LIVINGSTON — Home. In the fall of 2015, the last place Keith Gray would have ever dreamt he’d be calling home, and meaning it with all his heart, was Livingston, Alabama, and, more specifically, his place on the University of West Alabama football team.

“I’ve never been a part of anything like this,” said the senior tight end. “Everybody is close here. You can literally run into anyone on the team, and if anybody has a problem, you can talk to him, and the coaches as well, about your day, anything that’s going on with your family, anything at all. Of everywhere I’ve been, I’ve never been a part of anything like this. There’s something really special here. I just take pride in it. I’m thankful for it. Blessed. Being here has brought me a lot of great friends.”

How he came to land in Livingston took a detour that, initially, derailed him. An all-star player and 2015 graduate at Sipsey Valley High School, Gray signed on to play college football nearby in Tuscaloosa at Stillman College. He was a red shirt freshman that first fall, something that, at times, frustrated him. He wanted to play ball but he stayed patient, believing the best was yet to come.

Instead, the worst came. Mere weeks after that 2015 season ended, Stillman College announced, due to financial reasons, it was dropping football. Gray found himself without a team.

“I redshirted for the season and then they broke the news to us sometime at the end of November or the beginning of December,” Gray said. “It was definitely a challenge, going back into the recruiting process again. I thought I would be done with that. It took me by surprise. But, once again, it gave me another opportunity here -- to play at the University of West Alabama. That’s another thing I’m thankful for. It worked out. It’s sad that it went down that way, but it worked out in my favor.”

Indeed it has. On Saturday, Gray will run on to the football field, for the fourth, and final season. No. 24-ranked UWA is playing its season and home opener at 6 p.m. against Limestone.

When he takes the field, members of his family and perhaps some of his childhood friends from Buhl will be in the stands at Tiger Stadium cheering for him and his UWA teammates. That’s the beauty of playing somewhere a quick drive from home, that and being able to play for a team that in 2017, won the Gulf South Conference championship.

“It’s definitely a humbling experience. Most people don’t get to just travel down the road and get to be a part of such a good football team,” Gray said. “Being able to be so close to home and being able to have my family be able to travel to the majority of the home games has definitely been a blessing for me.”

His last season will also mark a first. After playing with the number 26 on his jersey, Gray decided to make a change for his senior season. He’s No. 13 now. Lucky number 13, he says.

“I just wanted to bring a little style to the game, to the tight end position,” Gray said, laughing, of the change. He wore No. 15 in high school. “I thought it would be a good transition, do something different my last year. I’m hoping that’s going to be my lucky number.”

Going into Saturday’s opener, Gray has played in 28 games. Last season he started three games at tight end, catching five passes for 31 yards and scoring two points on a PAT conversion pass. He’s also played, and continues to play, on special teams where highlights include a 27-yard punt return in 2016 and 12 tackles, eight of those solo, in 2017.

As luck would have it, Gray has shared the tight end position with All-American Qua Boyd.

“Right. It’s definitely been challenging, playing behind an all-American, but it’s does nothing but make us better. He’s one of the closest people I’m with on the team. We’re practicing together, coaching each other up, just doing drills together every day -- you can imagine how close as friends we’ve become. It’s all love. I’m proud of him. I’m glad he’s on my team.”

Gray plans on making this season a memorable one, just as every other year has been. His first season was a learning process. Each year he’s grown, and, at 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds, not just physically. He’d like to elevate his game, take it to the next level or at least be invited to some NFL combines. Regardless, he’ll graduate in December with a degree in business and plans to start graduate school at UWA come January. Meanwhile, he has set a team-spirited goal in mind for his senior season.

“This season is all about, of course, winning a championship which is being a good teammate to the rest of my teammates. This is my last year. I just want to leave with a good impact on our remaining players who will be here. I just want to play my role, do my job. I’m definitely going to do that to the best of my ability this year, my last year.”