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“You’re not a pro until you sign your second contract.”

That was what Tayvon Gray’s youth coaches told him when he was an aspiring professional, and it was now echoing through his head as he put pen to paper on his second contract with New York City Football Club this month.

On the surface, the defender's rise to the professional ranks appears a sharp one, but Gray's story is defined by hard work and begins in Haffen Park, a 20-minute drive north of Yankee Stadium.

“To be honest, my day was, wake up, school, practice and repeat every other day,” he said. “It was at a park called Haffen Park. If you're from the area, you would call it the Valley. I would be in the Valley from right after school. So let's say three o'clock to 11:00PM or 10:00PM, ‘til the lights cut off.”

That early show of dedication and repetition, alongside childhood friends, his coaches, and his father, helped foster a momentum that developed Gray into a precocious talent. His ascent toward the NYCFC academy and ultimately MLS was not without difficulty, however.

Just as he was developing into a teenager so too were his peers. It can be a challenging time for a young person, let alone a young athlete, where changes are seemingly constant and inconsistent.

“Everyone gets bigger, everyone gets faster, you know, and my physical abilities were my best attributes,” he said. “I wouldn't say I was the best technical player at that age. I feel like my physical attributes helped me a lot. Going through those ages 12-13 when everyone is growing, those were my toughest times because sometimes I wouldn't feel the same. I'd be like, ‘dang, can I really do this? Is this really for me?’.”

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Whenever times have been tough Gray could always look to the person doing the hard yards beside him – his twin brother Kayvon. The pair joined NYCFC’s academy in 2017. Kayvon is also still in soccer and playing for Manhattan College, and while his dreams of a professional career are not yet finalized, Tayovn is carrying the torch.

“For sure I’m doing this for him and our family,” Tayvon said with a laugh. “My brother's a forward and I'm a defender. So in training, we will always go at each other and make each other better every day. He would show me moves when attacking, and I feel like that played a big role in why I'm so good at defending now. It's just a simple fact that I had to defend him all the time.

“I feel like I always had his company, he always had mine. So there was never a dull moment. We're always hanging out with each other. I got a best friend for life kind of thing.

“Other kids would have probably said, ‘Oh my friends are doing this' and that kind of stuff, but me and my brother were the exact opposite. We knew what we wanted. I knew I wanted to go pro. So I just put that in the back of my head and just focused on putting my head down and just doing the work.”

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The support from family doesn’t end there, with Gray’s grandmother a consistent source of good nutrition. Her list of specialties includes curried goat with rice and peas, pasta, steak, mashed potatoes, and broccoli.

“It’s the good stuff,” Gray said with a laugh.

The defender could certainly define 2021 as a season littered with the good stuff. After earning his first appearance in MLS in April against FC Cincinnati, he would slowly gather more opportunities during the summer. His exposure to the field increased significantly following an unfortunate Achillies injury to Anton Tinnerholm.

From October 3rd onward Gray missed only one game, playing every minute of the Club’s run to MLS Cup.

“I don't back down from any challenge,” he said. “So I just feel like that's just me.”

At the end of that road was an MLS Cup success on a rainy afternoon in Portland, a day he recounts with particular joy, “At times, [our fans] were louder than the Portland fans.”

He went on to add. “I don’t have words to describe last season. If anyone had told me that I would be an MLS champion my second year in the league, I would have said no, I don't believe that, maybe in the fifth or sixth year. I can't even bring that moment into words.”

As a product of the Bronx, Gray feels a special affinity with the Club's fans. That bond rose to a new level during the recent Campeones Cup success when he was alerted to his very first banner.

“I think I think the fans are our top priority and they mean a lot to us,” he said. “When we won Campeones Cup they made me a banner that said ‘Prince of New York’ with my face on it. I think that was amazing.”

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The defender has been promised a version of his own to take home – he plans to hang it in his bedroom. The defender also has his sights set on more MLS Cup appearances with the Boys in Blue. His new contract represents an important milestone, just as his coaches taught him. It signals his development as a player with NYCFC, and also the emergence of the next set of challenges in his career.

“A different task comes up every day,” he said. “As for like specific things I’m focused on it's just simple stuff like consistency. That's a big one for me. I feel like I just gotta be more consistent. So that's what I'm trying to work on.”

Gray doesn’t sound flustered by the raised expectations or the challenges that await him though. The reason for that likely rests in those early days at Haffen Park. It was there on the turf where Gray honed his craft that he never lost sight of striking a balance between hard work and the joy the game can bring.

“I'm just having fun to be honest,” he said. “That was the key for me back then. Like, I didn't look at it like a job or anything crazy. I literally just had fun growing up, I just had pure fun, joy, all that stuff, laughing with my friends. That's really what’s the key for me. The key is just once you love it you’re going put in the work.”