Newsworthy talked with Mark Gray-Mendes, TJ ’03, as part of our popular online-exclusive series on Alums Who Never Left.
Q: What are your responsibilities as Assistant Director of Student Activities — Activities & Transportation?
A: I mix and match a lot of different responsibilities here working for [Director of Student Activities] Rusty [Hodges]. Principally I curate the colonialathletics.org website, handle transportation for Athletics, and help with a lot of communication pieces that come out of our office. The best part of the job, without question, is going to watch our athletic teams play with the name “Jefferson” on the front of their jersey – it’s a tremendous source of pride for me. I also do a fair amount of PA announcing at several of those home games, and that’s always a lot of fun. I’ve announced for baseball, soccer, field hockey, girls’ basketball, volleyball, and I’ve just started announcing the home football games.
Q: What was it like playing basketball for TJ back in the day?
A: I played for Coach Ed Grimm, who was the head coach from 1997-2010 and whom I was fortunate enough to succeed once he retired from the coaching profession. Playing for TJ was one of the most memorable parts of my time at TJ, and indeed I wish I’d played other sports. There was absolutely nothing like those home games when the stands were packed with the original Monticello Maniacs… There was one game in particular when we played Chantilly at our place in January of 2002, and they came in undefeated and we beat them in overtime. It was like a classic scene out of the “Hoosiers” movie, the crowd storming the court and everyone going crazy. I will never forget that night…one of those special moments that make high school sports so memorable and unique.
Q: What subjects were you most interested in at TJ?
A: I was definitely an atypical TJ kid, at least by today’s standards. I got into the school because I was advanced in math, but as a function of some great teachers that I had (some of whom are still around today, like John Struck) my interests shifted more in the direction of social studies and government. That inspiration was largely responsible for my studying American Politics in college. I was also a HUGE drama and choir nerd starting with my sophomore year, so I always made sure to take those curricular classes when possible.
Q: When you were at TJ, did you ever think you’d be back in any capacity?
A: Definitely. I started coaching off-season teams when I was still in school here, and as a function of that I knew that coaching was something that I wanted to do forever. I was lucky at an early age (I was 16 when I first started coaching for Jefferson in the spring and summer) to discover something that I was truly passionate about, that stirred me up on the inside and allowed me to discover my true self – many people struggle to find their purpose for their entire lives. I have to thank JV coach Mark Travis for giving me that opportunity – it has shaped all facets of my life.
Q: Did you work at TJ while in college?
A: I was at Virginia Tech for one year before transferring to UVA. While I wasn’t on the regular staff during that time (would have been a heck of a commute!) I did continue to serve as the primary coach for all of our off-season spring and summer league teams during my time in school. Once I graduated, Coach Grimm offered me a position on staff as an assistant, and the rest is history.
Q: Are you a born coach?
A: I’m not sure I would call myself a born coach – being a coach is so much more about communication and relationships with players than about Xs and Os. Coach Travis really taught me that when I played for him on his JV basketball team my sophomore year – it was a rough time in my life and he showed me that it’s most important to make sure your players know how much you care about them off the field. That being said, the analytical part of sports has always interested me – whenever I watch all of my favorite sports like basketball, baseball, football, or cricket, I always feel like it’s an intellectual exercise. Honestly, it drives some people crazy that I don’t just cheer for my favorite teams!
Q: Is it inevitable that TJ teams in the spectator sports will be weaker than those of high schools that can recruit (officially or unofficially) and tend to emphasize sports more than we do?
A: I could go into great detail with respect to our history where we’ve had great success against bigger and more powerful public schools in sports like football, basketball, and baseball – and of course we already have tremendous success in many other sports here. What it requires for us is the right mixture of talent, dedication, and coaching, with a little bit of luck thrown in for good measure. I strive every single day to find ways to become a better coach – I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t think our kids had the ability to be competitive. We’ll always have certain disadvantages, sure – but in my experience over the past 16 years, most of those have to do with the distance that our kids have to travel in order to participate both in the season and in the off-season.
Q: Many of our teams are great, but when a team loses most of its games, it must be a downer. How do you deal with that?
A: Of course there are times when losing games can be frustrating – any coach would tell you that – but it only really frustrates me if I feel like we didn’t do the best we could or, especially, if I didn’t give us the best chance to be successful. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come into the locker room after a loss and been so incredibly proud of my team for the determination, toughness, and enthusiasm that they showed – even if we just weren’t good enough on that particular evening. One of my most fulfilling seasons came when my team went 3-20 because they gave everything they had every night and were truly fun to be around.
