DAWSON — To watch Tray Bishop walk through the halls of Terrell County High School is to witness the proverbial Big Man on Campus. Everywhere he goes he is recognized and acknowledged. Revered really.
And Bishop knows it. He’s tall, nearly 6-foot-3, with striking good looks. He wears his hair — for this week at least — in long, skinny dread ringlets. There’s a tuft of beard jutting out from his chin. He keeps a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses at the ready in a shirt pocket and puts them on at every opportunity. He is the very essence of cool.
Seeing Bishop walk by outside the skinny window of her office door, a Terrell County administrator quickly pops up from her desk and runs to the door to catch him before he gets away.
“You come give me a hug,” she demands of Bishop. “I’m gonna miss you. You better come back and see me.”
“I will,” he promises as he complies with a tender embrace.
That Bishop was even present at the school in this moment was fluky. The newly-minted UGA defensive back already had graduated at that point, it’d been almost a week, in fact. But Terrell County schools are the center of the universe for Bishop, and in many ways he is the center of the universe for them, too. So their orbits needed to remain unchanged, at least a few more days.
The primary school, elementary school, middle school and high school of this tiny southwest Georgia town all are located in the same footprint along Greenwave Boulevard, one right next to the other. The middle school and high school actually are connected by halls and a commons. So Bishop — and most of his classmates — have been coming to this particular location every school day for the better part of 13 years.
About to head up to the University of Georgia and the rest of his life, Bishop had nary a care as he strolled his school’s hallways. He probably could’ve been at the beach somewhere or partying over in nearby Albany or something. Instead, he was on the school grounds to help oversee the elementary school’s field day, same as he has done the last several years.
“Tray loves high school life,” his high school coach William Huff explained. “Rarely did he ever miss a day of school, up until this year anyway. He was always playing football, baseball, basketball, running track. Most everything he did was centered around school. And he loves Terrell County. His mother and father both graduated from here.”
Bishop also had one last order of business as a representative of Terrell County High. That weekend he was to compete in the state track and field championships. He did. He won the Class A state title in the 100 meters, just a couple weeks after being cleared to return from knee surgery no less.
With that last box checked, Bishop finally headed off to Athens. He checked in at UGA with the rest of the Bulldogs “SicEm17” recruiting class last week.
He was born Detravion Bishop, over in Albany like everybody else who lives in this little neck of the woods. He has lived all his life here in Dawson, a tiny southwestern Georgia town of just over 4,000 people. It’s most famous citizen to date is Otis Redding of Sitting on the Dock of the Bay fame. But the only docks around here are on fishing ponds, and about the only industry to be found is agriculture.
All of which is fine and dandy with Tray Bishop. He lists farm living and pond fishing among his favorite things.
“Since I grew up here, it’s just home for me. I love it,” said Bishop, sitting at the receptionist’s desk in the school’s athletic office in mid-May. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
The odds were stacked against Bishop from the start. His birth wasn’t planned. His mother, Keyannis Toombs, was just a 10th grader at Terrell County High at the time. His father, Tory Bishop, was a senior and a good athlete in his own right. In football, he played outside linebacker and tight end, also for Coach Huff.
Bishop’s parents did the best they could to raise their son together. But as often happens with high school romances, their relationship did not last. Tray spent those first couple of years mainly with his mother and maternal grandmother, Juliette Toombs, who he’d grow up calling “Memama.”
But soon after graduating from high school, his mother had the urge to do something more with her life. She joined the U.S. Army in 2000.
That sent Tray back his father’s way. That wasn’t a major issue as Tory had never ceased to be in his son’s life. In fact, it is something that has distinguished Tory Bishop from the start.
“From the day I had Tray, Tory’s always been there,” Toombs said. “We always did whatever we had to for Tray. He’s always been a stand-up guy and a good father.”
