Leon Gray is the 28th man selected into the New England Patriots’ Hall of Fame, as the club announced yesterday. A third-round draft pick by the Miami Dolphins in 1973, Gray joined the organization off waivers that same year and went on to establish himself as one of the best left tackles in football: he appeared in 80 games for New England over the course of six seasons and became a core member of what is now a legendary offensive line.
One of the voters responsible for bestowing the honor upon the former Patriots starting left tackle, who passed away in 2001 at just 49 years old, is the club’s current football research director, Ernie Adams. Revisiting some previous comments made by Adams about Gray tells just why he and his brethren decided on including the late offensive lineman in the exclusive club as the third ever senior inductee.
“Leon Gray was everything you had wanted as a left tackle,” Adams told patriots.com back in 2013, when Gray first came up as a candidate for the Hall. “There are very few teams in the history of the National Football League that have run the ball over the course of a season for 200 yards a game: the ‘76 Patriots and the ‘78 Patriots were two of those teams. A lot of that was Sam Cunningham running behind Leon Gray.”
As Adams mentioned, Gray and his teammates helped the Patriots average more than 200 rushing yards — 210.6, to be precise — over the course of 1976’ 14 regular season games. Two years later and following the NFL’s switch to a 16-game regular season format, Gray and the rest of the Patriots’ offensive line paved the way for 3,165 rushing yards. The number still stands as an NFL record today and will likely never be broken again.
Gray’s excellence extended beyond his run blocking, though, and was only one reason why he was voted to two Pro Bowls and an All-Pro team in his six years in New England. “You never had to worry about having Leon Gray pass block for Steve Grogan at left tackle,” said Adams about the former waiver wire pickup that turned into one of the NFL’s premier offensive tackles of the 1970s.
The man in question — long-time Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan — also spoke glowingly about Gray six years ago. “Leon was smart, he had great feet, good hands. You just knew that he was going to do his job,” said Grogan, who himself was inducted into the club’s Hall of Fame in 1995. “The success we had during the mid-’70s, wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for a guy like Leon Gray playing left tackle for us.”
Despite some outstanding play throughout his Patriots tenure and being voted to the organization’s team of 1970s, however, Gray is not the biggest name on New England’s outstanding offensive lines of the decade: the unit’s superstar was and still is Pro Football Hall of Fame guard John Hannah, who played shoulder-on-shoulder alongside the left tackle for all six of his seasons with the Patriots.
“Hannah could very well be the best offensive lineman in the history of the league. Everybody remembers John,” said Adams before pointing out that the man playing on his left also needs to be recognized for his performance wearing the red, white, and blue. “I think John would probably be the first one to tell you a big part of the reason he was so good was he knew he was going to get great play from left tackle.”
Indeed, Hannah named Gray as a reason for his success on the gridiron. Speaking to Sports Illustrated’s Paul Zimmerman in 1981, the player dubbed as ‘the greatest offensive lineman of all time,’ also spoke about his relationship with the man playing alongside him. “Having Leon Gray next to me all those years helped so much,” Hannah said. “We got to know what each of us could do. We ate together, studied films together. I knew the air he breathed.”
The formidable duo was not built to last, however: New England traded away its stalwart left tackle to the Houston Oilers in a cost-cutting move just prior to the 1979 season — a decision criticized by Hannah at the time and in the years that followed. “When the Patriots traded Leon… well, I never wanted to sign another contract with them,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1981. “I still haven’t gotten over it.”
Hannah, of course, played out the rest of his career in New England before retiring after the Patriots’ Super Bowl loss in 1985. At that point, Gray was already retired: after spending three years in Houston and earning two more Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections each, he was traded again. After two years with the New Orleans Saints, the then-32-year-old decided to hang up his cleats at the age of 32.
His legacy in New England still lives on, though, even beyond his untimely death during what would turn out to be the Patriots’ first championship season. “[Gray and Hannah] together, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better guard-tackle combination anywhere that I’ve seen in the league,” said Adams, who saw both perform first-hand during his initial coaching tenure in New England from 1975 through 1979.
“When you think of left tackle you think of someone like Leon Gray and somebody who plays the position like that.”