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April 5, 2013

Versatility is his specialty

By: Jimmy Robertson

All-American Jeff Artis-Gray’s ability to be successful in many events has played a large part in helping the Tech men’s track and field program become one of the nation’s best

Jeff Artis-Gray can - and has - done it all since arriving at Tech and holds part of or all of five school records.

Some student-athletes enjoy their social time, taking advantage of the nightlife opportunities that their universities usually present.

But happy hour for one Virginia Tech student-athlete consists of staying at his house, chilling on his couch and catching old episodes of CSI or Law & Order. The time of day doesn’t matter.

“My teammates, everyone who knows me, they have to drag me out of the house for anything to happen,” Tech track and field standout Jeff Artis-Gray said, laughing. “I’m really a homebody.”

Artis-Gray came out of his shell somewhat following the Hokies’ victory at the ACC Indoor Track and Field Championships in February. He attended a little gathering at one of his teammates’ homes to celebrate the men’s team and their third straight ACC title, one that came on the heels of last year’s outdoor championship and this fall’s cross country crown. Certainly, he deserved to celebrate. The Hokies scored 153 points at the ACC indoor meet to beat Florida State’s 135, and Artis-Gray himself scored 17.5 points.

Thus, you don’t have to be Isaac Newton to figure out his impact on Tech’s latest run to the championship.

Then again, he’s been doing this since he arrived on Tech’s campus three years ago. He’s simply the long-locked renaissance man of Tech’s track and field program, someone with the ability to compete in multiple events – and to do so successfully to accumulate valuable points.

Want versatility in your track athletes? Well, Artis-Gray won the long jump at the recent ACC indoor meet, finished third in the 60-meter hurdles and participated on the 4x400 relay team that also came in third. Before competing in the 4x400 race, which was the final event of the meet, he prepped to go down the runway a few times in the triple jump just in case the team had a need for precious points.

“I always loved to be versatile, and I feel the events I do really compliment each other,” he said. “The speed work I do really helps in the long jump and with the hurdles. The jumping helps me with the power I need to get out of the blocks in the hurdles. They definitely compliment each other.”

Artis-Gray got his start in track and field early. He said that his father, also named Jeffrey, was a track athlete at St. Augustine’s, a Division II school outside of Raleigh, N.C., and also his older sister ran track at North Carolina.

Blessed with a long, lithe body, the 6-foot-1 Artis-Gray decided to copy his father and sister and pursue track. His high school coach, Claude Toukene, also coerced him, so Artis-Gray went out for the team his freshman year at Western Branch High School in Chesapeake, Va. Toukene tried to make Artis-Gray a sprinter at first, but that didn’t work out too well for one main reason.

“I was too slow,” Artis-Gray said.

But his height and his length fit well with the jumping and hurdling events. So Toukene nudged him in that direction.

That was fine with Artis-Gray. He went out for the sport with modest expectations.

Jeff Artis-Gray’s ability to jump has helped him become one of the
best hurdlers in Tech’s history.

“My coach saw my height and said that I should be a hurdler and a jumper, and I said, ‘I’ll do it. Just as long as I’m on the team,’” he said. “I started off first as a triple jumper, and I hurdled every now and then, but didn’t really get into the hurdles until my sophomore year of high school.

“After my sophomore year going into my junior year, things just kind of took off. I took training to another level and saw stats that I never dreamed of seeing.”

Artis-Gray became one of the nation’s best jumpers and hurdlers. He earned All-Group AAA honors five times in the triple jump and four times in the long jump, and he won the state championship in the 55- and 110-meter hurdles his senior season.

Even before that, though, he started getting letters and taking calls from the likes of South Carolina, LSU, Texas A&M, and of course, Tech. He ultimately decided to attend Oklahoma.

Yes, that Oklahoma. The one in Norman, which is quite a lengthy Sooner Schooner ride from Chesapeake.

“Everyone asks me that,” Artis-Gray said about going to Oklahoma. “They had a great jumping program there, and they had a national champion, a guy named Will Claye, who actually ended up at Florida and is now an Olympian (he won the national title in the triple jump in 2009 and transferred after his sophomore season). They had a strong jumping program and that attracted me. I wanted to jump and hurdle on the side. When I got there, the story changed.”

Artis-Gray spent one year in Norman. The coaching staff wanted him to focus exclusively on the hurdles. But he loved jumping, and he wanted to do both in college. So after his freshman season, he and the head coach decided it best to part ways.

Of course, that wasn’t his only reason for leaving. As one might expect, he missed his family.

“I was the youngest child, and it was pretty hard for me,” he said. “I thought I could take it. I thought I could handle being out there alone, but when you’re in the dorm room and in a whole different atmosphere, it’s depressing sometimes. So I definitely missed home a lot.”

