When Ken Gray was a senior at Llano High School, he wasn’t sure where his future would take him.
Gray was already married and had a daughter. He could have stayed home and ranched or helped his dad in his bulldozing business.
One day during basketball practice in 1954, Howard Payne assistant football coach Jack Brewer asked Gray if he’d be interested in a scholarship.
“I looked at it as a godsend,” Gray said. “I didn’t have offers from any other colleges. I think it was because I was already married and had a child. I asked Coach Brewer, ‘Do you realize I have a wife?’”
Little did Gray know that encounter in the basketball gym would lead to an all-pro football career with the St. Louis Cardinals. During the 1960s, he was one of the NFL’s premier offensive guards as he was selected for the Pro Bowl seven times.
Seemingly long forgotten, Gray was thrilled when he learned he will be inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame on Feb. 2. It’s been more than 45 years since his last NFL game in 1970.
“I’m blessed this came about,” Gray said. “Some of my old teammates that have been inducted have been fighting to get me in. I’ve always said it’s very difficult for offensive linemen to have any kind of notoriety because there aren’t stats for them.”
Former St. Louis Cardinals guard Irv Goode believes Gray should be a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Since the Cardinals weren’t a championship team during the 1960s, he thinks Gray has been overlooked.
“It’s just a shame he’s not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Goode said. “We weren’t in the playoffs, so we never had the opportunity to show ourselves. He had technique no one else had and could lock guys where it was hard for them to move or do anything.”
Approaching his 80th birthday in March, Gray is retired and living in Kingsland, Texas. He and his wife, Shirley, have been married 62 years. He still watches NFL games every chance he gets.
“Ever since my dad gave me and my older brother a football when I was 5, I’ve felt it’s had addictive powers,” Gray said. “I like to watch the Cowboys and the Texans. I still watch the (Arizona) Cardinals. They’ve got an exceptionally good team and I hope they go a long way.”
After catching the football bug as a kid, Gray played his first two seasons of high school football at Cherokee before transferring to Llano. He was a fixture at running back and defensive line in an era when players performed on both sides of the ball.
When he arrived at Howard Payne in Brownwood, he often lined up against older players who had served in the Korean War.
“Our oldest player was 29 years old,” Gray said. “We had a lot of contact in practice in college, so I thought it was easy going once I got in the pros. We had a drill called ‘bull in the ring’ where one guy would get in the middle and the coaches would call the numbers of guys surrounding you. Those players would try to knock you out.”
Gray developed into a premier lineman for the Yellow Jackets as he made the Little All-America team. In 1958, he was drafted in the sixth round by the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, a struggling franchise that was coached that season by Scooter McLean.
“I got a call from the Packers and they asked me if I wanted to come,” Gray said. “We started talking about a contract, and they asked if I’d sign for $6,500. School teachers were making $2,400 a year back then, and that sounded like all the money in the world.”
Gray could see the Packers had the makings of a championship team since players like quarterback Bart Starr and running backs Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung were on the roster. But Gray was cut before the start of the season.
“I was the very last player they cut,” Gray said. “Coach McLean called me in and said, ‘Ken, you’re a great player and you’re going to play in this league.’ After that I was contacted by the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Cardinals. So I just got in my car and drove to Chicago. If I didn’t make it, I’d just go back to Texas.”
McLean was replaced by the legendary Vince Lombardi in 1959, and Gray watched the Packers win five NFL championships during his era.
“You don’t ever want to be cut,” Gray said. “It’s kind of a blow to your ego. I had a wonderful career with the Cardinals, but the only thing missing was a Super Bowl ring.”
Beginning of a legend
Gray made the Cardinals’ starting lineup as a rookie, and played on both sides of the line early in his career. But it quickly became apparent that his talent could be best utilized at offensive guard, and he developed into one of the premier linemen in the NFL.
After the Cardinals began playing in St. Louis in 1960, they featured some of the most dynamic offensive teams in the league with quarterback Charley Johnson, running back John David Crow, wide receivers Sonny Randle and Bobby Joe Conrad and tight end Jackie Smith.
Gray was the leader of the offensive line as he made the all-NFL team for the decade of the 1960s.
“Ken was a player’s player,” Smith said. “He was always the guy with the dirtiest uniform. He had great technique and skill and was very consistent in the way he played. He could execute any kind of block that you’d ask. He did his job with a lot of enthusiasm and encouraged guys to do their best.”
Gray took a lot of pride in helping his offensive teammates reach their goals. When Crow was shooting for a 1,000-yard rushing season in 1960, Gray encouraged his teammates to help him accomplish it in the final game of the season.
With a 204-yard performance, Crow finished the 12-game season with 1,071 yards.
“We were playing the Steelers, and John David needed to get 1,000,” Gray said. “I got all the offensive linemen together and said we’re going to get him 1,000 yards. We were as proud of him as he was.”
Gray wasn’t just a superb run blocker, he was also a tremendous pass protector for the Cardinals quarterbacks.
“He was really smart and would always study whomever he would go up against,” Johnson said. “He knew what he was trying to do on every single play. He never made a mistake. He wasn’t terribly big or quick, but he got his job done.”
Standing 6-2, Gray weighed 220 pounds as a rookie and eventually got to 260. Every Cardinals offensive lineman that joined him in the lineup turned to him for advice.
“He was my mentor,” Goode said. “I was drafted as a center, but we had some injuries and they moved me to tackle my second year. Then they moved me to guard and I played opposite of Kenny. We played together so long that all we had to do was grunt and the other guy knew what was going on.”
Gray played with the Cardinals for 12 seasons before he was cut following an injury. However, the Houston Oilers picked him up during the 1970 season as he finished his career in his home state.
Former Cardinals coach Wally Lemm was coaching the Oilers, and thought he could get one final season out of Gray.
“I was back home on my farm and Wally called me and said, ‘Ken, we want you to finish out the year for us,’” Gray said. “I said my knees are horrible. So I went to the doctor and he looked at them and said to Wally that I could probably go ahead and play and we’d operate when the season is over. My knees were so bad that I couldn’t practice, so I just played on Sundays.”
After his NFL career ended, Gray coached Llano High School for three seasons in the early 1970s and guided his alma mater to a state quarterfinals appearance. His son, Boyd, starred at running back and linebacker for Llano and went on to start at linebacker for San Angelo State’s 1978 NAIA championship team.
Gray also coached the Denver Broncos offensive line for two seasons, including the 1977 team that lost to the Cowboys in the Super Bowl. He moved to his home on Lake LBJ in 1990 and has lived there ever since.
Though he’s unknown by most players of the current generation, his peers know how dominating he was in the 1960s. Now he’s getting recognized for a great career with his induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, and he’s glad he’ll be around to see it.
“I’ll be 80 on March 10, so I’m just a young fella,” Gray said.