NFL alumnus reflects on career, now coaches and teaches

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-112975136513380.jpg’, ‘Photo provided’, ‘During his 12 seasons with the NFL’s St. Louis (now Arizona) Cardinals, Mel Gray was named to four consecutive Pro Bowl games as a wide receiver/kick returner.’);

Retired St. Louis Cardinals speedster and four-time Pro Bowler Mel Gray, lives, works and coaches in Rockford

He stands up and begins to walk after sitting for a three-hour interview. The first few steps are understandably awkward. But as he makes his way to his vehicle in the parking lot, the limp is evident.

His walk is a visual and silent testimony to a long and exceptional career in one of the most brutal sports in the world—the National Football League. And the owner of those legs, which now have the noticeable limp, once held two national track sprint records at the high school level.

It was his speed that first caught the attention of his high school physical education teacher, who encouraged Melvin “Mel” Gray to begin playing football when he was 15 in 1965. Gray later went on to play 12 seasons with the former St. Louis, now Arizona, Cardinals, where he was named four times to the Pro Bowl team, and was the 1971 NFL “Rookie of the Year.”

Today, he works as a teacher’s assistant in the Rockford School District, and coaches football at Auburn High School. Three years ago, Gray married his wife, Rhonda. She had Rockford connections through a previous marriage, which is how the couple came to live in the area.

Gray has been in Rockford since 1999, but had not given an in-depth interview to any local media for reasons he would rather not put in print.

However, during a recent interview with The Rock River Times, Gray was candid in detailing his pro football career, offered criticisms about the treatment of NFL alumni, and described the time he spent before he was a sixth-round draft pick by the Cardinals in the spring of 1971.

Family and videotape

Gray, 57, is the sixth of nine children, whose father worked in a granary near their Santa Rosa, Calif., home. Gray graduated from Montgomery High School in Santa Rosa in 1967. While his six brothers and two sisters were growing up, Gray’s mother was busy caring for the family, which included protecting Gray from negative influences and physical harm.

This protection included discouraging Gray from playing football for fear he would be injured by bigger players. During his peak years in the NFL, Gray was a svelte and swift, 5 feet 9 inches tall and 175 pounds. In high school, he was even lighter and shorter, at 5 feet 7 inches tall and 140 pounds.

Despite those small physical attributes by today’s NFL standards, Gray’s physical education instructor Ken Uston, encouraged him to play football because of his exceptional speed.

Gray said his ability to run was enhanced when the high school janitor offered to videotape Gray in action. He said the images revealed unnecessary lateral movement while he was sprinting, which translated into slower times.

Through the videotaping of his running, the janitor demonstrated how Gray could transfer his lateral energy into forward motion, which would decrease his sprint times. Through this analysis, Gray was able to drop his high school sprint times to 20.7 seconds for 220 yards, and 9.4 seconds for 100 yards.

This speed earned Gray a reputation in the NFL as a dangerous kick returner and wide receiver, who threatened to score with any possession. The Arizona (St. Louis) Cardinals’ Web site described Gray as a “dazzling game-breaking wide receiver,” and “one of the finest players in Cardinal history and among the most talented at his position.”

In his rookie year in the NFL, Gray had four thrilling, long-range scoring plays of 57, 60, 64 and 80 yards. He ended his Cardinal career in 1982 with 351 catches for 6,644 yards, 45 touchdowns and 121 consecutive games in which he caught a pass.

Sign of the time

During the mid-to-late 1960s, Gray described his mother as “overly protective.” She was also concerned about his exposure to illegal drugs and the rampant racism Gray said pervaded Santa Rosa.

Harassment of blacks, including Gray, by police was a regular occurrence. He said police in Santa Rosa would routinely pick up young black men, and question them at headquarters, only to release them after no charges were filed.

Had he stayed in Santa Rosa, Gray speculated he may not have been able to resist the drug scourge that claimed the lives of some of his childhood friends. The ones that didn’t die, often ended up in prison, Gray said.

Looking back, Gray said his mother “tried to shelter” him from the drugs, racism, groups such as the Black Panthers, the general strife of the 1960s and the outside world. With that in mind, and concern for his mother’s feelings about him being injured, Gray said he kept secret his participation in high school football.

However, his mother eventually discovered Gray’s secret after she attended the season’s second game, in which Gray was slightly injured. Prior to that injury, Gray said he scored three touchdowns as a running back in the opening game.

Blocking Butkus

The injury in the second game of the high school season was one of the few times Gray suffered any injury during his high school and college days. But that changed one day in 1972 when he literally ran into NFL Hall of Fame inductee Dick Butkus.

“It was the biggest mistake I ever made,” Gray lamented.

The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Butkus was middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears from 1965 to 1973, and was known for his ferocious play and intensity. On ESPN’s Web site, sports commentator Larry Schwartz described Butkus as possibly “the meanest, nastiest, fiercest linebacker to ever put on a helmet.”

