Many thought Mel Gray was too small and had questionable hands coming out of the University of Missouri in 1971. However, no one could question his speed and athleticism. In high school, Gray tied Jesse Owens’ record with a 9.4 in the 100 yard dash and he later became an All-American in track and field at Mizzou. Gray was working in a California book store in 1971 when a friend informed him that he had been drafted. He initially thought he was headed to Vietnam, but soon discovered the St. Louis Cardinals had selected him in the 6th round of the NFL draft. Gray spent the next 12 seasons in St. Louis burning NFL secondaries, delighting fans, and fighting with Big Red management (as did many other players). I recently sat down with Mel Gray to chat about his time at Mizzou and career with the Big Red.
Q: You’re a California native. How did you end up at Mizzou?
GRAY: I wasn’t a bad kid, but I got in trouble a lot because of the guys I hung out with. My mother wanted me to leave. I could have gone to USC or UCLA, but my mother said, “no, I want you out of California.” And Mizzou was the only school who would let me play football and run track. (Gray spent his freshman year at Ft. Scott Jr. College in Kansas)
Q: Was there a culture shock moving from California to the Midwest?
GRAY: When I signed with Missouri it was 80 degrees and sunny. But by November (1968) it was 10 degrees. I never experienced anything like it. I stayed in my room for two weeks under an electric blanket. One day, the coaches knocked on my door and asked me why I wasn’t in class. I said “have you been outside?” So they went over and looked in my closet, looked at each other, and then left. I climbed back under the covers and thought they were going to send my butt home! But they came back later with boxes of thermal underwear, sweaters, socks, scarves, jackets… It definitely took a while to get used to the cold weather!
Q: What was your most memorable game or play while at Mizzou?
GRAY: My first game against Kentucky (1968). I was in the slot position and the snap of the ball, I went up 5 yards, turn out and caught a ball from Terry McMillan and went 79 yards for a touchdown… untouched! I was telling myself, this sh!t is easy! After that play, I was double teamed and didn’t get across the line of scrimmage the rest of the game.
GRAY: I played in the East-West Shrine Game (1971) which is in Palo Alto. I had two touchdowns… returned the opening kickoff. Dan Pastorini threw me another touchdown. He got Most Valuable Player.
Q: You’re drafted by the Cardinals in 1971. How did that first contract negotiation go with the team?
GRAY: I flew into St. Louis and was sitting at a table with Bill Bidwill (owner) and George Boone, the head scout. They said, “Mel, how much money do you think you’re worth? We want you to write it on this piece of paper.” So, I thought, this was easy. I wrote down one million dollars and slid it across the table. They looked at it and started laughing! I said, “did I spell it wrong?” They said, “you didn’t spell it wrong. We just can’t pay you that much money.” I said, “Okay, how much can you pay me?” They looked at each other, wrote it down, slid it across the table and it was $13,000. I said, “I don’t know how much a football player is supposed to make, but my wife makes more than that and she teaches school.” So they upped it to $21,000 and I got a $6000 bonus. I got $27,000! Heck, I’m 20 something years old, I can do this. So, I’m walking out, and they said “Mel, we’ve got three more contracts for you to sign.” So, I signed them… didn’t even look at them until I got home. I found out it went from $21,000 to $17,500, to $18,500, to $19,500. I called Bidwill and said, “this is bull sh!t!” He said, “well, you signed them, you have to honor them.” I went back down there the next day and Bill said “I tell you what. I’ll make you a gentleman’s agreement. All you have to do is make rookie of the year for this team and I’ll tear those contracts up.” I said, “rookie of the year?” They had drafted Norm Thompson number one and Dan Dierdorf number two. So, I think I lead the league in kick off returns that season. Had a few long touchdown receptions. So, we are at our banquet at the end of the year and I was named rookie of the year. I said “Yes!” I later go talk to Bidwill and he said they had a price freeze and couldn’t renegotiate. I said “I don’t know sh*t about a price freeze, but you and I had an agreement! You and I” He turned and walked away. I said, “we had a handshake. You mean your handshake isn’t worth…” He never turned around. I was p!ssed!
Q: So you played out the contract?
