His hand warmers brushed against the ring boxed on the waist of his football uniform as he nervously waited on the sidelines of the JMU-Rhode Island game Nov. 10. Head coach Mike Houston had given the approval earlier that week, his friends were in position and the Dukes had secured a 48-31 victory as redshirt senior Hunter Etheridge ran out the clock.
For senior kicker Tyler Gray, meeting Abby McClellan their freshman year of high school, officially dating after senior-year graduation, living together for the past year and a half and even the time she accidentally used his toothbrush had all led to this.
In the moments following the win, football players circled around Gray. As they created an opening for his longtime girlfriend walking toward them, Gray felt his mouth turn up.
“I literally could not stop smiling because she didn’t know what was about to happen, but I knew what was about to happen so I couldn’t get the smile off my face,” Gray said.
McClellan, who’d been convinced by senior running back Trai Sharp and sophomore punter Harry O’Kelly that this was a continued celebration of senior night where pictures would take place, remembers speed walking toward the middle of the field. Despite Gray telling her the plan the night before, she felt unsure she was supposed to be there and turned to O’Kelly for confirmation.
As the huddle of Gray’s football family — who McClellan says looked like the gates of heaven if the gates of heaven were JMU football players — cleared to Gray in the middle, it finally made sense. It was happening.
“I tried to keep it short ... So I just said ‘Abby, I love you so much, My love for you grows every day and I want to spend the rest of my life with you,’” Gray said. “That’s when I got on one knee and said, ‘Will you marry me?’”
McClellan didn’t know what to feel — she just knew it was the most perfect proposal she could’ve imagined. She was so in shock she didn’t even think to look down to see the ring, which she now shows everyone any chance she gets.
“I’ve always dreamed about the perfect wedding and the perfect dress and being with Tyler set that over the top,” McClellan said. “I cannot wait to be with this man forever. Being where I am now is amazing as is, but I still can’t believe that I get to say I’m going to marry him.”
O’Kelly and Gray quickly became close after the Grays were one of the first families to take him in when he arrived to the U.S. From going to practice together to going home with Gray to Winchester on the weekends and getting to know McClellan, it became apparent to O’Kelly that they were a couple who was meant to be. For him, it wasn’t a matter of if, but when.
“It was pretty awesome. It was special. I’m happy to be part of it,” O’Kelly said. “He got the answer he wanted so that always helps.”
When McClellan met Gray at Millbrook High School in Winchester, Virginia, she didn’t expect to be able to say she’d have her high school sweetheart for the rest of her life. In fact, freshman year, they didn’t think their friendship would move past being just friends despite a history of liking each other throughout the years.
“I started developing feelings for her and I could tell she was developing feelings for me but she didn’t want to admit it,” Gray said. “She was being a bit stubborn about it.”
It wasn’t until the annual Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival following graduation that McClellan realized, “This is the guy, let’s finally do this.” From then, it all seemed to fall into place.
While she finished her college degree in Winchester, she’d spend the Mondays Gray had off from football at JMU. Though at first the one-hour drive seemed like a barrier, the open communication and honesty helped.
“There was always that comfort factor of Tyler saying ‘Don’t worry. Don’t let it stress you out. Everything is going to work out,’” McClellan said. “He’s always been supportive of the entire relationship.”
Now, she works full-time in Harrisonburg where she hopes to stay for a while — though her ultimate end goal is raising her family in Texas.
“Everything is fun with him so I can’t imagine marriage and kids and dogs,” McClellan said. “I’m just super excited.”
Although so far they’ve only chosen May as their ideal wedding month, Gray says his fiancé — who’s a self-proclaimed super planner — was prepared from the moment they sat down at Rocktown Kitchen after the press conference.
“That night at dinner, she was like, ‘So what color would you want the groomsmen to be? And what color dresses should the bridesmaids be?’” Gray said. “And I was like ‘OK, let’s just take a little bit of time to celebrate our engagement.’”
Citing their relationship as a comedy show, with her joking Gray is “the most queen man ever,” McClellan says their roles are switched since it’s usually him cleaning up after her messes. While living together has brought out the funny moments, Gray says it’s also helped strengthen their relationship. He’s most excited to grow and live out their lives together.
“I can finally say I have my high school sweetheart for the rest of my life and I think that’s great,” Gray said. “She’s very smart, intelligent, beautiful. I always tell her she has big brown puppy eyes — it’s how she always get what she wants.”
Contact Sabrina Moreno at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.