So Artis-Gray set about to finding a school a little closer to home – and one willing to let him be the versatile athlete he wanted to be. He contemplated SEC schools, but that league ranks as the best track and field conference in the nation, and he didn’t anticipate there being any interest given his struggles as a freshman. Instead, he focused on ACC schools.

Tech’s staff wasted little time in trying to lure Artis-Gray to Blacksburg – again.

“His coach contacted me from Oklahoma, and said, ‘I’ve got someone for you. He’s really good.’ But they didn’t want him to do but one event, and he said he’s better than that,” said Charles Foster, Tech’s sprints, hurdles and jumps coach. “I said, ‘Well, you’re getting me off on the right foot right off the bat.’ If he’s asking for more and the other school is telling him no, then I’ll take that and be happy to do it.

“We hit it off right off the bat, and we’ve been a good team since we met.”

Once Artis-Gray arrived, he fit in perfectly, as Tech’s staff let him do everything he wanted on the track. Since then, he’s done what he does best – score points – while also breaking a few school records and earning All-America honors.

Oh, and lest we forget that the Hokies have won three ACC championships (2012 outdoor, 2011 and 2013 indoor) since he arrived on campus and finished in the top 10 at the NCAA meets on four occasions (2012 and 2013 indoor, 2011 and 2012 outdoor).

Individually, Artis-Gray is a four-time All-American. He finished 13th in the long jump at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships last spring, and he was part of the 4x100 relay team that also finished 13th, enabling him to earn All-America status in both. This year, at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, he finished seventh in the long jump, becoming a first-team All-American and was part of the distance medley relay team that finished 12th, with all four members earning second-team honors.

He also holds part of or all of five school records – the 60-meter hurdles (7.77 seconds), the indoor long jump (25 feet, 10 inches; or 7.87 meters), the outdoor long jump (24 feet, 11 inches; or 7.60 meters), the outdoor 4x100 relay (39.62 seconds) and the outdoor 4x400 relay (3:09.95).

But for all his point scoring and All-America honors and school records, Artis-Gray had never won an individual ACC championship. In 2011, he finished third in the long jump at both the league’s indoor and outdoor meet, and last year, his best finish was a second at the league’s outdoor meet.

The streak ended in late February when Artis-Gray won the long jump in convincing fashion. His best jump shattered Ken Stewart’s old school record set in 1984 by more than seven inches.

“The thing that clicked with me this year is my landing,” he said. “Everyone has been telling me that since I started jumping and making it to nationals – if I could fix my landings, I’d be a better jumper.

“I started it a couple of times and it didn’t work for me, but this year, I spent more time doing it and I zoned in on the landing. I finally started to stick it early this season, and then during the ACC meet, it really clicked in my head. If I had been focusing on this the whole time, I’d have been jumping like this a while ago. But I guess it’s better late than never.”

Jeff Artis-Gray holds the school record in both the indoor long
jump and the outdoor long jump.

Artis-Gray has one last jump at glory before the sunset of his career. He hopes to win the long jump at the ACC’s outdoor meet this spring, but more importantly, hopes to lead the team to another title. The Tech men’s team currently holds the league’s indoor, cross country and outdoor championship crowns. But the Hokies lost a lot off the recent indoor title squad, as stalwarts Will Mulherin, Alexander Ziegler and Michael Hammond do not have outdoor eligibility remaining.

“We’ve got a few tricks up our sleeves,” Artis-Gray countered.

Could that mean more events are in his future? He’ll participate on two relay teams this spring in addition to the long jump and the 110-meter hurdles. He may also get a shot in the 400-meter run.

“I don’t know how much thinner we can spread him,” Foster said, laughing. “He’s pretty thin right now. But he enjoys the competition.

“I’d probably say he’s the most versatile athlete I’ve ever coached. Now, the best athlete I’ve ever coached? I don’t think so. He is good at multiple events, but I’ve coached two Olympic gold medalists. I’ve had some real stars. But he’s very good, and if you look at it collectively, he’s a star shining right among them.”

After the league meet and a likely NCAA trip, Artis-Gray will jump to the next phase of his life. He graduates in May with a degree in consumer studies, and he plans on cutting his dreadlocks – he’s had them since high school – which tells you the seriousness in which he takes his future. He wants to go to graduate school, get a master’s degree in physical education and get into coaching.

“I definitely want to coach and influence someone’s life like my coaches did for me,” he said. “There are a lot of scholarships out there, and a lot of kids don’t utilize that because they don’t have the right coaches. These kids could get education just from running track.

“A lot of African-Americans don’t know how they’re going to get to school. They don’t have the money to pay for it (a college education), and they just don’t realize that, if you pick up a sport, you could get a scholarship to pay for it. Me being an athlete, I was very blessed to get a scholarship to be able to go to school for free.”

His career at Tech certainly has been one worth celebrating. His future plans are, too.

Just give him a couch and a television, and he may do exactly that.