Don Johnson ’82 was just a freshman tag-along in a carpool from Boxford when he met St. John’s coach Craig Gray, who had founded the School’s fencing program less than a decade earlier. Johnson wasn’t interested in fencing, but a neighbor in the carpool joined the team, so Johnson killed time in the gym and did homework throughout practice. After a couple weeks, Gray approached him.
“He comes over and says, ‘Hey, if you’re going to be here anyway, you might as well just try it. If you don’t like it, no skin in the game, no big deal,’” says Johnson. “He kept subtly prodding me until I tried it.”
That was a good call. Johnson went on to win an individual state title in the sabre weapon and earn a full ride to Notre Dame, where he became a three-time NCAA All-American and helped win a national team title as a senior. He was inducted into the St. John’s Prep Athletics Hall of Fame in 1999.
Gray died this past August at the age of 86.
Thing is, Johnson’s ‘Coach Gray anecdote’ isn’t dissimilar from a lot of the guys he coached. Not everyone achieved that level of athletic success—although Gray is widely credited with opening a pipeline of fencers from the Prep and across the Northeast that flowed to legendary Fighting Irish coach Mike DeCicco—but many consider him a key mentor in their youth.
So says current fencing head coach Jim Carter, now in his 28th season, who was an easy mark for Gray’s inveigling powers of suggestion.
“My wife knew him from the Tanner City Fencing Club and from his presence coaching fencing at the Prep (Carter’s son, Joe, graduated in 2020),” explains Carter. “He started to come to Tanner City, where I was fencing, and I found him very engaging every time I met with him. Turns out there was an ulterior motive, because Craig apparently felt I could be a good successor. This was the mid-’90s, and he’d had a heart attack a couple years before."
As Carter tells it, Gray started dropping in at Tanner City on the nights that he knew Carter was going to be there. Subtle chats turned into conversations about kids on the Prep team who were also at Tanner City.
“Eventually, Craig convinced me to do it,” says Carter. “That was almost 30 years ago, so yeah, he was a persuasive guy. I’m almost the same age as he was when he came to me.”
Prep fencing alumni will recall “Coach Gray driving us all over the planet,” as Johnson puts it.
He booked meets all over New England and beyond to find good and regular competition for his team. It wasn’t easy. Fencing has long been a titan of East and Atlantic Coast scholastic athletics, but in the 1970s and ’80s, it was esoteric. Prep fencers sat through three, four, and five-hour drives to meets in states like Vermont or New York. Gray also hosted tournaments at St. John’s, like state and regional junior under-18 and under-16 events, drawing competitors from all over New England.
“He was a bigger figure in the sport than just a St. John's Prep guy,” says Johnson. “He was a regional leader, and he knew all the college coaches, and helped kids network with them. He was a high school English teacher, and he had a passion for working with high school kids, and trying to develop them, and get the most out of them. Really an inspirational guy dedicated to the sport, dedicated to his kids. Just a true coach and mentor. He was an amazing guy.”
Gray, who launched the program in 1974 and guided the Prep to four state championships as a team during his tenure (1988-90, 1992), was inducted into the Athletics Hall of Fame in 1995. That coupled with the entry of his son, Darryl ’80, into the Hall in 1992, made the Grays the first father-son inductees in Prep history. Interestingly, Johnson attributes his early fencing success to Darryl Gray’s mentorship on the team.
“I think a lot of Craig’s success as a coach had to do with just his personality and his demeanor,” says Carter. “He was very gentle in the way he talked and the way that he approached things. And he was very patient, but he was also very single-minded. He never really showed his frustration, either. He was much more understanding and encouraging than a lot of coaches were back then. I think he just had this ability to motivate people and push them a little bit with success. I imagine that a lot of that was just part and parcel of who he was.”
For his part, Carter has been the successor Gray dreamed of and then some. He was inducted into the School’s Athletics Hall of Fame in 2018 and he’s led the Eagles to 11state championships, including 10 straight from 2005 to 2014. He says he can only hope to approach the influence and impact that Gray had in a much shorter time.
“When you really reflect on what Craig did with the program and what Craig was able to accomplish with his fencers, it goes way, way beyond what he did with them as athletes,” says Carter. “That’s probably the biggest testament to a guy that you can have—where you talk to somebody 40 years after the fact and they’re still saying wonderful things.”
Gray’s obituary can be found here.