May 15, 2023 – Written by Olivia Mundorf, Heels4Life Journalism Intern

The leader in tackles in the ACC during the 2022 season.

The recipient of the most First-Team All-ACC votes for the linebacker position.

An All-American.

But even a season filled with those accomplishments wasn’t enough for the heart of the North Carolina defense to walk away from his collegiate career as a Tar Heel.

“Last year, the way it ended really left a bad taste in my mouth,” UNC standout linebacker, Cedric Gray, said. “Four straight loses, losing to rivals, losing in the ACC Championship. We just got our bowl rings. I have three bowl rings and they’re all loses. That means something to me.”

With just 19 seconds remaining in regulation, Oregon scored to take the one-point lead, and as time expired Gray found himself coming to the realization that his bowl game experience – for the third time in his collegiate career – would result in a loss.

Gray was certain in his decision to come back following that heartbreaking 28-27 loss in the 2022 Holiday Bowl. By that point in the season, Gray had asserted himself as one of the leaders on the UNC defense, and in that final game finished with a team-high eight total tackles.

Gray wasn’t in a rush to get back into the locker room, as he stood in disappointment on the field at Petco Park in San Diego, California, watching Oregon celebrate. It was a familiar feeling for Gray, but it was in that moment he was certain it wouldn’t be his last time suiting up in Carolina Blue.

“I was probably one of the last people to walk off that field. I sat there, and that’s where I was like, ‘this isn’t done yet, I have unfinished business, I have to finish this thing right,’” Gray said.

Finding motivation has never been the challenge for the Charlotte, North Carolina native. In fact, the need to prove himself is deeply rooted in his college recruitment process.

Seeing his success now, many would think Gray was a highly sought after linebacker from the beginning. But his recruitment journey was anything but easy, and he could only describe it using one word: “rough.”

Gray admitted that he felt led on by coaches from other schools, as there would often be communication, but it would never come with a scholarship opportunity. Despite being passed up by other schools, Gray would eventually receive an unforgettable phone call from UNC linebacker coach, Tom Thigpen.

His one and only Power 5 offer.

“He called me one day and was like, ‘Cedric, we have some really good news for you at this coming spring game when you come up on your visit,’” Gray said. “That was the first coach who said that to me, and it came true.”

Gray worked hard for his opportunity, knowing that if he continued to play with a chip on his shoulder, eventually his time would come. Despite his obvious individual success and the numerous accolades that have come in the past year, this opportunity is still sometimes surreal.

“This is something I’ve been dreaming of. This is something I watched on TV when I was a little toddler until now,” Gray said. “To really be able to live that dream out and say I’m a First-Team ACC and All-American, there’s no feeling like that.”

While the unfortunate ending to the 2022 season played a large part in Gray’s decision to return for another season, it wasn’t the only factor. Along with wanting to leave Chapel Hill with another ring, Gray doesn’t want to move onto his professional football career without his degree from UNC.

“You see the stories all the time of guys when they get going to the NFL and have short lived careers,” Gray said. “Even if you have a long career, you still have a lot of life after football.”

At this time next year, Gray’s goals of playing in the NFL could be a reality. But in addition to a professional football career, he has other aspirations.

One of his passion’s beyond the gridiron: youth sports.

After football, Gray hopes to run a youth sports operation to remain involved in athletics while making an impact on the next generation. He just can’t picture a career beyond football that doesn’t revolve around sports in some capacity, especially after attributing the person he has become today to the people who impacted him along his own athletic journey.

“I remember growing up the different coaches that I had, different people I met through youth sports who really shaped who I am today, and I value that very much,” Gray said. “I want to do my part to give back and do what was done for me.”

This passion for connecting with the youth and serving as a role model in the community has grown even deeper during his time as a Tar Heel. Gray recognizes that it wasn’t that long ago he was aspiring to be just like the college football players he once looked up to, and it means a lot to him to have the opportunity to inspire young Carolina fans.

Luckily, Gray has a chance to inspire often. A typical ending to a game at Kenan Stadium for Gray involves looking for friends and family in the crowd, but first stopping to sign autographs and meet the kids who wait in anticipation for a chance to meet the Tar Heels.

“What you do realize is that was you at one point,” Gray said. “They were probably thinking all week, ‘we’re going to go see Carolina Football, we’re going to go see the players,’ so it means a lot to me that I’m able to make these kids’ day and get a few seconds with them and sign something for them.”

Even as one of the top returning linebackers in the country, Gray knows there is always room for improvement.

“I haven’t hit my max ceiling as far as my collegiate career,” Gray said. “I still feel like I have a lot of things I can improve on and do better in preparing to enter the NFL draft and continue my football journey.”

The three rings that Gray has already received from his first three season as a Tar Heel serve as a shining example of how far he has come, but also what he still hopes to accomplish before leaving Chapel Hill. It might be safe to say that Gray is more locked in and more motivated now than ever before, and he is after one more ring that he hopes might have a bit more meaning than the rest of his collection.

Throughout his career as a Tar Heel, Gray has become an integral part of building the defense, and he has emerged as a true leader within the Carolina Football program.

But Gray came back to finish what he started here, and he has one main goal for the upcoming season: “Getting back to the ACC Championship.”

Olivia Mundorf graduated in May with her degree in Journalism from UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media. During her time at Carolina, Olivia has focused on pursuing a career in sports broadcasting and journalism, and has spent several semesters covering UNC sports and sharing the compelling stories of the athletes, teams, and community surrounding one of the top athletic departments in the nation. After graduation, Olivia will remain in Chapel Hill as a member of the UNC Sport Administration Graduate Program.