Mel Gray: Montgomery’s best ever
By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
On Oct. 14, 1979, the St. Louis Cardinals broke the huddle for the first time at Busch Stadium. Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Jerry Robinson stood transfixed at whom he saw line up at the far end of the Cardinals line of scrimmage. It was Mel Gray, Montgomery High School, class of ’67. Robinson, Cardinal Newman High School, class of ’76, has never forgotten what went through his mind right then.
“This is Mel Gray!” Robinson thought to himself. “It’s an honor to be on the same field with him. He’s a legend. He’s the first guy to make it from Santa Rosa! This is such an honor. I can’t believe I am on the same field with Mel Gray!”
Robinson, a rookie, paused, remembered why he was on the field: “And I hope Mel comes across the field so I can knock him out.”
This was Mel Gray, who in 1967 ran a 9.4 100-yard dash at Montgomery, tying Jesse Owens for the National High School record.
This was Mel Gray who finished second in the team standings in the California state track meet that year, winning the 100 and 200, placing second in the long jump.
This was Mel Gray, 1968 Olympic alternate.
This was Mel Gray, who would play 12 years in the NFL, four times as Pro Bowler.
This was Mel Gray who struck fear into the hearts of NFL defenses.
“In team meetings before we played the Cardinals,” Robinson said, “we were told over and over, ‘Make sure you pay attention to where Mel Gray is.’ He would decide games. Nobody could do what he did.”
This is Mel Gray who, along with Robinson, are arguably the two best athletes to ever play in the Empire. Gray was inducted last Saturday in the Montgomery Athletic Hall of Fame. To understand exactly how nervous Gray made teams in the NFL, an incident against the Kansas City Chiefs in 1973 provides the perfect illumination.
After a Cardinals offensive play ended, Chiefs; defensive end Buck Buchanan – 6-foot-7, 270 pounds and oftentimes very cranky – picked up the 5-foot-9, 172-pound Gray, placed Gray over his head and slammed him violently to the ground.
“Was that necessary?” asked Gray, looking up from the prone position.
“Yeah,” Buchanan said. “My coach told me to kill you.”
When Gray told that story last week at a Santa Rosa restaurant, he laughed the laugh of one who was and is secure in his life, his legacy, his memories. His life’s story is a rich story, filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, subplots, good guys, bad guys, the kind of stuff that belongs in a Russian novel.
Turning 63 on Sept. 28, Gray has lived in Rockford, Ill., for the last 11 years, retiring just this past December as a special education teacher at Lincoln Middle School.
Working with special education kids is a challenge – like the one kid who kept telling Gray to hurry to his desk to put out a fire on the floor. But accepting a challenge was nearly a given for someone who wanted to play football at 172 pounds.
“Son, how come you aren’t playing football?” a Montgomery coach asked Gray, then a 147-pound sophomore, after a track meet.
“I lied and told him I couldn’t afford the insurance,” Gray said. “My mother didn’t want me to play football. The coach said he would pay it anyway.”
For the first four games of that football season Gray got away with it because, he said, his name would appear as “Mel Gray” in The Press Democrat game stories. His given name, the one his mom Agnes always called him, was “Melvin.”
“She never made the connection,” Gray said. “And when I would get home late from practice or a game, I’d tell her I was hanging out with my friends doing nothing. She believed it. Until she found out.”
And wouldn’t you know, the first game Mom saw, Gray gets the wind knocked out of him. He’s on the ground, catching his breath, when what should he feel but a hand on his forearm. It’s Agnes. She rushed down from the stands, to yank him from the field.
“Talk about being embarrassed,” Gray said.
“I always could run fast,” he said, “but I didn’t know how to run until a custodian at Montgomery taught me how to run relaxed.”
His times in the 100 and 200 yards kept dropping and by the time he made it to State in 1967, Gray was the wind no one could catch. He set the National High School record in the 200 (20.7) and tied Owens with his 9.4 100. To this day, 44 years later, Gray still has the top seven times in the 100 meters, top five times in the 200 meters and the top five distances in the long jump.
When he left Montgomery Gray had track offers from USC, UCLA, San Diego State, Oklahoma and Kansas. He wanted to play football but he was told he was too small. Only Missouri offered him both. But for the first year out of high school, he enrolled in Fort Scott Community College in Kansas.
“I wasn’t dumb,” Gray said. “I was lazy. I didn’t know if I wanted to do the work.”
A year later he found that he did. That’s when he came to Columbia, Mo. for the shock of his life.
“When I signed with Missouri,” Gray said, “it was sunny, 80 degrees, warm. But by November, ’68, it got down to 10 degrees. I never experienced anything like that. Except to eat, I stayed in my dorm room for two weeks. Just about flunked out. The coaches knocked on my door one day and asked me why I wasn’t in class. I told them, ‘Look in my closet.’ I had a windbreaker in there. That was my heaviest coat. They didn’t say anything. They left and came back two hours later with sweaters and jackets, even battery-powered socks. They gave me thermal underwear and I told them I wasn’t wearing any jammies. They had a good laugh over that one.”
By the time he left Missouri, Gray was a five-time Big Eight sprint champion. He caught nine touchdown passes his senior year, a school record that stood for 35 years. He still holds Missouri’s school record for highest average per reception: 22.3 yards.
“But all the NFL scouts said I was too small,” he said, “and I would never be drafted.”