GRAY: The fourth year was an option year. When you play your option year they take back 10 percent. I didn’t know that either. I said, “screw it. You know what? I made it to the Pro Bowl, I think I have some value, I want to leave.” I told Joe Sullivan to trade me and Joe comes back and says “no one wants you.” I said, “no one wants me?” A few days later he comes back and says they are trying to trade me for Harold Carmichael. I said, “from Philadelphia? He makes more money than I do and you can’t pay me?” So I said, “Screw it. I’m playing out my option.” He said, “You know we’re going to take 10 percent?” I said, “You can take 20 percent. I’m leaving. I’m saving up my money.” So, my agent Richard Bennett calls me later and says, “Mel, they made you an offer.” I said, “f*ck that, I want to leave.” He said, “well they are offering you an $87,000 bonus.” I said, “wait a minute… $87,000 bonus? So, I stayed.
Q: Bob Hollway was the Big Red head coach your rookie year in 1971. It was his first season after being defensive coordinator for the Vikings. What are your thoughts on Coach Hollway and your rookie NFL season?
GRAY: He kind of set us back a little bit. We had red and white shoes and he didn’t like them. He made us paint them black. I don’t even know how he became a head coach. The sh!t that he did and the people he brought in… Gary Cuozzo? Hargrove? Hackbart? He didn’t think I could play. He thought I wasn’t tough enough. I think it was the third week of the season and Bob Hollway takes Dave Williams out of a game and puts me in against the New York Giants. Pete Beathard was the quarterback. I can’t remember the name of the play, but I ran a post route, caught it, and ran 64 yards for a touchdown. First catch, first touchdown. Moment of glory! I’m thinking, “I can play this game!” They put me back in the game in the third quarter and I score another 60 yard touchdown. Again, I’m telling myself, “I think I can play.” But, Hollway said that I wasn’t ready and I wasn’t tough enough. I only played a few more games until later in the year against Green Bay. Dan Devine came over to me and told me “I wanted to draft you, but they told me you were too small.” He said, “I should have followed my own mind.” But, now that I think about it, it would have been too damn cold up there in Green Bay! (laughing) So, Hart threw a pass to Jackie and it ricocheted and I caught it and scored a 57 yard touchdown. Then, one of the last games of the season, we’re playing in Philadelphia and I run right by the defensive back for an 80 yard touchdown. Four touchdowns, rookie year, one of the top returners. I thought I did pretty well.
GRAY: My rookie year, we’re getting ready for the last preseason game. We were practicing with helmets, but no pads. I ran a quick slant across the middle. Larry Wilson was supposed to be guarding the tight end, but it seemed he knew the play call. He comes over and knocks the sh!t out of me. He came in helmet first and hit me right on the knee. I’m pissed off. I’m like “What the f*ck are you doing?” And Hollway said “we wanted to see how tough you are.” I said “this is bull sh!t!” My knee swelled up and I was up all night thinking they were going to cut me.
Q: There was no bigger rival in the 70s than the Dallas Cowboys. What are some of your memories of Cardinal/Cowboy contests?
GRAY: We played them in ’76 at Busch early in the season. Cliff Harris, Charlie Waters, and Benny Barnes were trying to hurt me the whole game. So, those guys ran into each other in the end zone and the ball bounced up and I caught it for a touchdown and I ran back and spiked it right on Cliff Harris. Tom Landry was upset and came running down the sideline claiming an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. I told Landry to shut up and take his hat off in my house! (laughing) There was another game game in Dallas on Thanksgiving Day (1976). As we came out of the tunnel onto the field, I noticed a picture of a turkey with my face on it that said, “stop this turkey.” I later scored on a slant across the middle and Harvey Martin chased my ass all the way to the end zone and he shoved me and said, “If you spike that ball, I’ll break your mother fu*king nose.” It scared the shit out of me! I looked over at my sideline and saw Bob Young and Dobler coming over to my rescue, so I spiked the ball anyway.
Q: What about the Gary Hammond trick play at Busch in 1974 when you limped off the field?
GRAY: Don Coryell told me to limp off the field. I mean, I don’t know how convincing it was (laughing). So, I limped off and they brought in Gary Hammond who threw the long pass to Jackie Smith. I kind of limped back on the field later and Charlie Waters was playing about 11 yards off me. So, I’m limping, and he moves up a few yards and I took off right past him (laughing)
Q: Another great rivalry of the 70s was the Cardinals/Redskins. What are your thoughts on the Skins?
