In 2008, Justin Wray led Eastside to the Region 8-AAA football championship at quarterback. He won two playoff games and put Eastside football on the map. That fall, Wray switched sides.
No, Wray didn't transfer to Newton or Alcovy. He graduated and took his skills north to Appalachian State University. But he didn"t go to play quarterback. He was recruited out of high school as a safety.
Wray turned in his offensive playbook for a defensive one at Appalachian State University and the move paid off. In 2010, he finished second on the team in tackles with 73 and was named second-team All-Southern Conference.
Poised to be the defensive quarterback this season, Wray is again at a crossroad. He will miss the upcoming season due to a shoulder injury and will redshirt his junior year. We caught up to Wray at the recent Eastside passing league and he gave his thoughts on his injury, the transition to defense, college football life and if playing quarterback is still in his future.
The News: You had a great year last year but now it looks like you won"t play this season. What"s the status of your injury right now?
Wray: Once we do the MRI, I'll know exactly what we have to do with surgery. I hurt it in the fifth game of last season, but I just played through it. We think it's the labrum. Once I get the surgery, I will work through rehab and get it stronger than before and I'll work hard with the team to get ready to come back for my junior year next season.
The News: Talk to me about last year when you had a breakout season. What was it like playing up there at Appalachian State?
Wray: It was a fun year. Playing college football is great. It was my first year at outside linebacker and it was great to earn second-team All-Southern Conference. We won the conference championship and that meant a lot to us. We wished we could have taken it further and win the national championship though.
The News: What's the experience been like going up to that program where they've had so much success?
Wray: It's been just like a big program - like a Florida or Virginia Tech. There's a lot of love up there from everyone on campus toward the football team. It's similar to Eastside, with all the love and the focus on winning championships. That's why I chose Appalachian State.
The News: What's been the biggest difference between playing in high school and playing at a big college program?
Wray: Probably the discipline and focus. In college, we focus so much on what we are supposed to do where at Eastside I played quarterback and safety and could play linebacker or anywhere really on offense. In college, the focus is much different.
The News: You went there as a safety, but you didn't stay there very long.
Wray: No, I didn't. I played some safety as a freshman but my coach wanted me to switch to linebacker. He told me we would make that transition the next spring and it's been different but good so far.
The News: What went into that decision to convert you from a safety to linebacker?
Wray: It was a matter of the defense my coach wanted to play. He wants faster linebackers on the outside and players who are athletic and strong as well. Because of my speed and strength in tackling and such, it was a good fit for me.
The News: And you got to play behind All-American DJ Smith at linebacker.
Wray: Oh yeah, that was big. We've had some successful players. We had a couple of players go into the league (NFL). We had three and that's more than some big Division 1 schools had.
The News: What was it like playing Florida on the road last year?
Wray: Oh man, that was a lovely experience just to go down to The Swamp and see where so many great players have played. But you know, I had to get that out of my mind and just play football and handle my business.
The News: Can you tell when you see an NFL-caliber player on the field? How much different are they than everyone else?
Wray: You can definitely tell. You can tell by their work ethic in how hard they work. When you see them on Saturdays, and how much they transfer that work they put in during the week, you can see how much it pays off. You have to have passion but still have fun doing it.
The News: Does the thought of playing in the NFL ever pass through your mind?
Wray: I think about it sometimes but I have to look at it like, I just have to take care of my business and not chase my dream. I let my dream chase me. As long as I work hard, I know I will put forth the effort to become a great player and that's all I really think about.
The News: You come back here sometimes to work with the program. What's it like for you when you come back here?
Wray: I love coming back to Eastside and showing kids that this is a great program to be a part of. I talk to them and try to show them the ropes and teach them what to do and what not to do so they can keep a level head.
The News: Do you miss playing quarterback?
Wray: Not really. I do sometimes because quarterback is such a prominent position and you get to touch the ball all the time and you can make either a positive or negative play each time. I miss that I can't make plays with the ball but on defense, I get to take somebody's head off.
The News: Which do you like better, making a guy miss and taking the ball in the end zone or hitting a guy coming across the middle?
Wray: That's tough because I had scored touchdowns all my life and just started playing defense. I would say taking somebody's head off is more enjoyable to me right now. Just seeing the pain in someone's face after you lay the wood on them.
The News: If the coach turned to you and told you to go in at quarterback, what would you think?