Gray went to San Francisco. He was working in a bookstore in the Fillmore. His football career was over. He knew it.
“You got drafted,” Bill Gray, a friend (no relation), told him one day.
“So the Army drafted me,” Gray said.
“No,” his buddy said. “The St. Louis Cardinals.”
“But I already got a job,” said Gray, who was a few units short of getting his degree in education.
He was taken in the sixth round of the 1971 draft, the 147th pick.
“So what kind of salary are you asking for?” the Cardinals asked him during negotiations.
“I wrote down $1 million and slid the piece of paper across the table,” Gray said.
The Cardinal guys laughed.
“How much can you pay me?” Gray asked.
The negotiator slid another piece of paper across the table.
“Thirteen thousand?” Gray replied. “Then I started to laugh. I can make that at the bookstore. We settled at $21,000. They asked me to sign three more pieces of paper. Like a naïve kid, I did. I didn’t look at what I was signing. And I didn’t have an agent.”
The three pieces of paper had his salary for the next three years: $17,000, $18,500, $19,500.
Gray was furious. He felt scammed. Bill Bidwill, the owner, promised Gray that his contract would be re-renegotiated if he was the Cardinals’ Rookie of the Year.
Gray, as it turned out, was. Bidwill, however, said his hands were tied, he couldn’t re-do the numbers. Thus began a contentious relationship with the owner that lasted Gray’s 12 years with the Cardinals, not an uncommon player experience by the way.
On the first day of training camp Gray noticed 18 other wide receivers in the Cardinals’ locker room.
“And I’m the smallest,” he said.
On that first day Gray lined up and across from him defensive backs were fighting to cover him.
“Let me take this little guy!” were the words Gray heard most often.
The ball is snapped, Gray runs a route, blows past a defensive back.
“No, no, no, you take him!” were the words Gray heard most often.
“They found out I got some speed,” Gray said.
That speed led to 351 receptions, 6,644 yards, 45 NFL touchdowns, four Pro Bowls and one first-team All-Pro. That speed led him into the St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals Hall of Fame, University of Missouri Hall of Fame and the State of Missouri Hall of Fame. It also led to a broken right wrist, a broken right elbow, a broken right ankle, three broken ribs and a right knee replacement six years ago.
Concussions? All he can say for sure is that he can’t recall parts of some games.
“They (NFL defensive players) threw me around like a rag doll,” said Gray, who has a handicapped parking placard, his right knee still tweaky.
They questioned his toughness at every turn. In his second year in St. Louis Cardinal head coach Bob Holloway told Gray, “I don’t think you are tough enough to start.” In a game against the Chicago Bears Gray found an opportunity to provide Holloway wrong.
“Ahmad Rashad was supposed to run an out route from the other side,” Gray said. “Instead he runs one over the middle. He catches the ball and he’s coming in my direction. Now I get a chance to show Holloway I’m tough enough. So who do I have to block? Dick Butkus! He’s coming right at me. I hit him. I think I stopped him for maybe a second. I’m on the ground in pain. I hold my left arm when I come off the field.
“Holloway says, ‘Gray! Take this play in. It’s a reverse.’ I ask who is going to run it. He tells me it’s me. I get the handoff and there right in front of me is a crease. I can make it. But who do I see? Butkus!”
So the heck with that, Holloway thought to himself. He reversed his field, running away from the Butkus Bulldozer. Holloway screams at Gray as he leaves the field. Not having the courage to play in the NFL, he yells. Team docs x-ray Gray. He has a broken collarbone that will require surgery. He’s out for the rest of the 1972 season. Later Holloway apologizes to Gray, a small consolation.
The rag doll retired from the NFL in 1982. Gray tried the fledgling USFL for one season but found it not to his professional standards. He lived in a number of cities for the first 10 years or so, Berkeley, San Diego, San Rafael, Fresno, San Francisco. He lived in Cotati for a couple of years and spent some time on Gary Galloway’s staff at St. Vincent’s in Petaluma. He was a law enforcement liaison working to clean up gang neighborhoods. He sorted mail in a Petaluma post office. He trusted people with his money to buy and run rental properties, and oftentimes the faith and trust were not returned, the upshot creating all kinds of mess. He spent a time living the fast, good life, traveling the world.
His life entered a sharper focus just before the turn of the century. He went back to Missouri to complete his degree in education. He earned his teaching credential in special education. He reconnected and married his college sweetheart, Rhonda. He travels to NFL functions, gives speeches, does a little youth coaching in track and football.
For the road he traveled, and for all the time it took Gray found it particularly symbolic he would wind up being in Santa Rosa last week, being honored at Montgomery.
“Montgomery is where it all started for me,” Gray said. “I never thought I’d play in the NFL. I never imagined so many good things could happen to me.”
And that includes even the memories which rekindle pain. Which, for perfect symmetry, would have to include Jerry Robinson.
“I’m going for a pass against the Eagles in Philly,” Gray said, “and Jim Hart throws the ball high. I got to leap to get it. Jerry hits me and drives me to the ground. I look up and there Jerry is, standing above me, smiling. I tell him, ‘Good hit.’”
Gray got to his feet and the two men stood there for a second, smiling at each other, both coming from the same place, linked in admiration, together yet apart.
“It was the only time Jerry hit me,” said Mel Gray without regret.
For more North Bay sports go to Bob Padecky’s blog at padecky.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.