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Tight end Gray thinks he’s found safe landing with Bills

One twin is in the garage shooting at a new basketball hoop. The other is crouched on the driveway, in his underwear, scribbling away in chalk.

Their voices echo in the background.

Back home in Minnesota, MarQueis Gray is resetting his career this summer. Again. The twins he had in 2011 with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, know he played for San Francisco and Cleveland and Minnesota and now Buffalo. He hopes this is his final stop.

“As long as they’re happy, as long as they have a roof over their heads,” Gray said, “there’s nothing I can do. I’m working my [expletive] off and doing everything I can daily.”

The quest for freak athletes at tight end in the NFL knows no boundaries. Scouts search through college basketball gyms. Trainers bulk up wide receivers. Coaches convert college quarterbacks. At this position, creativity reigns because the pay-off can be dynamite. So here in Buffalo – in an offense that’ll feature the tight end heavily – Gray has a shot. The former University of Minnesota quarterback lined up as the No. 2 tight end in the spring behind the new $38 Million Dollar Man, Charles Clay.

Gray took the rocky path to Orchard Park, from getting kicked off the Gophers team as a freshman to having twins the night before a game to getting cut three times in the pros.

Buffalo, finally, feels like home.

“This offense right here is tight end heaven,” Gray said. “We move around so much that we really play receiver, slot, we play everything but running back. You could line up at any of those spots – that’s the best part about this offense.”

So maybe this 6-foot-4, 242-pounder who finished the 2014 season strong becomes an X-factor in Greg Roman’s offense.

For Gray, the turbulence began as a four-star recruit out of Indianapolis. After he spent all summer with the Gophers preparing to play, the NCAA kicked him off the team the first week of his first game due to suspicions over his ACT test scores.

Gray originally took the ACT as a freshman – unprepared, unfocused, not all in – and then again as a senior. His score rose so drastically that the NCAA investigated and stepped in. Gray couldn’t receive a scholarship until taking the test a third time. To this day, he maintains he never cheated.

So back home, Gray cried, cried some more and then took a job at Target in the electronics department. Always on time, approachable and cracking jokes, Gray sold so many televisions he was named “Employee of the Month” multiple times.

Of course, he was expecting to learn how to thwart Cover 2 defenses, not the difference between LED and Plasma.

“That’s what put everything into perspective for me,” Gray said. “I’d rather be playing football. I don’t want to do the 9-to-5 until I have to.”

He took the ACT again, earned a scholarship and became the face of a rising program.

At receiver in 2010, Gray caught 42 passes for 587 yards and five touchdowns. At quarterback in 2011 and 2012, he threw for 1,967 yards, rushed for 1,356 and scored 24 total touchdowns. Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill used the word “athlete” seven times in one response describing Gray’s game. In Kill’s first season, he insists Gray “single-handedly” beat Iowa down the stretch with his legs.

Kill believes Gray’s quarterback upbringing can help him last long term at tight end in the pros, too.

“The knowledge of the game,” Kill said. “When you play quarterback, you’ve got to know every position. You have to know coverages and how the back end works and all the reads. … He went through the tough times with us, the tough days, and he was always a team player.

“When I first walked in on the job, he was the only person who looked like a Division I athlete.”

Getting embarrassed by the NCAA was one thing. The birth of his twins – on the eve of a 2011 game against Wisconsin – was a true whiplash of perspective. Gray was at a team dinner when he got the call from his future wife, Alley Behr. MarZell and MarShawn Gray were on the way. So Dad zipped to the hospital. The babies were born. And he mustered three hours of sleep before playing the next day.

Being a Youth Studies major helped the transition – Gray studied the behavior of children for hours. Still, this wasn’t easy. Typically, he’d wake up at 5 a.m., head to his 6 a.m. workout, take classes, go to practice and get back by 7 p.m. With Behr on mom duty all day, Gray was the one waking up sporadically all night.

The most sleep he’d get a night? Five hours. The norm? Three.

“I didn’t get a lot of sleep, I can tell you that,” Gray said. “Being able to play in the NFL makes it all worth it now.”

Today, Gray’s Snapchat is the stuff of legend. One moment, he’s singing Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” from the passenger seat of his car with the twins chiming in from the back. The next, he’s talking to his dog in the living room. But Gray also knows a do-or-die training camp awaits.

He’ll either stick in Buffalo, move onto his fifth team in three years or, at worst, be out of the league altogether.

The quarterback-to-tight end position switch has been a work in progress.

At one point in organized team activities this spring, tight ends coach Tony Sparano Jr. called Gray into his office. Sparano was worried. Gray – usually hyperactive, smiling, laughing – was quiet all practice.

“Is everything OK?” Sparano asked Gray. “You weren’t yourself out there.”

“Everything is fine,” Gray promised.

Without knowing it, Gray was more serious than normal during practice. Driven. He realizes this is how he must attack training camp.

Last year in Buffalo, he stayed at the Staybridge Suites. This year, maybe he’ll get a six-month lease. No house. No new car. Not yet. His twins, wife and step-daughter, Tessa, will continue to stay in Minnesota for now.

Getting cut so many times has taught Gray to expect the unexpected. He was blindsided when the Minnesota Viking waived him Week 12 of last season.

“For me, it’s pretty tough because I’ve got a family,” said Gray, who caught eight passes for 118 yards in five games with Buffalo last year. “And I’m worried about where we’re going to move them to and how long we’re going to be there and whether or not I’ll get a hotel, whether or not they should leave daycare and come up and stay with me.

“There’s so much stuff to go through, so hopefully this year I can make Buffalo my home permanently.”

And if he makes the team, if he continues to sense big things coming, maybe everyone moves east.

In this new offense, Gray sees himself “being a playmaker.” Route running. Reading coverages. This new position is finally slowing down for Gray. He knows Roman’s offense as well as anyone, too, having played for the coach in San Francisco. Proving himself as a reliable blocker will be critical three weeks from now.

Over the phone, Gray pauses. The sound of his twins fades.

Yes, he says, 2015 could be his “breakout year.”

“Especially with this offense and the opportunities coming my way – I’m going to take full advantage of it,” Gray said. “I want to be that guy where defensive coordinators say ‘Watch out for 48.’ I want to put fear in the defense.

“Even if it’s my third year at tight end, I still in my mind want to believe I can be the best one day.”

email: tdunne@buffnews.com

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