Tayvon Gray: From the northeast Bronx to the major leagues

Tayvon Gray, a defender on the New York City Football Club, is rounding out his second season in Major League Soccer. The 21-year-old is the first Bronx-raised person to sign a professional contract with the team.
Tayvon Gray, a defender on the New York City Football Club team, just rounded out his third season in Major League Soccer. The 21-year-old is the first Bronx-raised person to sign a professional contract with the team.
Photo Camille Botello

Tayvon Gray, a popular Bronx kid, walked into the North Star Cafe on East Tremont Avenue in Crotona earlier this month after getting a haircut from a neighborhood barber shop. Dressed casually in a beige sweat suit, the 21-year-old watched Premier League European soccer on the cafe’s small TV while waiting for his strawberry and whipped cream-topped waffles.

Despite his humble demeanor, the now-professional soccer player with the New York City Football Club (NYCFC) has become a recognizable face in the city’s athletic scene. But he was also once just a little kid from the northeast Bronx.   

A soccer family with Jamaican roots

Gray was raised in a soccer family, he told the Bronx Times at the cafe on Nov. 8. 

Both of his parents immigrated to the United States from Jamaica as children, his father with athletic dreams of his own. (His father was close to reaching the heights of soccer, playing for Southend United F.C., a lower league professional team in England.) 

“We always played soccer growing up,” he said about his dad, twin brother and sister. “That type of stuff was always in my blood.”

When he was a kid, Gray said his father was adamant that he and his brother Kayvon attend schools outside of the Bronx, primarily to get away from crime in the neighborhood they lived in just north of Allerton.

Crime in 2002, the year the twins were born, was surging in the North Bronx’s 47th Precinct where they lived. That year there were 24 cases of murder and non-negligent manslaughter, according to police data.

“He took me away from a lot,” the 21-year-old said. “He just did what was best for me, honestly. He didn’t want me around the wrong crowd, stuff like that.”

Gray’s parents ended up enrolling both himself and his brother into St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark for seventh and eighth grade and later to Alexander Hamilton High School in the Westchester County village of Elmsford.

Apart from being side by side off the pitch, the twins were also often together on the field — the duo started playing club soccer at NYCFC’s youth academy as teenagers in 2017. (Kayvon went on to play for Manhattan College, and is now working toward a professional career of his own. Gray said he ponders the idea of someday playing against, or with, his brother all the time.)

Tayvon Gray, right, and his twin brother Kayvon as children.
Tayvon Gray, right, and his twin brother Kayvon as children. Photo courtesy Tayvon Gray Instagram

Gray has been an integral part of the team even before he made it pro, according to NYCFC. During his time on the club’s U-19 team, the defender helped lead the group’s back-to-back U.S. Development Academy National Championship wins — the first U-19 club in the league to repeat.

He officially signed with NYCFC at the end of the 2019 season — the first player from the Bronx to sign a professional contract with the club. NYCFC launched in 2013 as the first Major League Soccer (MLS) team in New York City, and is majority owned by the City Football Group — the same group that owns top European Premier League team Manchester City in England.

The 5’11” 163-pound defender and his hometown NYCFC made a run to the MLS Cup in the 2021 season, playing the majority of their home games at Yankee Stadium. He continued to perform in 2022 with 27 game appearances in the regular season, and signed a contract extension with the team last year for an annual salary of $350,000.

Gray said his family, the majority of whom still live in the Bronx, has come to nearly every game since he first put on the number 24.

Tayvon Gray is the first Bronx native to sign a professional contract with the New York City Football Club.
Tayvon Gray is the first Bronx native to sign a professional contract with the New York City Football Club. Photo NYCFC

The 21-year-old’s background came to the fore last month when he got a call to play internationally for Jamaica. Gray, who has dual citizenship, said representing that team — a feat his father wasn’t able to accomplish when he was playing pro — had occurred to him, but he still never actually expected to get the opportunity.

“I think my dad wanted to play for them as he was growing up,” he said. “He’s very overly excited when I do stuff.”

“As he should (be),” he added. “He taught me everything I know.”

Around a quarter of Gray’s family still lives on the island, his father’s side from the Kingston suburb of Portmore and his mother’s side from the small southwest city of St. Elizabeth Parish. The international season for the Jamaica national football team, more commonly known as the Reggae Boyz, has already started. Gray said playing for the team feels familiar to him — like being at his second home. He’s been there to visit relatives a lot, he said, and carries his culture with him here in New York.

In the northeast Bronx where Gray grew up, he said there were a lot of other Jamaican families.

“The culture is both places,” he said. “It’s not like it’s only in Jamaica, it’s also here.”

Making it big from the Bronx

Gray said he still hasn’t grown accustomed to his status as a professional athlete, and he doesn’t know if he ever really will. After all, fame in Manhattan in some ways seems relatively familiar, even sort of commonplace. But making it big from the Bronx — there’s a whole other sense of pride that accompanies it.

“The fans love me, I love them,” Gray said at the North Star Cafe — a family business whose front-of-house employees told the Bronx Times they were NYCFC fiends.