GRAY: The Over the Hill Gang. Those guys were old and they were good (laughing). The offensive line was good. Their defense was good. They weren’t that fast, but they played their position well. I saw Pat Fischer cutting people. They’re falling in the air and tumbling. I said, he’ll never do that sh!t to me. Next thing I know, my feet were up by my head and I’m laying on my back! But I caught some passes on him, in front of him. Sonny Jurgensen had a big stomach (laughing). Billy Kilmer drank a lot. I was at a banquet with Billy Kilmer. He had a glass like this (pointing to 16-ounce glass) full of vodka. I thought it was water (laughing).
Q: You scored a controversial game tying touchdown against the Skins at Busch Stadium in 1975. What are your memories of the “Phantom Catch?”
GRAY: I didn’t think the ball was going to come to me. We had a great running game and great offensive line. I thought we were going to run it. Jim Hart came into the huddle and said, “I’m coming to you,” and I said “Aww sh!t! (laughing)” I think we were on the seven-yard line and it was 4th down. I came across the middle, jumped up and caught the ball. The way I look at it, I crossed the plane with the ball. One official called it a touchdown and one called it incomplete. Anyway, they claimed they changed the rules after that, but they didn’t name it after me (laughing).
Q: You mentioned Jim Hart. Tell us a little about your former quarterback?
GRAY: Jim was great. I remember playing in Philadelphia and Jim threw me one in the end zone and the ball hit me in the face mask and I dropped it. Jim came over laughing and I said, “What’s so funny?” He said, “I’ve never seen you drop a ball like that!” Then we were playing in Cincinnati and I run a post route late in the game and Jim hits me with a long pass. I’m bobbling the damn ball and I don’t have control of it and the officials called it incomplete. We lost the game and I felt so bad. Jim Hart came over to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said “Mel, it wasn’t meant to be.” It made me feel better, but only for a short period of time (laughing).
Q: I assume you were on the field at training camp when J.V. Cain passed away. Tell us a bit about J.V. and that evening at Lindenwood College?
GRAY: Actually, J.V. was at my house with Metcalf the night before he died. We were just hanging out having a couple of beers. At practice, we had two receivers run an out and J.V. ran a curl inside. And you could hear it on the field. J.V. take that last breath. He just fell over. I thought he was playing around. But he just laid there. The doctors weren’t on the field. Omohundro was out there (head trainer Jim Omohundro), but the doctors were in the stands. I never understood that. They brought the paramedics out and gave him shock treatment and we saw his arm move. We thought he was going to be okay. They put him in the ambulance and took him to the hospital, but later that night they said he died… but he was moving on the field. How did he die? We take the best physicals ever and nothing was detected. The doctors said he was dead before he hit the ground, but they had no answers. After that I was just devastated. I couldn’t understand it.
Q: The Cardiac Cards era ended after the 1977 season. Don Coryell was dismissed, Dobler and Metcalf gone. Bud Wilkinson was hired as head coach. Bud was a legendary college coach at Oklahoma, but hadn’t coached in about 15 years. What do you remember about Bud Wilkinson?
GRAY: I’ll say this about Bud, he was a nice guy. But, he didn’t know what to say to the us because he had only been around college players. We didn’t win a lot when Bud was here and he was like, “it’s okay, we’ll get ‘em next week.” And I said “Fu*k that! It ain’t okay! I like winning!”
Q: You had caught a pass in 121 consecutive games that started in 1973, but ended in a controversial way against the Eagles in 1982. After the game, you announced your retirement at the end of the season. Can you talk about the end of your streak and the decision to announce your retirement?