Tory has always been a hard worker, too, a good thing since he had to provide for his son. He always kept a job, sometimes two or three. Today, his main gig is as a production line leader at the Tyson Foods chicken processing plant in Dawson. He also runs a mobile car wash and a pressure washing business on the side.
Of course, having to be out and about earning money meant Tory Bishop couldn’t be watching his son all day. And with his son’s mother serving in the military, that’s where his own parents came in.
Glenda and Marvin Bishop have probably been the most steadying force in Tray’s life. His paternal grandparents supplied the home base Tray so desperately needed. He lived with them off and on in those early years, but full time since middle school.
That was about the same time that his mother was deployed to Afghanistan as an Army reservist.
“They’ve played a major role in his life,” said Toombs, who now works for the U.S. Postal Service. “We all did. It’s been kind of like teamwork.”
Said Tory: “Me and his mom were both young when Tray was a baby. So when she went into the military for a few years, my mom brought him in with us and raised him. … When his mom got back, the custody agreement said that he could go back with her. He did for a while, but he wanted to stay with my mom and dad. They helped me raise him and that was a good thing. My mom made sure that he went to school and did everything he was supposed to do.”
Sometimes the push-pull of custody arrangements can have an adverse effect on a child. But Tray insists it has never been a problem for him.
“I like to stay with my grandparents, but my father and mother are both in my life,” Bishop said. “I see them every day, talk to them every day. My relationship with all of them is good.”
His father and grandparents made it to pretty much every game Tray ever played. His mother, who now lives in Albany, made all those that didn’t conflict with her duties.
It worked, but it wasn’t perfect. The family is transparent about their dynamics. Both parents are in new relationships now. Tory married his girlfriend of 10 years in 2016. They don’t all hang out together as one happy, go-lucky group. Everybody doesn’t get along all the time.
Huff described a typical home-game scene at Terrell County High would have Bishop’s father watching in one area of the stadium with his old classmates, his mother sitting down in front of the cheerleaders and his grandparents off somewhere else. But when the game was over, they’d all come down and dutifully wait their turn to offer Tray a hug and congratulations or encouragement, whichever might be required.
“His was not a typical family life but, unique as it was, I think it was filled with a lot of attention, a lot of care,” Huff said. “It was certainly better than most because of all the people that had his best interest in mind. … Although it was different, he had loads of support, from his mother, his mother’s mother, his daddy and his daddy’s parents.”
Recruiting creates divide
The only time Tray Bishop’s extensive family didn’t necessarily all pull in the same direction came during his football recruitment. Until Bishop finally signed with the University of Georgia on Feb. 2, there was a faction that wanted him to go to Auburn.
Bishop actually was committed to the Tigers for a long time. He pledged his services to Auburn coach Gus Malzahn in July of 2016 with the intention of heading to the Plains as Auburn’s next great quarterback. It’s the position he played most of his four years at Terrell County and the one he planned on playing in college.
Nevertheless, while telling Bishop he was their quarterback of the future, the Tigers still listed him as an athlete on their recruiting board and continued to recruit other quarterbacks. Auburn told him playing other positions would be an option if signal caller did not work out, but the school’s continued pursuit of other QB targets began to ring disingenuous to Bishop and others in his circle of trust.
“The [Auburn] coaches told me from the get-go they wanted me as a quarterback, but if I signed it was going to be as a quarterback/athlete,” Bishop said. “If I didn’t like quarterback I could go to any other position, receiver or defensive back. After a while, though, my whole mentality changed. I decided I didn’t want to play offense.”
Georgia had a lot to do with that. From the jump, the Bulldogs were saying they liked Bishop as a defensive back. They told him they felt he had the speed to play cornerback and the size to play cornerback or safety. They also spent a lot of time citing NFL data about the number of players that get drafted as a quarterback versus those that get their names called as defensive backs. The Florida Gators were giving Bishop the same spiel, and it quickly started to make sense to him.