“They make me feel like I’m home, and I am home,” Gray said.

Just five blocks south of the cafe in Crotona Park, a group of middle- and high school-aged boys were practicing on the soccer pitch.

They play for NYCFC’s City in the Community (CITC) foundation — the football club’s nonprofit arm that aims to empower children in underserved areas using free soccer programming as a vehicle. According to the club, CITC has prioritized the Bronx’s youth for years and continues to hold a strong presence in the borough.

Gray, in a surprise visit, attended the CITC training on Nov. 8 — where he talked to kids about his career and helped coach a scrimmage. Some of the players were stoic, and others were starstruck.

Kids take a break from their soccer practice in Crotona Park on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023 during their surprise visit from NYCFC defender Tayvon Gray.
Kids take a break from their soccer practice in Crotona Park on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023 for a surprise visit from NYCFC defender Tayvon Gray. Photo Camille Botello
CITC coach Fausto Perez, left, said the visit from Tayvon Gray motivates his players.
CITC coach Fausto Perez, left, said the visit from Tayvon Gray motivated his players. Photo Camille Botello

CITC coach Fausto Perez told the Bronx Times that having a player like Gray at practice makes a real difference in his kids’ lives.

“It serves to motivate them,” he said. “The other Tayvon could be on this field playing.”

Born and raised in the South Bronx, Perez also grew up playing soccer in the Boogie Down. Following his semi-pro career, he said he’s appreciative for his ability to give back to his community by creating soccer programming he wishes had been available when he was coming up in the early 2000s.

“I’m able to connect with the kids in a way that I feel is unique to me, given that I’m from this demographic,” Perez said.

CITC has also been a leader in expanding Saturday Night Lights to the Bronx — a program run by the Department of Youth and Community Development, the NYPD and the city’s district attorneys to provide free sports training for kids when crime rates are the highest. Perez said offering soccer at times when kids are most at risk is another crucial component of his job.

“Having structured soccer training for them that’s accessible and free, it’s really important for them to stay out of trouble,” he said.

Perez said his kids come out to Crotona Park twice a week for about two hours after school.

For 15-year-old soccer player Brian Bustillo, meeting Gray during his practice on Nov. 8 was inspiring.

NYCFC defender Tayvon Gray signs players' cleats at a CITC practice in Crotona Park on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2023.
Tayvon Gray signs players’ cleats at a CITC practice in Crotona Park. Photo Camille Botello

“I’ve never met an actual professional player before,” he said.

The Bronx-raised high school student said he’s been playing for about five years now. Bustillo learned the craft from his father, and now plays for his high school team. The 15-year-old is also in between academy tryouts, and has aspirations of turning the game into a career one day. 

Bustillo said listening to Gray open up about his own path — and even getting into some of the specifics of his workout and dietary regimen — has given him more perspective about what it takes to go pro. 

“I get to see his experiences and what he did in order for him to make it professional,” Bustillo said. “(So) I can have an idea I can use in order to succeed.”

A new future in Queens

Gray was disappointed when NYCFC closed out its regular season with a win against Chicago on Oct. 21, but still missed out on the playoffs. This year marked the first time since 2015 that NYCFC didn’t make the postseason.

The NYCFC played their final game of the 2023 season at Citi Field in Queens.
NYCFC played their final game of the 2023 season at Citi Field in Queens. Photo Camille Botello

He and his teammates ended their season at Citi Field in Queens this year, a taste of what future home games will look like starting in 2027.

Most of the club’s home games have been played at Yankee Stadium over the past decade, since it has lacked a permanent field. But last year the club landed on a deal for a new 25,000-seat, $800 million soccer stadium in Willets Point, adjacent to Citi Field. 

NYCFC President and CEO Brad Sims told the Bronx Times that plans to build the Big Apple’s first professional soccer stadium will authenticate the city as “a global destination for the world’s sport.” The club remains hopeful the stadium will be complete by 2027.

“Creating a global destination for soccer means being able to provide opportunities in the sport to everyone, regardless of their background and ability,” Sims said. “Having the chance to build the city’s first-ever soccer specific stadium is a huge part of that mission.”

Even so, playing on baseball diamonds doesn’t faze Gray.

During the team’s last regular season game, the Mets’ infield dirt outline was still visible through the turf the club used to convert the field into their soccer pitch. Gray told the Bronx Times that he views playing on baseball fields as advantageous from a versatility and adaptability standpoint, though he’s looking forward to the permanent soccer field in Queens in the next few years.

The 21-year-old is currently suiting up for his international league games for Jamaica in between friendly matches and offseason training with NYCFC. He said he hopes to eventually play soccer in Europe, and to have a run at the World Cup for Jamaica.

But, in the meantime at least, the Bronx is still the place Gray considers home.

“There’s no better feeling, playing for my hometown,” he said.

This story was updated to clarify Tayvon Gray’s contract extension with NYCFC. This story was also corrected to name all the Saturday Night Lights program partners.     

Reach Camille Botello at cbotello@schnepsmedia.com. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes