It was fitting that when the call came — the one with the first of what would be a dizzying number of life-changing opportunities in a short span — Karson Gay was sitting at his kitchen table.
Having just finished the first of his two daily workouts and preparing to eat a portion of the 3,400-plus calories he takes in each day, Gay's cellphone rang with exciting news from Boyd Buchanan football coach Jeremy Bosken.
"Coach told me that he had just found out that I was getting my first college offer and asked if I knew who it was from," Gay recalled. "I had no idea, and when he said it was from Ole Miss, I just stayed quiet for a few seconds, and all I could think to say was, 'Like Lane Kiffin Ole Miss?'
"It was kind of a surreal feeling when we hung up. I wasn't real sure what to think or how to feel at first. After that, what really shocked me was just how fast everything else came. I was thankful just to get one offer, and then all of a sudden they started coming in one after the other."
After a solid but not spectacular sophomore season at tight end — 21 catches for 256 yards and three touchdowns in five games — Gay was determined to turn heads this fall. To do that meant adding some weight to his 6-foot-6, 190-pound frame. So during four months of quarantine amid the coronavirus pandemic, Gay dedicated himself to transforming his body.
His dad Kyle, who played on the defensive line at Middle Tennessee State, turned the family basement into a home gym complete with a bench, pull-up bar, full rack of weights and other workout equipment. The father-son tandem also set up a nutrition plan, which has resulted in packing on more than 30 pounds of healthy mass while also maintaining the speed that allowed Karson to play receiver last season.
"I just knew I wasn't where I wanted to be physically going into this season," said Gay, who was timed at 4.62 seconds in the 40-yard dash at a recent camp. "My dad helped me with technique, but it was really just me working out by myself. My dad always said he'd give me the tools but then it was up to me to go work on my own if I wanted it.
"Once I started to see the progress I was making, it just made me want to work even harder. Then to start getting those college offers was a huge confidence boost. To go from not talking to any college coaches and wondering if I would get an offer to what just happened is insane."
When Karson attended the National Playmakers Academy combine in Nashville in early July, his size, agility and abilities as a receiver caught camp director and former University of Tennessee athlete Buck Fitzgerald's attention. Fitzgerald sent video of Gay's workout to college coaches, and a week later — having turned in another strong performance at a camp in Georgia — the Ole Miss offer came. In less than two weeks, Gay went from having no college scholarship offers to a string of six as BYU, Tennessee, Southern California, Pitt and Florida Atlantic joined Kiffin's Rebels.
"It's amazing how quickly his recruiting took off," Bosken said. "Right before he went to the NPA camp, Mercer was flirting with the idea of recruiting him, and Karson and his dad had talked about hoping to get out to visit some college campuses soon if they were allowed to during the pandemic. And then to have your first offer be from an SEC program, that's pretty special. It just took off after that, and he started getting offers rapid fire.
"During the quarantine, he had been telling me that he was really working out hard, but then to actually see him when we were finally able to get back together as a team, he looked like a totally different kid. He used to have his hoodie on for workouts, but now he's walking around with his shirt off and his chest sticking out. He's proud of himself, and he should be."
On the day that TSSAA football teams were originally scheduled to begin practicing in pads, Karson and his teammates will instead only be allowed to hold noncontact conditioning drills Monday. That will continue until either Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee exempts high school teams from his state of emergency order or until Aug. 29, when the order is scheduled to end.
Karson, who is also an Eagle Scout, will be part of a Buccaneers team that has seven starters returning on each side of the ball from an eight-win team that scored 30-plus points seven times in 2019. That list includes state Mr. Football semifinalist Eli Morris at quarterback, running back JaMichael McGoy — whose 4.37-second time in the 40 helped him earn college offers from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Eastern Kentucky, Tennessee State and Western Carolina, among others — and preseason all-state tight end Luke Stum (6-2, 230).
"What we're selling to the other guys on the team is that having guys like Karson and JaMichael, who already have offers, will only bring in more college coaches to check out our other talent," Bosken said. "Our other guys will benefit from the exposure Karson is bringing in, and he's already an example for the younger guys that hard work can really pay off."