Buffalo Bills' Quan Bray fueled by mother's murder and case's chilling twist

(WKBW) - Quan Bray pulled off the interstate on the exit to get to his hometown of LaGrange, Georgia. He was on the way back from Atlanta -- an hour north of LaGrange -- and didn't want to be on the phone while he was driving.

He caught up on a flurry of missed calls. Some were from his mother. Others were from his father. Neither left a voicemail. He called both of them back, but neither picked up.

Bray looked at his messages.

One was a text from his father telling him to check on his mother. Others were from people that he knew that someone was shooting a gun at his mother's car.

Bray was dumbfounded. His mother was a larger-than-life personality, always smiling, and he certainly didn't think she had any enemies quite like that.

Bray began driving again with his mind racing. What happened next, he recalls as vividly as if he were still there in that moment on July 3, 2011.

"I pulled up to my grandmother’s house to pull up to her car," the present-day Buffalo Bills wide receiver said, then relived what he saw on his mother's wrecked silver car. "In front of there, there were a couple of bullet holes and stuff. Police was surrounding and all that stuff, so I was the first one on the scene to see that. And the only thing they were just telling me was just to go to the hospital."

The police were tight-lipped. As Bray raced to the hospital, he didn't know what to think. All he had hoped for was that his mother was okay. Upon arrival at the hospital, that's when he found out.

Tonya Bray, just 37 years old, suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the head. Quan, 18 years old at the time, and his 10-year-old brother Jymere sobbed uncontrollably with one another.

Little did they know that their tragedy had another cruel twist.

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In his high school playing days, Quan Bray was as dynamic a player as any you'd find in the entire country. A four-star recruit according to Rivals.com, Bray was one of the best 150 high school seniors available, showing ability as a quarterback, runner, and a receiver.

Being such an elite high school player comes with its share of expectation. Traveling for games was a necessity. No matter where his teams went to -- all over the country at times -- Tonya Bray was there for all of it.

And not to mention, the loudest of the bunch.

"Definitely larger than life. A positive, positive energy," Bray said of his late mother. "Every game, people around they would tell you 'You hear your mama in the stands, you make sure you know what you're doing.'"

She also took it upon herself to keep Quan on the straight and narrow. Temptations were abundant growing up, whether he had an attitude during a game, wasn't crazy about the idea of doing school work, or if he wanted to stay out later with a different crowd.

Tonya snapped him back to the correct path and helped him avoid any potential pitfall that might prevent him from fulfilling his potential. While he wasn't crazy about it at the time, Bray now fully understands why his mother did and said what she did while he was growing up.

It worked. The football journey brought Bray to the pinnacle of his athletic career to that point -- signing day in January of 2011. 

With his mother and father standing proudly behind him, Bray, fittingly bedecked in a blue button-down and a tie with orange crossing patterns under his sportcoat, decided on Auburn University. As he put on the navy blue, burnt orange, and white Auburn hat, Bray was smiling from ear to ear. 

That smile helped define Tonya Bray. A smile that lives on through her son.

"Every time you see her she's smiling. No matter if she's down or what, she's always showing all 32 -- all 32 teeth, she's always showing them," Bray fondly recalled. "People tell me I'm always smiling too, though, but I don't have no choice because I have her smile."

It was around the time of Quan Bray's signing day that there was a shift, but no one could have predicted what was to come.

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Six months ahead of the day Tonya Bray was murdered, she and Quan's father, Jeffery Jones, were living separately after having been together for 18 years.

As Quan and his brother Jymere continued at the hospital to try to understand and unfathomable situation, they didn't have to wait long to find out who had taken their mother from them. An hour after Tonya was taken to the hospital, the perpetrator stepped forward and turned himself into police.

Jeffery Jones, the father of Quan and Jymere, confessed to the murder of Tonya Bray.

"I just bust out in tears, start crying, because I thought my life was over with then," Quan said. "I didn't know what to do. I just lost my mom and my dad."

Jones used his green car to run Bray's vehicle off the road and shot her in cold blood.

Quan Bray didn't immediately suspect his father. After all, Jones texted him as Bray was on his way home from Atlanta.

However, in chilling detail, Bray's father sent his 18-year-old son that text message after he had murdered his mother.

"Just to come off a text message from him telling me to just go check on my mom, thinking like he didn't just do it," Bray said. "I guess the devil gets on people like that."

The reasons for why Tonya Bray and Jeffery Jones split, and then why he did what he did, remain untold. The courts sentenced Jones to life in prison, without the possibility for parole.

And to this point, Quan Bray isn't interested in hearing from his father. After nearly seven years, Bray hasn't tried to contact him.

"Um, nah. I haven't. Not at the moment," Bray explained. "You're supposed to forgive. I will eventually once that time comes, but right now I'm just continuing to strive and be great in what I knew she'd want me to be great in."

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Bray knew in his heart what it meant to honor his mother. For that, he began to chase his NFL dream even harder, and in an immediate fashion.

Remarkably, the day after the tragedy of losing his mother, Bray didn't miss a beat and went to Auburn for a summer workout. 

"I knew what she would want me to do," Bray said. "Some guys wouldn't have did that. Some guys would have taken weeks off, but, that wouldn't have did nothing for me. I probably would have went in another direction."

Privately, Bray was grieving and hurting. Publicly, Bray he had to grow up quickly and showed a strength that not many would be able to given the circumstances. 

That was just the start of a significant push forward to fulfilling what his mother would have wanted for him.

Following a successful four-year career at Auburn, Bray signed as an undrafted free agent with the Indianapolis Colts. He played there for almost three years and then hooked on with the Buffalo Bills' practice squad late last year. Now in 2018 with the Bills, he's battling for a roster spot at a position that's wide open.

In the last almost seven years, he maintained what's important to him even though he was busy chasing his and his mother's dream. Though not living with his grandmother and brother, he made sure to be a central figure in his younger brother's life.

They text, call, and FaceTime together as much as they can, and Bray is imparting wisdom similar to what his mother gave to him that kept him on the right path. His brother Jymere will be a senior in high school next year and plays football just like his older brother.

Bray, essentially turning into the father figure for his brother, couldn't help but be moved by how much Jymere had grown.

"Seeing him grow, that gives me chills," Bray said as he choked up a bit. "Now that, right there, makes -- that gives me like... there's nothing to explain that. Words can't even explain, you know? That definitely right there helps me strive every day, for sure."

He also won't let the memory of his mother fade. He has Tonya Bray's face tattooed on his right arm to keep the memory of her as close as can be. And now he's doing what he can to avoid this senseless tragedy from happening elsewhere.

He started the Quan Bray All-Purpose Foundation last year, aimed to help children who have been through domestic violence in their family. He remains excited for the second year of the endeavor.

No matter what, honoring Tonya is always on Quan Bray's mind, and football remains the connector -- which is why at 25, he charges on to make a mark in the NFL.

"It happened for a reason, so I just use this, this life right here, this football life as a burden as far as my getaway, my freedom," Bray said. "It was a tragic moment in my life, but, a lot of people would make that a downfall, make that an excuse. But, I don’t think that was meant for me to make an excuse. I think it was meant for me to keep pushing."

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

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