Ken Gray was part of the greatest draft class in Green Bay Packers history. The Texas native was taken in the 6th round of the 1958 draft along with future Hall of Famers Jim Taylor, Ray Nitschke, and Jerry Kramer. The Packers also nabbed future All-Pro linebacker Dan Currie.
Gray and Kramer battled for a roster spot throughout training camp. A coach actually told Kramer that he would probably be traded because they had too many guards. But it ended up being Gray who was among the last cuts just before the start of the season. After his release, Packer head coach Ray “Scooter” McLean told Gray that he “would play somewhere in this league.”
“My heart went to my feet,” Gray said in a 2015 story in the Picayune, but what could I say? Those experiences make you a better person and better player.”
Based on the talent of both Kramer and Gray, the Packers should have kept both players as they would have made quite a tandem at guard over the next several years. The Packers went 1-10-1 in 1958 and McLean was fired and replaced with Vince Lombardi.
Meanwhile, Gray signed with the Chicago Cardinals and played defense his rookie season. He was moved back to guard in 1959, gained 30 pounds and was named to his first Pro Bowl two years later.
Gray told Bob Broeg in a 1961 St. Louis Post Dispatch interview that providing proper pass protection was the toughest part of playing offensive line.
“Pass-blocking in pro football is almost completely foreign to what you’re taught in college where teams don’t pass as much. You’ve got to become a shock absorber. You hit, back off, hit again, trying to keep the defensive guy, who can use his hands, from pulling you aside and getting at the passer.”
In the same interview, Gray said his most enjoyable part of playing guard was the opportunity to pull out of the line and lead interference.
“I really like that,” he said, “because out there, going around end, it’s one on one, me against someone else.”
Gray became one of the best pulling guards in the NFL. John David Crow, Prentice Gautt, Johnny Roland, and Willis Crenshaw were among the Cardinals running backs he he opened holes for in the 1960s.
“There was no one better,” former teammate Johnny Roland recently told me. “He would get out in front of me and clear the way with those big arms. I loved to run behind him.”
Former Cardinals center Bob DeMarco played next to Gray for 9 years and said that he “was one of the toughest people I ever played with, just a great individual both on and off the field. The fact he is not in the Hall of Fame is a joke.”
Gray played in six Pro Bowls and was named All-Pro twice during his 12 year career with the Cardinals. He had already had two knee surgeries on his right knee and then injured his left knee with two games left to play in 1969. He failed his physical the following training camp and the Cardinals placed him on waivers. Gray returned to his ranch in Llano, Texas where he planned to become a full-time rancher.
But former Cardinal head coach Wally Lemm had other ideas. As Jeff Meyers wrote in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Lemm, then coaching in Houston, called Gray on October 6, 1970 to talk about insurance.
“I thought he wanted to use me as a backup guard when he mentioned insurance,” Gray said. “But the next Sunday, there I was, starting for the Houston Oilers.”
Meyers asked Gray if he ever thought he’d play again after failing his physical with the Cardinals.
“God, no,” Gray said. “I didn’t think I ever would, but I had an opportunity to play for a man I like to play for (Lemm). And my knee had come around, although it still gives me trouble.”
Gray started 10 of the last 11 games for the Oilers in 1970 including a November return to St. Louis, a game the Cardinals won 44-0.
“I have mixed emotions,” Gray told Meyers before the game. “I love the players—they’re the greatest bunch of guys in the world. It will be great to see them and talk to them. But then you always want to do as well as you can.”
Gray finally hung up his cleats after the 1970 season. His playing career ended with two bad knees and no championships—not even a playoff appearance. But his fortunes would change in 1977.
“My wife and I were lying in bed one night, watching TV, when I heard that Red Miller had been named head coach of the Denver Broncos,” Gray told Tom Barnidge in a St. Louis Post Dispatch interview. “Red had been my line coach at St. Louis, and I called to congratulate him.”
“At the end of the conversation, I said, ‘You don’t need a good offensive line coach, do you?’ It was just about that spontaneous. He hired me.”
The Broncos won the AFC West title in Gray’s first year with the team. They finished the season with a 12-2 record, defeated Pittsburgh and Oakland in playoff games, and made their first Super Bowl appearance in the club’s 18 year history when they faced the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XII.
“You always have it in the back of your mind,” Gray told the Austin American Statesman. “As a player I never got to the Super Bowl and you’re always frustrated. When you go as a coach, that’s the second best thing.”
Gray coached in Denver for two seasons and was ready to sign a new contract, but had a change of heart after a talk with his 12 year old son Shane.
“He was getting ready to sign a contract for a third year in Denver,” Shane recalled. “He loved it but it was literally 18 hour days during the season. Me and dad were driving to the Broncos facility on a Saturday morning. He always took me on Saturdays to Mile High Stadium before the home games because the team did their walk through and it was a light practice before the Sunday game the next day. On the way home, my dad looked at me and said ‘Shaner, you’re about the luckiest kid alive. You get to play catch with Craig Morton and Rick Upchurch and today you got to sit in Tom Jackson and Lyle Alzado’s locker and eat donuts with them for breakfast.’ To which I replied ‘yeah dad, that’s pretty cool, but it’s just that I never to get to see you anymore.’ Later in life my dad said my statement broke his heart and that day he decided not to renew his contract with the Broncos and we moved back to Llano at the conclusion of his second season.”
Gray coached high school football for a few years, but eventually he and his wife Shirley bought a house on a lake where they would enjoy their retirement.
Ken Gray passed away in 2017 at the age of 80. His former teammate Jackie Smith recently shared a story with me about the last time he talked to his old pal.
“The last time I called Ken, his wife Shirley answered the phone….we made small talk and when I asked if Ken was around, she sort of paused and finally said, ‘well, I’ll let him tell you…’ and she called Ken to the phone. And as always, it started off with a joking comment and we started talking as usual and I addressed the concern I had heard in Shirley’s voice….’You Ok man?…you doing alright?’ ‘Better than ever he said, still going strong..’ With that we chatted a little longer about Irv (former Big Red guard and teammate Irv Goode) and some stories about him…he asked about DeMarco…and we said our goodbyes….I told him I loved him and he said the same to me….A week and a half later Shirley called to tell me he had passed away. Typical Ken Gray….tough and defiant right to the end. A players player.”
“My dad was the toughest, hardest working person I ever knew by far and he loved his family, Shane Gray recently said. “He loved his Big Red teammates and the memories he made while playing with the Big Red. Jackie Smith, Larry Wilson, Charley Johnson, Bob Rowe, Irv Goode, Johnny Roland, Bob DeMarco, and Ernie McMillan are all people who I knew, but don’t really remember because I was the youngest of the family. But, through my dad’s stories, it’s as if I do know them all. I had a great childhood and a great father. I miss him every day!”
I don’t think you can end a story better than that. RIP Ken Gray.