Q: What would you say to the parent who asks, “My kid isn’t going to get into college on the basis of his or her athletic performance, so what’s the point of TJ athletics, anyway?”
A: It seems like more and more these days I have to justify the value of athletics to TJ parents, so your question is a good one. I think participation in athletics is a unique experience at TJ, and that the lessons it teaches are particularly relevant to TJ kids. For example, a lot of our kids don’t have a whole lot of experience with disappointment or (I hate this word) “failure” before they get going at TJ. Things tend to come easily to them at an earlier age, and honestly I think as a society we’re moving away from allowing our kids to experience disappointment and hard times during their childhood. Losing is a part of reality in athletics (at least at most places) and experiencing it can help kids develop the coping mechanisms that they will need later in life to deal with real-life issues. What’s special about athletics is that in most sports, you’re directly competing against someone who’s trying to stop you from doing what you want to do, and there are great opportunities to develop leadership and mental toughness in those battles that just aren’t available in the vast majority of other activities. Perhaps most importantly, by participating in athletics our kids get an opportunity to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves, and in so doing learn how to make sacrifices for the good of a group.
Q: The 2013 “Revenge of the Nerds” article on TJ sports suggested that the strategies you use to coach TJ students might be different from those you would use at another school. Is this accurate?
A: One of the challenges of coaching anywhere is that you have to find the right angle to get your message across to kids, and it’s different everywhere you coach. For our kids, because of their generally analytical nature, it’s helpful sometimes to put things in a way that helps them concretely understand the value of a particular strategy. But even at TJ, all groups are different. I recognized early that the particular group [discussed in the article] responded to understanding the mathematical value of tactics – other groups aren’t necessarily as moved by that approach. It makes for a fun story, though!
Q: What will the renovation — and accompanying Campaign for TJ that is bringing turf and bathrooms to our school — mean for TJ sports?
A: I think the renovation campaign is the single most important thing that’s going on at TJ right now. Any education study that you see nowadays will tell you that kids respond very directly to their academic environment and their surroundings. The spaces that have been completed are spectacular and make me truly excited about what’s to come in the near future. We’ve just now gotten our new athletic spaces online, and they’re all very exciting. The net effect of all of this is that at the end of the process, TJ students are once again going to be able to take pride in the building that they inhabit, and that will have a positive effect on everyone in the building, staff and students alike. The other way in which I expect TJ will be impacted is in the admissions process. There are several families whom I’ve talked with over the past couple of years who cited the renovation and its impact on the athletic program as a reason the student didn’t apply to TJ. Once our building is complete, it’s only natural that we should see a spike in applications.
Q: You certainly know how to project your voice when you read student names at the sports banquet, but I bet few in the community know you were an actor and singer at TJ and beyond. How did that begin?
A: I was a choir member for two and a half years and in theater for two years. During those two years, I did five main-stage shows at TJ, highlighted by “Don’t Drink the Water” and “Bells Are Ringing”. I was fortunate enough to be able to carry both activities into college, where I sang with Virginia Glee Club and University Singers and performed onstage with State Your Name Theatre Company, First Year Players, Shakespeare on the Lawn, and Spectrum Theatre. I also was able to direct musicals with FYP and Spectrum. Those experiences really shaped my college life and I wouldn’t have bothered to pursue them but for my involvement in TJ Drama and Choir!
Honestly, it was easier to do community theater before I got on staff here at TJ because there are so many evening commitments that I love being a part of. I did five shows between 2008-12, most recently “Legally Blonde – The Musical” with McLean Community Players. It’s a part of my life that I really miss, but I wouldn’t trade the evening work I do at TJ for it.
Q: I saw that you’re marrying Allison Agee, who used to organize 8th period activities. Congrats! Did you meet at TJ?
A: We actually first met back in 2003-2004, when I was coaching in a JV Summer League that she was running at Marshall (she was a student manager at the time). We never dated, though, and totally lost touch for about eight years before I ran into her again when she was at TJ. She started helping out with basketball, and summoned up the nerve to ask me to frozen yogurt after a particularly thrilling double-overtime win at Marshall… one thing led to another, and now I’m the luckiest guy on the planet!