NFL Pro Bowlers Juantavius “JT” Gray and Elgton Jenkins have found success on the highest stage and are embracing their roots and where it all started in Clarksdale.
Gray, a safety and special teams standout, has been with the New Orleans Saints since 2018, is a team captain, and earned a spot in the 2021 Pro Bowl. Jenkins, a left guard, has been with the Green Bay Packers since 2019 and earned a spot in the 2020 and 2022 Pro Bowls.
Gray and Jenkins are 2014 Clarksdale High School graduates and were teammates at Mississippi State University.
Jenkins and Gray hosted the second annual “Backyard Dawgz Football Camp” at Clarksdale High School’s football field on Friday. Younger athletes learned drills in the morning, and high school teams played 7-on-7 football in the afternoon.
Clarksdale High School, Coahoma County High School, West Bolivar High School, and Madison Shannon Palmer High School all participated in the 7-on-7 football games.
Gray and Jenkins also hosted a 3-on-3 basketball tournament at Clarksdale High School on Friday night and donated a $3,000 prize.
Jenkins said he hoped kids at the “Backyard Dawgz Football Camp” learned “hard work, dedication, paying attention to the details on and off the football field,” noting that those are things it will take to play in the NFL.
Jenkins earned a degree in industrial technology from Mississippi State.
“Academics are the most important,” he said. “You can’t go anywhere without it. It’s one of the main things in high school, college, and the NFL. They preach on just making sure that you’re staying ahead in academics because, without that, you can’t do anything.”
Jenkins will have other career options after his days of playing in the NFL are finished, but for now, he is enjoying his time with the Packers.
“Got a long NFL career ahead,” he said. “Just ready to show what the future holds.”
When Gray and Jenkins were in high school, the Wildcats played at Crumpton Field. Clarksdale has been playing on its new field at the high school since 2020, and both Gray and Jenkins were impressed with the facilities.
“It looks good out here,” Jenkins said. “We’ve got the track and field. The football field looks good. It’s great.”
“I love it,” he said. “It makes me feel like I’m home. I am home.”
Although the “Backyard Dawgz Football Camp” is only in its second year, it fulfilled a vision Gray and Jenkins had going back many years.
“We always talked about when we were younger, giving back to the community and being an example for the kids where we come from,” Jenkins said.
The “Backyard Dawgz Football Camp” brought friends that met in college and the NFL together.
Jeffery Simmons, a defensive tackle for the Tennessee Titans, and Justin Hardee, a cornerback and special teams player for the New York Jets, helped out with the camp. Both athletes are also Pro Bowlers, with Simmons earning a spot in 2021 and 2022 and Hardee making it in 2022.
Simmons played for Mississippi State from 2016 to 2018 and was a teammate of Gray and Jenkins. Hardee and Gray were teammates with the Saints from 2018 to 2020 and have remained friends since Hardee went to the Jets.
Gray and Hardee were on a Saints team that broke a record for allowing the least amount of punt return yards.
“We broke an NFL record,” Gray said. “We’re in the record book.”
Hardee embraces the role of playing on special teams.
“There are three phases of the game,” he said. “Offense and defense have to be on point with special teams, and it can either help you win or lose. I’ve been a part of teams where it helped us win a lot of games. I’ve also been a part of teams where it helped us lose, so I know the importance of it. I embrace it, and I love it.”
Gray, Jenkins, Hardee, and Simmons are now on four different teams but remain friends and came together for the camp.
“That’s how it goes,” Gray said. “Friendship is essential.”
Hardee expressed similar sentiments.
“He ended up being one of my best friends in the NFL,” said Hardee of Gray.
Hardee mentioned another connection between himself, Gray, Jenkins, and Simmons.
“We’re all one big happy NFL family and part of the same fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.,” Hardee said.
Clarksdale High School head football coach Curtis Kemp Jr. was Gray and Jenkins’ offensive coordinator during their high school careers. Coahoma County High School head coach Jeremiah Brassell was Gray and Jenkins’ defensive coordinator when they were underclassmen. Red Panthers offensive and defensive line coach Sammie Pruitt was a teammate of Gray and Jenkins in high school.
Kemp Jr., Brassell, and Pruitt were all at the “Backyard Dawgz Football Camp.”
“I’m very proud of them,” said Brassell of Gray and Jenkins. “It couldn’t happen to two better people.”
Brassell knew both athletes had potential when they were underclassmen.
“You could see the drive in them,” he said. “You could see it in them, but they finished it off themselves.”
Jenkins’ mother, Delandra, and Gray’s mother, Michelle, reflected on the success of their sons.
“They were always together,” said Michelle Gray of Gray and Jenkins. “If you see one, you see the other. So they have always been best friends and always supported one another in high school. They dedicated their time to make sure they supported one another to be successful in the NFL.”
Delandra Jenkins was proud of Gray and Jenkins for giving something back.
“I love them,” she said. “I love them with all my heart. I think what they’re doing for the community is great.”
Michelle Gray recalled her son’s early days playing sports.
“As a child, JT started playing peewee football,” she said. “He always stated that he was going to go all the way to the NFL. He made that promise. I made sure I was there to support him and pave the way to get there.”
Gray played for the Clarksdale Lumberjacks peewee football team under head coach Tyrone Smith and started as a running back.
“He’s a natural running back,” Michelle Gray said. “He’s embraced whatever position was given to him. He found his niche.”
Gray was also a first baseman and cleanup hitter in baseball.
Michelle Gray said her son could have played in the NFL and MLB like Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson, but he stuck with football.
“He always preferred football,” Michelle Gray said. “He could have done both.”
Delandra Jenkins did not know what Jenkins and Gray would do for a living, but she always expected them to be successful.
“I knew they were destined for greatness as people,” she said.
Delandra Jenkins only started rooting for the Packers after Jenkins was drafted.
“I was a Cowboys fan, but I’m an Elgton Jenkins fan now,” she said.
Michelle Gray was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan before Gray signed with the Saints. She still has her “Terrible Towel,” but she is now a Saints fan.
“I still have it on my shelf to dust off Saints trophies,” she said. “I use my Terrible Towel to dust off all his awards.”