- Inducted: 1993
- Safety: 1975-83
- Height: 5-11; Weight: 185
- College: Cal State-Fullerton, 1973-74
Although Johnnie Gray was bypassed in the 1975 NFL Draft, which encompassed 17 rounds and 442 players, he hardly could have climbed the Packers’ depth chart any faster. Likewise, it wasn’t the first time that Gray had been snubbed for not being big enough or fast enough – his 40-yard dash time was listed at 4.7 – with the same storyline playing out. “Hey, we had serious doubts four years ago whether he had enough speed for JC football,” Barney Ames, Gray’s coach at Hancock Junior College in Santa Maria, Calif., said after his protégé’s rookie year. “But Johnnie Gray wanted to play, period.”
Over nine seasons in Green Bay, Gray never lost his desire and never stopped endearing himself to coaches and teammates thanks to his work ethic, his quiet leadership, and his innate and unflinching ability as a tackler.
Signed as a free agent less than a month after the January draft, Gray caught the attention of the Packers’ coaches instantly at an April minicamp. “Johnnie Gray stands a good chance of making the club if he holds up like he did down here,” defensive backs coach Jim Colbert said at the end of the four-day session in Scottsdale, Ariz. Four days into training camp, the Packers held a goal-line scrimmage and Gray stood out again. “He’s a hitter. He comes to play,” said first-year head coach Bart Starr.
Within two weeks, there were whispers among the coaches that Gray had a chance to follow a similar career path to another undrafted free safety who also once wore No. 24 for the Packers: future Pro Football Hall of Famer Willie Wood.
Four days before the fifth of six preseason games, Gray was elevated to the first unit in practice and at the end of the week Starr announced that he would start Saturday night’s game in Kansas City. “This is a very positive sign for him,” said Starr. “He’s earned the chance to win the job.” A week later, just prior to their final preseason game, the Packers announced that they had waived Jim Hill, their starting free safety the previous three seasons.
Gray started the opener and the first 99 games of his career. “He controlled and ran that defense, the secondary,” said former Packers director of player personnel Dick Corrick, who was the team’s West Coast scout during Gray’s two seasons at Cal State-Fullerton and the one who convinced him to accept the Packers’ offer rather than one from his other suitor, the Dallas Cowboys. “For a guy who was a free agent, he had a hell of a career.”
As a rookie, Gray played free safety next to strong safety Al Matthews and was named to both the United Press International and Pro Football Writers Association all-rookie teams. Over the next five seasons, Gray teamed with strong safety Steve Luke, who was also a rookie in 1975. Gray was a fearless and sure tackler, while Luke was more inclined to detonate opponents. “How many times do people come over the middle against Green Bay and hold onto the ball?” Dick LeBeau, the Packers’ third-year defensive backs coach, rhetorically asked before the 1978 season.
Even in practice, the Packers’ own receivers tended to be gun shy running inside routes. “They were called the ‘Hit Brothers,'” teammate Larry McCarren said of Gray and Luke. “And they earned that nickname not only in games by lighting people up, but in practice lighting our own guys up. I mean you weren’t safe if you were a receiver in practice going over the middle because crazy Johnnie or crazy Steve was going to knock you out onto Oneida Street.”
Then again, that also was a time when rule changes favoring the passing game were being instituted, and, thus, in 1981, the Packers traded Luke and moved Gray to strong safety with the hope of bolstering their pass coverage. Part of the thinking was that Gray was better suited to play on the strong side. The coaches were pleased with his run support and his ability to cover man-to-man, but not his ball skills at free safety.
In nine seasons and 124 games, Gray amassed more than 800 tackles but intercepted only 22 passes. Somewhat puzzlingly, Gray also was called on to return punts at different times during his career – he returned 85 in all for a 7.7 average – and it was partly because of his sure hands.
Gray injured his knee in 1981 and missed the final seven games. He returned to the starting lineup in 1982 and ’83, then suffered a quadriceps injury in training camp in 1984 and spent all but the last game on injured reserve. Although activated for the finale, he didn’t play. Gray was waived by the Packers in April 1985.
Gray served as a defensive captain for the Packers from 1979 through his final season. In retirement, he has served on the Packers’ board of directors since 2009.
Born Dec. 18, 1953. Give name Johnnie Lee Gray.