Where are they now: Mel Gray

Mel Gray felt like he was being discarded when the New Orleans Saints let him shop his talents in the NFL's first group of Plan B free agents in 1989.

What felt like his loss of job security became the Detroit Lions' gain.

And when Gray looks back on it now, he gained more than he ever could haver imagined at the time.

Gray was a star return specialist in his six seasons with the Lions from 1989-94. In style and stats – and clutch performances – Gray was the best in the NFL at what he did during his Lions tenure. He was first-time All-Pro three times and made four Pro Bowls.

"It definitely was the highlight of my career," Gray said in a telephone interview from his home in the Houston area earlier this year. "Everything was perfect for me. The location. The surroundings. The players. The fans. I had success on top of it.

"Those six years in Detroit defined my career."

Gray's arrival in Detroit was a win-win proposition for himself and the Lions. Both sides benefited from the NFL's historic first step into free agency for players. Under rules of Plan B free agency, teams could protect 37 players. The rest were available to any team on the open market.

Gray showed promise as a returner in three seasons with the Saints after being drafted in the second round out of Purdue in 1986. And Gray liked playing for the Saints under special teams coordinator Joe Marciano.

Gray was fearless running downfield on either a punt or kickoff return, but when the Saints left him unprotected he feared being unwanted.

"For me, it was kind of scary," Gray said. "I was very excited about being in New Orleans. I had a good time. I was starting to find some success under Joe Marciano.

"To find myself being put on Plan B ... it was almost like being cut. You don't know what's going to happen. You don't know if the next team is going to pick you up."

Gray got to the Lions at a time when they were fitting the pieces together on a competitive roster, primarily through the draft. They'd already added Pro Bowl players such as Kevin Glover, Lomas Brown, Jerry Ball, Bennie Blades and Chris Spielman.

They hit the jackpot when they took Barry Sanders third overall in 1989.

Under chief operating officer Chuck Schmidt, who handled contract negotiations at the time, the Lions' outbid competitors for Gray's services. The Saints made a late bid to bring him back before he signed with the Lions, but his mind was made up, Gray said.

"After leaving New Orleans, with a minimum salary, coming to Detroit at the time it was a very lucrative contract for a special teams player," Gray said. "I took advantage of it."

The Lions were an ascending team. They made the playoffs four times in five seasons from 1991-95, with two division titles.

At 5-9 and 167 pounds, Gray played a big role before departing for Houston as a free agent after the 1995 season. He played two full seasons in Houston and split time with Houston and Philadelphia in 1997 before retiring.

Gray started slowly when he got to Detroit. Injuries limited Gray to 10 games in 1989, and his impact was marginal. He took off after that. If there was any doubt that the Lions had done the right thing in signing Gray – and there really wasn't – he ended it in 1990.

He averaged 10.6 yards on punt returns and 22.9 on kickoffs and was voted first team All Pro for the first time.

There was more to come.

He was All Pro again in 1991, leading the league in punt return average (15.4) and in kickoffs (25.8).

In 1994 he returned three kickoffs for TDs and led the league again with a 28.4-yard average.

Despite his size – or lack of it, more accurately – Gray was fearless on returns. He ran into piles of people with abandon. Gray generally would either break through a hole or cartwheel end over end as the result of a big hit.

Gray said he got his toughness from playing running back under Melvin Jones, his head coach at Lafayette High School in Williamsburg, Va.

"He started me on the right track," Gray said. "To play in his backfield, you had to be fearless. You can't be afraid to run the ball up into the crowd. I took that along with me to college and the NFL.

"I took some hits. Little dings and bruises. You have to keep coming back. You've got to be physically tough as well as mentally tough.

"When you enjoy it, you make it that much better."

After retirement, Gray continued work on his degree and did substitute teaching for a short time. He currently is involved in real estate in the Houston area.

Gray, who turns 59 on March 16, looks back on his six seasons with the Lions with genuine fondness. He played in big games on good teams with Pro Bowl players.

"We fed off one another," Gray said. "If I ran back a big punt return, when I got back to the sideline everybody was excited. That gave guys that energy.

"The next guy was thinking that -- 'I've got to have the fans howling and screaming.'"

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