East/South Xtra: Elizabeth Forward's new coach comes with plan for success

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Being repeatedly told how great he was even before he got to high school is what Gerald "Puddin" Grayson says made him so humble.

It's fair to say that none of the athletes he will tutor as the new coach of the Elizabeth Forward High School boys basketball team will come to him with the hype and expectations Grayson did as something of a youth football legend for the McKeesport Little Tigers a half century ago.

Grayson won't let any of the Warriors pull any me-me-me antics with him. If "Puddin'" could make it through his youth with his humility in tact, he isn't about to let those he coaches carry any.

"You're going to have a hard time playing for me if you're selfish," Grayson said. "If you're selfless, you can make mistakes but you'll get no trouble from me. We're going to have a selfless team. When you have a selfish team, that's when you have something to worry about."

Grayson, 64, was hired by Elizabeth Forward late last month. It is the first boys varsity head coaching job for Grayson, who coached the McKeesport girls team from 1985-98. Grayson and the Swin Cash-led 1998 Tigers won the WPIAL Class AAAA title.

Grayson also most recently coached the girls team at Duquesne High School a few years ago, and he began his basketball coaching career as an assistant boys coach at his alma mater, McKeesport, in the 1970s.

Despite his long tenure coaching basketball, it is in football that Grayson was a local legend a couple of generations ago. Grayson, in fact, barely played high school basketball.

But from nearly the time a babysitter nicknamed him "Puddin" as a youth, Grayson was known for being a phenom running back in football.

"Sometimes, to this day, I don't even know my real name," Grayson said with a laugh. "Someone said to me, 'Hey, Gerald,' and I said, 'Are you talking to me?' I literally forgot what my name was because everyone calls me Puddin."

Puddin was a fixture in newspaper writeups and television news reports by the time he entered his teen years because of the yardage and touchdown numbers he piled up with the Little Tigers, a team that traveled to play other top teams from around the country and was considered something of a national power.

A celebrity in the Mon Valley who was signing autographs as a 12-year-old, Grayson said he felt the weight of expectations before he ever even got to high school.

"You don't even know the half of it," Grayson said with a chuckle. "That's probably what has made me what I am to this day. I don't like to be in big crowds.

"When I was 13 we'd be going around everyday going here and going there, meeting people and taking pictures. It made me kind of uncomfortable because I wanted to be 13. I wanted to be a 12-year-old kid and all those touchdowns took me some place else."

In that environment, it would have been easy for him to get a big head or things to turn sour. As an indication of how grounded and well-adjusted Grayson is today, he's spent much of his time since he last coached high school ball working with youth in a mentor's role.

"I can see how you can get cocky if you start believing that garbage," Grayson said of the hype surrounding him as a youth. "One thing my mom made sure of me, she taught me to be humble. No matter what, always, if you score a touchdown, it wasn't you, it was your teammates.

"As a coach, I learned a long time ago ... that everybody on your team has to be that way."

After piling up astronomical numbers in youth football, Grayson had a very good high school career, but he couldn't live up to the ridiculous expectations placed on him -- partly because he never grew much larger than during his days in youth football. He stands only 5 feet 5.

After graduating from Mc-Keesport, he played at Boise State, Grayson spent 31 years as a health and physical education teacher at McKeesport before retiring in 2003. He initially started coaching youth football but soon found out he'd much prefer coaching basketball.

Grayson said the initial foray into coaching girls instead of boys was merely a matter of circumstance. He always thought about trying his hand at coaching boys.

When he was encouraged to apply for the Elizabeth Forward job earlier this year, he sought the blessing of his wife. When that came, he jumped at the chance when the position was offered.

"I'm extremely excited," Grayson said. "The people at EF have been outstanding. So far the kids have been great, the administration has been great, the parents have been great -- everyone has been great. They're making it as easy for me as they possibly can."

Elizabeth Forward went 13-11 and won a WPIAL Class AAA playoff game last season but had a senior-heavy roster and returns an inexperienced team.

"I knew going into this there was not a lot coming back," Grayson said. "It's not like there's five high school All-Americans, nobody's 7 feet tall. The expectations are what they are and they didn't scare me."

As if Grayson didn't add enough intrigue to the Warriors' coaching staff, he hired McKeesport graduate Amy Johns as an assistant. Johns recently completed her career at California University as the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference West Women's Basketball Athlete of the Year.

A 2008 high school graduate, Johns was a Post-Gazette Fabulous 5 honoree.

"She was a great basketball player. When I first told people she was my first assistant they said, 'You're hiring a lady?' I said, 'Yeah,'" Grayson said. "She brings so much to this staff. She's a pure basketball player who happens to be a young lady.

"She got recommended to me by a former player of mine, and when I got to know her, she impressed me with her knowledge of the game, and I wanted someone who was young and full of energy. She can get out there and play with these guys and push them."

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