There is an artistry - a creativity - to the way Taylor Gray plays the sport of soccer.
It came from watching some of the greats, specifically Neymar, who taught him to play fearlessly and basically to be your own person on the field.
Now with the Chattanooga Football Club, Gray has enjoyed the combination of the club's team success as well as his own individual success this season. That success has been buoyed by a failure the last time he attempted to join the club, not being selected at a trial in 2019.
He still found himself going to CFC matches in the coming days and years, all the while dreaming for a chance to play in front of those same supporters.
So that passion that he now has, that smile when he scores, it's earned.
"When I'm on the field, I'm not just playing for myself, I'm playing for my teammates," Gray said after Tuesday's practice. "I know they worked hard to get here, but this is a bit deeper when you've really been waiting for that opportunity. It's not something that came out of nowhere; I really had to work for this."
Gray spent last season with the Maryland Bobcats, also in the National Independent Soccer Association. While CFC was in the back of his mind, his focus was on that club, but there's no doubt he was prepared when new-CFC head coach Rod Underwood reached out to him about playing for the club in 2022. The results - for both Gray and the team - have reflected a culture shift as the organization had some struggles since becoming a professional club.
The second-leading scorer for Chattanooga's NISA team (also tied for second in the league behind Markus Naglestad, who has 13), Gray has found success this season, helping CFC to a 10-2-3 record overall this season and 9-1-3 mark against NISA competition. The club hosts the Cal United Strikers FC (10-1-1), who are first in the West Division at 7 tonight at Finley Stadium.
Ironically (or maybe not), all but one of Gray's goals have come at Finley. Once a fan who came for the show, now he's trying to put one on in front of the home crowd.
"When I would watch the first soccer games I ever watched in my life, I was literally just watching the players that were the fastest or the players that control the ball differently than everybody else," he said. "They just had a certain personality when they were on the field. I think anybody would tell you that they would like to live their life in a way that people will remember them for a certain energy they bring, so I think I always want to be on the field and be a positive impact on the community here in Chattanooga, but also just for the young kids who are watching and maybe trying to figure out, 'Do I love soccer? Do I enjoy it?'
"Then they can be a player that plays in a certain way, so they may know that they can come on the field and play any type of way they want."
CFC currently has a seven-point lead in the East standings over Michigan Stars FC (6-3-5, 23 points), while the Cal United Strikers have over twice as many points (31) as the second-place team in the West, Bay Cities FC (4-5-3, 15 points). This game has meaning for both, but a positive result is more important to the home team than the visitors. But to that home team, Gray says, it's just the next match.
"Behind the scenes, with each training session, each gym session recovery, whatever we're doing, we just tune in and focus," he said. "It's getting to a point where I really don't look at other teams, I don't gauge where they are in the game. It's really special to see our team do things and seeing how much we're improving throughout the season, so if I would say anything for this next month of games, we just have to play to the best of our ability, and I think it's three points as a guarantee.
"But we have to bring the best out."
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.