Almost two years ago, during the final weeks of Chapel Hill spring, men's lacrosse head coach Joe Breschi welcomed a humble young man dressed in khakis and a polo shirt into his office.
Breschi remembers the player politely holding the door for his mom and dad before offering the coach a firm handshake and a warm thank you for the visit.
Looking back at that first on-campus meeting, it would be easy to forget the player in the room was All-American Chris Gray, the most highly touted men’s lacrosse player in the transfer portal.
"It sounds simple, but when it's a firm handshake and eye contact and saying, 'Thank you, I appreciate you meeting with me and having us down for the visit,' that, to me, is gold,” Breschi said. “That's gold for a first-team All-American to say that."
Since that meeting in Breschi's office, Gray has blossomed into the team's leader in goals and assists, tallying 53 points in eight games so far this season. He’s an astounding 24 points ahead of the next-highest player, his good friend Nicky Solomon.
Creating a star
The North Carolina star's love for lacrosse was sparked by watching his older brother play. Soon, he picked up a stick and moved from spectator to participant, falling in love with the fast pace of the game.
Gray credits his success to his family. From driving him to youth tournaments and providing him with never-ending guidance to having a brother that doubles as an at-home practice partner, the family worked to set their son up with the best possible opportunities — as a player and a person.
"They've been everything," Gray said. "Without them, I wouldn't be here. I can confidently say that."
Participating in travel lacrosse as a kid put the idea of competing at the collegiate level in the back of Gray's mind, but he wasn't always on the national radar for college lacrosse.
The attackman made it through his first two years of high school relatively unheard of and certainly not highly-touted. His sophomore year, he committed to a young Boston University lacrosse program.
The last two years of high school started to put the 5-foot-7 attackman on the map. His junior year, he led Shoreham Wading River High School in total points en route to the team winning a Long Island Championship. Hoisting that trophy still ranks as one of the top moments in Gray’s prolific young career.
"Just playing with the guys I grew up with, from literally first and second grade, just working our whole lives to win that championship, was just a really cool thing to experience," Gray said.
By the time he graduated high school, he was ranked a top 10 national recruit by analyst Ty Xanders and named an All-American player. The big-name programs that had overlooked Gray when he was younger started to show interest, but the attackman chose to honor his commitment and head to Boston.
He entered his collegiate career with a sponge mentality, looking to the coaches and upperclassmen to teach him the ins and outs of the college game. And he was a fast learner.
In his first year with BU, he led the team in points with 71, a single-season program record. Unsatisfied, he shattered his own record as a sophomore, tallying 111 points on the season, ranking third nationally in points per game.
"At the end of my sophomore year, I evaluated where I as a player and a person, more importantly, and felt that my best situation would be to put myself into the portal," Gray said.
Trip down South
The decision to enter the transfer portal is what landed Gray into Breschi's office that spring day. Breschi was just one of a number of coaches who came calling after the attackman made his intention to leave Boston public.
The process brought lots of information about campuses, schools and teams all across the country, so Gray devised a system that considered the academic, lacrosse and social fit of all his offers. He was overwhelmed but excited about the next chapter of his lacrosse career.
One of those teams overwhelming Gray with information was Breschi and North Carolina. The coach took the 500-mile trip to Long Island to try and woo the promising transfer, and it worked. Gray decided to come down South and see Chapel Hill for himself.
"I remember when I got on campus, it felt like a no-brainer for me," Gray said. "I remember leaving that visit and saying to my parents, 'That was insane. I would love to play here.' I felt a really special way about this place."
That feeling was mutual. Not only was Breschi impressed by the Long Islander's humility, but his future teammates were blown away by how well he fit.
During the visit, Breschi received texts from his players saying, ''Oh my God, he's one of us.”
No. 4 in Carolina Blue
The perfect fit allowed Gray to start working on his craft from day one. Just like in the early days of his career with the Terriers, he quietly worked to understand the UNC system and the tendencies of his new teammates.
Gray was joining a team that was coming off two disappointing seasons. The Tar Heels had missed consecutive NCAA tournaments — the first two times UNC had been excluded during Breschi's tenure — and were looking for a change.
That change came from No. 4 in baby blue.
"He came in as a transfer last year and completely changed everything on our team," senior William Perry said. "On the offensive end and the defensive end by pushing everybody to try to be as great of a player and as great of a teammate as he is."
When discussing Gray, it’s impossible not to mention the contributions he makes in the scoring column. He is currently ranked second nationally in points per game for the second year in a row, but the impact that he has had at North Carolina goes beyond goals and assists.
In only two years on campus, one of those cut short by COVID-19, he has been selected as a team captain and become a valued member of the UNC Lacrosse family.
"When he's on fire, and is excited and jumping up and down, you feel it," Breschi said. "You feel his fire, and guys follow that."
The selfless mentality that allows him to lead the team in assists also reflects in how he treats his teammates. He celebrates everyone's successes and works to motivate people to be the best they can be.
"Whenever any other teammate scores, it seems as though Chris is always the first one there to celebrate with them," Perry said.
That philosophy is contagious. It's also created an offensive powerhouse for the Tar Heels, who lead the nation in points per game.
"His ego doesn't get in the way of what the beauty of an offense looks like when everybody's selfless and shares the ball," Breschi said.
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