Meanwhile, Bishop continued to get knocked around as the Greenwaves’ quarterback. While he enjoyed playing the position for his school, and did it quite well, he never experienced much in the way of team success and stayed beat up most of the time. The only time they made the state playoffs was Bishop’s senior year, and he couldn’t play because of a fractured ankle and torn ligaments. Terrell County went 20-20 while competing in Region 1-A during Bishop’s four years in the program.
“I always told the coaches recruiting me, ‘Tell me what you think, not what you think I want to hear. Tell me the truth. If I can’t do it, I can’t,’” Bishop said. “When Coach Tucker [Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker] came to see me play, he’d tell me that he thought I had the potential to play corner. He said, ‘There’s a few things I can teach you and it’ll be on from there.’ I always appreciated that.”
Toombs admits she wanted her son to go to Auburn. Bishop’s grandparents also “were enamored with the idea of him playing quarterback at Auburn,” according to Huff. But Huff was advising against it.
“Basically what I told him was, in two or three years you’re going to have to learn to play defensive back or receiver for the NFL,” Huff said. “In the meantime, Auburn started signing these other quarterbacks. I think Tray saw the writing on the wall. They were just trying to recruit an athlete and they were going to move him anyway.”
Tory Bishop said he tried to stay out of it, though he saw the logic of his son playing on defense.
“That was his decision,” his father said. “We sat around and discussed it as a family, but nobody made him play defense. That’s something he wanted to do.”
Tray Bishop said he changed his mind for good after the season ended. He’d been invited to play in the U.S. Army All-American Game and he did so as a defensive back. During all-star practices, he was matched up against Michigan commitment Tarik Black and UGA early enrollee J.J. Holloman, among others. He held his own and his confidence soared.
Bishop committed to the Bulldogs while he was in San Antonio.
“The media out there felt like I wasn’t going to have a great week because of the simple fact I was playing so much quarterback here,” Bishop said. “Plus I had the ankle injury. But people didn’t know, I was putting in the work [at DB]. I was very confident. We’re going against the best receivers in the country, guys who live and die for it and take it serious, and I did pretty good. After that I felt I was home. I feel real confident at defensive back now.”
His position and college destination settled, Bishop couldn’t wait to get the next chapter of his life started. He beamed when asked his thoughts about heading up to UGA.
“It’s a lot of excitement,” Bishop said of his feelings before he left. “I know going to a big university like that, there are going to be hard times, and I’ve been preparing my mind for that. But I’ve seen their practices and workouts and stuff like that and, playing football as long as I have, it’s a lot of mind games. I’ve been training my mind and I’m ready to go.”
His father and stepmother, Aldrany Bishop, drove him up to Athens and dropped him off at East Campus Village last week. It was not what one would call a very moving encounter.
“He wasn’t emotional at all,” Tory Bishop said of his son. “He’s always been that tough guy, you know. He’s like, ‘I got this. Y’all run on now.’ So I think he’s going to be successful. The thing about Tray, when he does something, he goes hard at it. He always wanted go to college and get to the next level. He did it and I think he’ll do it again.”
Bishop’s mother couldn’t make the trip, which actually made it tougher for her.
“I did a lot of crying because it was like reality now and he’s my firstborn,” Toombs said. “After he got there I was calling him all the time. He was like, ‘Mama, you don’t gotta call me every day. I’m fine.'”
Bishop’s coach believes his former pupil will be fine, too. But he also thinks there will be a period of adjustment. First, he said Bishop will have to get used to playing defense full time. Secondly, he’ll have to get used to being a small fish in a giant pond.
He was anything but that at Terrell County High.
“Athens city life hasn’t always been good for players from small towns, so I do worry about that,” Huff said. “But I think Tray is grounded enough and secure enough in his own individuality that peer pressure won’t necessarily get him into situations he doesn’t want to be in. He’ll be making his own decisions and choices about his time, so that’s a concern of mine. But it’s a concern of any parent in the country who sends their kid to college.”
The key for Bishop is he has plenty of people behind him for whom he is their primary concern.
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