MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S NOW AND THEN: Jeremy Ross and Mel Gray

Posted Jun 30, 2014

Two decades after his last season as a Lion, Mel Gray has some advice for Jeremy Ross, who earned a role as primary return man and backup receiver since signing with the Lions last year.

When the NFL opened the market for free agents for the first time in 1989, the Lions went shopping and brought home a small package that produced gigantic results.

Mel Gray underscored the word “special” in special teams play and set a lofty standard for long-term excellence after signing with the Lions in the old Plan B free-agent system.

Gray was a game-breaker on punt and kickoff returns. He made the Pro Bowl four times and was first-team All-Pro three times in six seasons as a Lion.

 “I always thought I could hit that home run,” Gray said in a telephone interview from his home in Houston. “That’s the mindset that you have to have as a return man – that you can make a big play.”

Gray performed with abandon, and without regard for personal well-being, despite never weighing more than 167 pounds. He wore No. 23 as a Lion, but he landed upside down so often after tumbling through the air that it often looked like 32.

When the ball was in the air on a punt or kickoff, his concentration level locked in so tightly that he thought of nothing but the job at hand, and never heard a whisper of crowd noise.

“You don’t hear the crowd,” he said. “There’s no thought process. Once that ball lands, you know what direction you’re going in. I never worried about getting hurt. I never worried about taking a big hit, or that my size would be a problem in keeping me healthy.

“If you’re not concentrating to the point where you do hear the crowd, then something’s wrong.”

Gray made his share of big plays throughout his 12 pro seasons, with the majority of them coming in his tenure as a Lion (1989-94). As a Lion, Gray scored seven of his nine career return TDs – two on punts, five on kickoffs.

Mel GrayMel Gray (Photo: AP Images)

No play was more important than the touchdown he scored on a punt return at Green Bay in Game 15 of the 1991 season that clinched the Lions’ last road victory over the Packers.

In 10-degree weather with a recorded wind chill of minus 18, Gray romped 78 yards through the Packers’ coverage unit to the end zone early in the fourth quarter to give the Lions a 21-10 lead. They hung on for a 21-17 victory that clinched a playoff berth on the way to an eventual 12-4 record, division title and first-round playoff victory over Dallas.

Two decades after his last season as a Lion, he has some advice for Jeremy Ross, who earned a role as primary return man and backup receiver since signing with the Lions last year after being released by the Packers.

“The most important thing is the mindset – the determination,” Gray said. “You have to have the ability to want to get the job done. That’s what it was for me. I wanted so much to get it done – having a strong will in that particular area.”

Gray and Ross have few similarities, except for one all-important area – job description.

One factor that works in Ross’ favor is the time he spent on the Colts’ practice squad in 2011 when Jim Caldwell was head coach.

Consider the following:

Physical stature: Gray was 5-9 and played at a maximum of 168 pounds. Ross is listed at 6 feet and 210 pounds.

Draft status: The New Orleans Saints drafted Gray in the second round out of Purdue in 1986.

Ross was undrafted after playing at Cal. He originally signed with the Patriots as a rookie free agent in 2011 but did not make the roster.

Gray’s pro career: The NFL adopted a Plan B free-agent system in 1989 that allowed teams to protect 37 players. After three seasons with the Saints, Gray was not protected in 1989 and signed a three-year, $1 million contract with the Lions. It was considered a blockbuster deal at the time for a return specialist.

The Lions did not bring Gray back after the 1994 season. He was with Houston in 1995-96.  His final season was 1997, when he spent 11 games with the Titans and three with the Steelers.

Ross’ pro career: Detroit is stop No. 4. After being released by the Patriots in 2011, he was on the Colts’ practice squad that year and began 2012 on Green Bay’s practice squad. He was promoted to the active roster late in 2012 and was released on Sept. 23 of 2013. In all, he was active for eight games as a Packer.

The Lions signed him to the practice squad on Oct. 7 and promoted him to the active roster later that month.

Gray’s pro stats: For his career, Gray averaged 10.9 on punt returns and 24.3 on kickoffs. In 1991, he led the NFL in average return on punts (15.4 yards) and kickoffs (25.8). He was No. 1 on kickoff return average (28.4) in 1994.

Gray was named to the second team of the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1990s.

Ross’ 2013 Lions returns: He averaged 16.2 yards on 15 punt returns and 29.2 on 15 kickoff returns. He scored two touchdowns on returns – 58 yards on a punt, 98 yards on a kickoff – in a late-season loss at Philadelphia.

Caldwell had a good read on Ross from his time with the Colts, and he has been impressed with his development.

“He’s the same guy in terms of his approach to the game,” Caldwell said during minicamp. “He loves to play and has got a lot of enthusiasm. He’s athletic, and this guy wants to be good. He has infectious enthusiasm. He had it then and has it now.

“There is a role for him. There’s no question about that because he’s catching the ball well. He can run with it, obviously, when he gets it in his hands.”