DENVER -- Rockies pitcher Jon Gray's grandfather, who is of Cherokee descent, had some fun teaching Gray a few basics of the Native American tribe's language, like frequently used words and animal names.
"He's always been kind of a goofball -- he'll throw Spanish, Cherokee and English together, thinks it's pretty funny," Gray said.
But Gray knows there is sadness. By the time he arrived at the University of Oklahoma and took classes in Cherokee as part of his multidisciplinary studies major, he learned that the language is disappearing.
Had Gray not become a Major League pitcher -- one who owns the Rockies' rookie strikeouts record (142) -- he said his dream was to seek employment with the Cherokee Nation.
"I'm just one-eighth -- not very much, but I feel like it's pretty unique to be a Cherokee citizen," Gray said. "To do something really good, being a Cherokee, is really important. If I'd worked for the Cherokee Nation, I would have made sure our identity was still there.
"I know lately, they've been cutting the budgets on language classes. The kids go to these Cherokee schools and they have signs in front of them that say, 'No English beyond this point.' So they grow up speaking Cherokee, and start speaking English in the fifth, sixth grade. But I'd make sure that everyone would be able to talk the language."
Not wanting to overstate a connection and be disrespectful, Gray, 24, said he hasn't spoken much about his Cherokee roots. The closest to an outward sign is the shield, tattooed to the left side of his chest, featuring the names of the Five Civilized Tribes -- Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee Creek and Seminole. He noted that his Twitter handle, @MrGrayWolf22, is merely a handle based on his last name, not a cheesy attempt to sound native.
But Gray is humbled that the Nation acknowledges him and his accomplishments. Here is a recent tweet before Gray and the Rockies earned a 3-1 win on July 27 over the Orioles and fellow Cherokee Nation citizen Dylan Bundy.
"It's really important to me to be kind of accepted, even though I'm not a full-blooded or half-blooded Cherokee," Gray said. "It's important for the kids in the Cherokee Nation to feel like they have a role model. Someone can say, 'Maybe I can do that, too.'"
Gray arrived at Oklahoma with a little background and called Cherokee "a hard language to learn," but he said that taking it in college sparked such a passion that he became a better student than he ever was in high school. And he didn't stop with those language courses.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, Oklahoma's Native American population is at or above eight percent of the state's residents, and it is the state's second-most populous minority, behind Hispanic and Latino and ahead of African-American. Unlike in other states, the Native population is not as isolated. While the language is at risk of being lost, Gray said life in many ways seems better.
"It's just eye-opening to see the hole that some of these people are in, and there's not really a way out," Gray said. "They're the ones who have the rough reservation lives. They get helped out half as much as they should be."
Gray has seen it for himself since leaving college.
The Rockies' training complex in Scottsdale, Ariz., Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, is on the sovereign land of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. One day, Gray ventured away from the glitzy baseball complex, surrounding casinos and hotels with a teammate for an autograph session.
"It was a lot different than back at home," Gray said. "It looks pretty rough, like people have been through a lot of rough stuff."
Gray follows the exploits of other Cherokee athletes. He went to a rodeo arena on the property of world-class bull rider Ryan Dirteater to work chutes during practice sessions a couple years ago, and he is a fan of heavyweight boxer Wes Nofire.
Gray plans to keep the tribe close to his heart when he is done with baseball.
"For as talented as those kids are that I've seen, they should be getting a lot further than they are," Gray said. "I think a lot of it is money. I'd like to help out, if I could in some way. They're talented athletes, and they're in every sport."