In Gray’s second season with the Cardinals in 1972, he went to block Butkus, who Gray said was likely unaware of his effort to take him out of play.

“I don’t think he saw me coming, because if he had, he probably would have ended my career. …They couldn’t pay me to hit him again,” Gray said.

The block on Butkus left Gray with a broken shoulder that took weeks to heal, and limited him to just seven games in 1972.

However, Gray learned a valuable lesson, which meant if he wanted a long career in the NFL, he would have to block opponents such as Butkus low, “near their shoe laces,” he said.

Bad knees and representation

Butkus ended his career prematurely in 1973 after the pain from a football injury to his right knee became too unbearable. Butkus continued to suffer pain for many more years, until he had the knee surgically reconstructed in November 1997, according to Schwartz.

Like Butkus, Gray faces a similar prospect for his right knee, but said the NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA) refuses to assist in paying the operation expenses. Gray attributed his knee problems to his years playing professional football.

Gray asserted the Players’ Association has been of little to no help for him or other NFL alumni. Specifically, Gray alleged the union will not pay for medical expenses associated with long-term, football-related maladies suffered by former players. He also questioned whether the level of representation alumni receive is commensurate with the amount of money the union collects from the league and team owners.

Gray claimed even the great Dick Butkus received no help from the union in paying for his 1997 knee operation.

Representatives from the NFL Players’ Association did not respond for comment by time of publication.

‘Frightening time’

Despite the pain, Gray enjoyed his years playing in the NFL. However, he doesn’t miss the hard training required to play at that level. Training, he said, included weightlifting, sprints, push-ups, sit-ups, long runs and cycling, in addition to the regular team practices.

But before his exceptional 12-year career with the Cardinals, Gray attended Fort Scott Junior College in Fort Scott, Mo. He went on to the University of Missouri in Columbia, Mo., where he set a single-season record as a junior by amassing 705 receiving yards, nine touchdowns and a 27.1-yard average per reception.

Shortly before going pro, Gray said he was asked to participate in a USO tour for troops in Vietnam. The purpose of the visit was to boost morale and persuade
soldiers to attend college after they returned from their tour of duty.

For 17 days, Gray and other future NFL stars, such as quarterback Jim Plunckett, spoke with troops, and continually grew more fearful for their lives.

In a scene reminiscent of the award-winning, Vietnam movie Apocalypse Now, Gray said he and other USO members went “channel waterskiing” with the aid of a military transport vessel. However, the outing became dangerous when the boat crew noticed they had accidentally ventured into enemy waters, as was evident by a Viet Cong flag on a pole in a nearby village.

“It was the most frightening time of my life,” Gray said. “I couldn’t wait to go home.”

Contract dispute

After returning safely from his short stay in Vietnam, Gray soon negotiated his first professional contract with the Cardinals, and team owner William Bidwell. Gray said he signed a two-year contract, which paid him a $21,000 salary and a $6,000 bonus for his rookie season.

However, Gray said the salary decreased to $16,000 during the second year.

A dispute later emerged between Bidwell and Gray concerning that first contract negotiation. Gray claimed Bidwell made a verbal agreement, which was sealed with a handshake.

According to Gray, Bidwell promised that if Gray was “Rookie of the Year,” they would renegotiate his contract before the beginning of the second season. Gray said he earned the distinction, but Bidwell refused to renegotiate the contract.

Bidwell did not respond for comment by time of publication.

Because of the amount of training needed to perform in the NFL, Gray said if he could go back in time, he would negotiate a contract where he would be paid to practice, and play the games for free.

Just what we need

Despite his mother’s efforts to protect Gray from negative influences, the world of an NFL player is filled with temptations to go astray. However, Gray said his strong, church-influenced background kept him from wandering down the path of self-destruction, which too often befalls pro athletes.

He still attends church regularly and sings in the choir.

Gray said the temptations for NFL players included drug parties, promiscuous sex and Mob-connected sports betting.

In the end, Gray said: “Pro football taught me to not trust a lot of people. …But it was fun.”

Today, Gray works as a teacher’s aide at Auburn High School, working with special education students.

“Day after day, it’s a new adventure,” Gray said.

In addition to classroom work, Gray has coached track and football at Auburn and Jefferson high schools, and even used his connections to open doors for student-athletes.

Through his personal acquaintances and knowledge, which were cultivated during his collegiate and professional football career, Gray has helped students obtain scholarships for higher education. He also personally drives some of his student-athletes to colleges for visits.

When school is not in session in the summer, Gray said he is very busy teaching students how to physically train.

As the interview ended, the father of one of Gray’s former students from the summer noticed Gray sitting in the booth at a local restaurant. Peering in from the window, the father and daughter waved their affectionate greeting to Gray. He motioned them inside to converse.

After exchanging pleasantries, the father and daughter appeared to leave with an understanding that Gray cares a great deal about his students.

One thing is clear after observing this meeting: Gray has a positive influence on the people he meets, which is just what Rockford needs.

From the Oct. 19-25, 2005, issue

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