Like the rest of his teammates on the track team at Flagler Palm Coast High School, Curtis Gray was due at the track Saturday evening for practice. He’d transferred from Matanzas High School in January. “His goal,” his jump coach, Alex Giorgianni, a world history teacher at FPC and an assistant track and field coach alongside David Halliday, “was to come win state championships and be part of a really good team.”
Gray had run into some bad luck: he got in a car wreck in February, nothing severe but bad enough that he’d had to rest up for a couple of weeks, away from the team. But he was working extremely hard to make it back, especially these past five weeks, staying an hour after practice to work more and so much that the next day his legs would be in pain. “Every day for the last eight weeks he was with me and a group of probably eight or ten other people practicing,” Giorgianni, who coaches vertical and horizontal jumps, said.
And when he was around, he’d light up his surroundings with his presence–or his music: Gray had taken to bringing speakers with him and playing music out loud, which had bothered his coach at first until he saw the effect it had on his teammates. It actually made everybody more focused, more motivated, more pumped up. That was Gray: “He’d come over and lighten the mood up,” Giorgianni said. “He was one of those kids like when he walked into a room everyone knew he walked in, he was always smiling, kidding around.”
And so practice was set Saturday for 8 p.m. The coaches were going to hold it under the lights for extra effect.
Saturday morning after midnight, Gray was at the small shopping strip near the Circle K at Palm Coast Parkway and Belle Terre Parkway, with one of his teammates and others, when he got into an altercation with Marion Gavins Jr. that ended with Gavins allegedly pulling out a 9mm gun as he sat in the back seat of an SUV and gunning Gray down as Gray stood or walked near the car in the parking lot. Gray was unarmed. Gavins turned himself in the next day. The devastation of Gray’s death quickly rippled out across the community, particularly through the two communities of athletes that had been an integral part of Curtis’s high school life–three and a half years on Matanzas High School’s football team, then on FPC’s track team since January.
Practice wasn’t cancelled Saturday night. The coaches moved it up. Halliday spoke to the team. They sat together. They hugged. They cried. They walked a lap together to get things started. They then did what Gray would have wanted them to do. They practiced, and they did so until until 10:30 p.m. Then they did it again Monday, when it was even harder.
“Yesterday it wasn’t business as usual but we were trying to make it business as usual,” Giorgianni said Tuesday morning before class. “Get out there and get things done. Yesterday it was definitely much tougher than it was on Saturday. Everybody in the entire school was thinking about it.” Somber: that’s how Giorgianni described the mood at school. Gray’s teammate who’d been with him in that parking lot was shaken up. There was to be a test in Giorgianni’s class. He couldn’t take it.
There was a moment of silence throughout the school, just as there was at Matanzas, where Don Mathews, Gray’s coach for the years he was there, returned to the team, spoke with all the football players and cheerleaders and huddled with them.
By then in both schools the crisis-intervention teams that descend when a student or a faculty member has died had mobilized, though this was the first time in anyone’s memory that the teams had to be deployed because of a murdered student. Superintendent Jim Tager, who’d been a principal in Volusia for 11 years, couldn’t remember anything like that there either.
“It’s emotional for us,” Tager said during a brief appearance before reporters Monday afternoon outside the Government Services Building in Bunnell, where his voice broke on several occasions. “As superintendent I was looking forward to shaking his hand on May 30th, and then we have this, so it’s just–it’s a horrible thing. As a former principal I’ve seen things happen with car accidents and that type of thing, but you don’t normally see a student that’s shot and killed so senselessly.”
Tager hadn’t spoke with Gray before, but Gray was one of the students Tager about a week ago had gone to see and speak with as a group at the “bunker,” where students needing extra attention to ensure graduation gather and work with teachers. “I’ve seen him on the football field, I’ve seen him at the track, it’s interesting when you talk about people, I’ve never heard a negative thing about this student,” Tager said.
“By all accounts,” Tager said, struggling to keep his composure, “this was a young man who was taking great strides to improve himself and prepare for an opportunity for education past his high school education. He was working hard both in the classroom and in the training room. His coaches both at Matanzas High School and Flagler Palm Coast High School spoke of a teenager who had nothing but respect for the coaching and mentorship that he was offered. Teachers talk of a student who saw the importance of education and the need to put in extra time to succeed in the classroom. We have a family who was anxiously preparing for graduation day less than six weeks away. Now they are preparing for a funeral. This is heartbreaking. Here in Flagler County we do not see this level of violence on a regular basis, and I consider us lucky in that respect. So when we see the life of one of our young people taken like this, it’s especially tough. We must not as a community get used to the violent loss of life of one of our young people.”
Lynette Shott, the district’s executive director of student and community engagement, had been to the schools earlier in the day to check on the crisis-intervention teams and other staff. She’d been a principal at FPC for three years until four years ago. “It’s very subdued, that’s the best word that I could use to describe what I saw,” Shott said. “I went in and checked in where we had the crisis team meetings. There were students taking advantage of that, few at a time coming in.”
“The important thing for students and adults, anybody impacted whenever you have such a terrible tragedy as this,” Shott said, “you need to be prepared that it’s going to hit you at different times. There are things that may trigger those emotions. It may be tomorrow, it may be next week, it may be three weeks down the road. The other thing everybody needs to be aware of also, when something like this happens it can also trigger a previous loss that may be unaffiliated with this, but it still brings to the surface all those emotions and those struggles. So I’d just encourage everybody be very conscious of that. We need to help watch each other, and for the kids or the adults. If it’s tomorrow or three weeks from now, you still need to reach out if they’re struggling.”
It wasn’t just those who knew Curtis Gray. “Even if people didn’t know him that well I could still see them being touched by it,” Giorgianni, the teacher and assistant coach, said, describing how between classes he’d stand at his door, giving hugs to track students passing by.
Curtis Gray was 18 years old. Tager at one point spoke of how everything he’d heard about him had been positive, then had added what summed up how a life was ended as it was set to soar: “It’s just a waste.”