a lot of the fathers were gone overseas all the time, he played that father role as well as that coach role."
As the closest high school located just outside the gates of Fort Hood, Gray dealt with a lot of difficulties - most notably the transient nature of his players' military lifestyles.
"Kids would be there for maybe a year or two and they would be gone whereas my kids (at Killeen) would stay a little longer and maybe developed through some of the hard times and some of the situations that we go through," Jones said.
But through all the hardships, players emerged better for the experience, thanks in large part to Gray putting them ahead his own success.
"I know he's touched all of our lives greatly, so it's nice to see that he's finally able to retire, but I wish he would've gone out on a better note," Smith said of the losing streak.
Ultimately though, with Gray no longer at the helm, it is the current players that will be the most affected.
"It just hurts because I know those kids need him the way that they do, and to not have him there, it's kind of like, 'Dang, who's going to fill that void?' And there aren't too many people that can," Miller said.