Gray: Jim Hanifan promised me they were going to get me that pass. I didn’t play in the game all day until that one pass that Neil Lomax threw downfield. And I questioned Neil about that around three years ago. He said, “Mel it was snowing.” I said, “bull sh!t, it was sunny.” Then he said the corner back was on me. The corner back was three yards off me. I wasn’t trying to get any yards, I just wanted to make a catch. And after he threw the ball downfield, they took me out of the game. So, I told Hanifan, I’m trying to catch this ball and he told me “Don’t be selfish, we’re trying to win a ball game.” Well, I thought I was part of that arsenal. I didn’t play the rest of the ball game. So, I was pissed. At that time, I had some property in San Diego, owned part of a radio station, had some investments… I figured I would be fine. I was inactive the rest of the season and Hanifan wouldn’t let me go to Green Bay for the playoff game. I didn’t care, I was done.
Q: Tell us a little about your relationship with team owner Bill Bidwill?
GRAY: Bill wasn’t a people person. He couldn’t hold a conversation with you. He would come down to the locker room and yell “Hey you.” He didn’t know anybody. He knew me. He didn’t like me because he told me that I walked with my head too high and back too straight. I used to run track in the off season with Bob Hayes. I was making money. I get a telegram from Mr. Bidwill telling me he wanted to see me when I get back into St. Louis. I go down to the office and he tells me I can’t run anymore. I said, “wait a minute, football season is over. This is how I make my money in the off season.” He was worried I was going to pull a muscle. I told him if he could get me a job making as much money I would quit. He said, “I got a job for you. Out at Grant’s Farm.” They wanted me to drive the train with the little kids in the back. I said, “how much money will that pay?” He said, “a dollar twenty-five per hour.” I laughed and said, “No, you know what, I’m making $400 in less than a minute and you want me to drive a train all day for a dollar twenty-five an hour?” It was so bad. I left the office and slammed the door. The secretary said, “Mel, he’s going to trade you.” I turned and smiled, “If this mother f*cker trades me he’d be doing me a favor!” He didn’t trade me, he didn’t talk to me, but he did give me a retirement dinner downtown.
Q: Have you spoken with Michael Bidwill since he took over the Cardinal organization?
GRAY: I know Michael. He has made some comments to me. I was retired and living in Oakland when Michael and Nicole (Michael’s sister) invited me to Arizona for a game. They were giving me some stuff with Cardinal logos on them. I joked to them, “Hey don’t do that… your dad don’t like me. (laughing)” They gave it to me anyway. The year they lost the Super Bowl against Pittsburgh I asked if it were possible if the former players could get some tickets at a discounted price? Michael made a comment that “Yeah Mel, that’s just like you. My dad said you are always asking for something.” A few years ago, I went down to Arizona with (former Big Red players) Metcalf, Eddie Moss, and Jerry Holloway. I saw those new black jerseys and said to Mike, “Those black jerseys are really nice. I’d like to get one. Do you think I could get one?” Terry said, “I’d like to have one too.” This is on Saturday. So, on Sunday, Michael comes up to me and says Mel, my dad says it’s okay to give Eddie and Terry theirs but not to give you one. I said, “That sounds like your dad.” But, they did send me a jersey later in the mail. It was big enough for Dan Dierdorf to wear! (Holding hands wide apart)
Q: Before we wrap up, I know you are a pretty good golfer. But, I read a small story in the paper back in the late 70s that you shot a 159 at an NFLPA golf tournament. How did that happen?
GRAY: Jim Hart came up to me and asked if I played golf? I asked why? He said if I played golf I’d get a 5-day paid trip to Orlando, FL. Well, hell yeah I play! I gave them all my information and they sent me plane tickets. I’m flying to Florida and all the guys were flying in with their golf clubs and they ask me “Where are your clubs?” And I said, “Man I knew I forgot something! (laughing)” So, they take us over to this course at Disney World and they give me some clubs. I get to the first tee and I hit the first three out of bounds. So, we finish the first hole, they tell me I scored two touchdowns! (laughing)” It was the first time I ever played golf.
Mel Gray retired in 1982. He played 12 seasons with the Cardinals finishing with 351 catches, 6644 yards and 46 touchdowns (20 of which were greater than 50 yards.) He killed the Cowboys with 14 touchdowns. He made the Pro Bowl four consecutive years from 1974-77 and was named first team All-Pro in 1975. He is a member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame, but not the Arizona Cardinals Ring of Honor.
Mel recently retired from teaching in Rockford, IL where he was a very successful girl’s track coach. He is planning a return to St. Louis in the near future. Maybe you’ll run into him on the golf course.