STAFF WRITER JENNIFER FIERRO
LLANO — The man who set the standard for Llano High School offensive linemen died Nov. 25.
Kenneth Don Gray, a 1954 graduate of the high school, went on to play professionally for the Chicago and St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Oilers from 1958-1970. He was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in 2016.
He passed away at the age of 81.
Gray began playing football at the age of 5 when his father, Lewis Daniel Gray, bought him a ball. He played his junior high years at San Saba, two years in high school at Cherokee, and his final two high school years in Llano, where he was a running back and a defensive tackle.
Always a humble man, in a December 2015 interview, Gray credited Howard Payne University offensive line coach Jack Brewer for giving him a chance. Despite the young man having a wife and a son before starting college, the coach offered him a scholarship and made arrangements for the his family to live in Brownwood, where Howard Payne is located.
On the field, the Llano graduate pushed himself relentlessly.
Once the game started, Gray said he never left the field unless it was the end of the quarter, at the half, or the contest ended.
He called the practices “horrendous” because of all the running and bear crawls the players endured to get in shape.
“When I got to the pros,” he said with a smile in 2015, “I thought it was the easiest thing I’d ever done.”
In 1958, the Green Bay Packers selected him in the NFL Draft but cut him before the start of the season. Head coach Ray Scooter McLean told Gray the offensive lineman was a great prospect, and he’d play somewhere, just not for Green Bay.
Gray said his heart sank to his feet.
“Green Bay said, later on in my career, the worst personnel mistake they made was cutting me, which made me feel really good,” he said while reflecting on his career in 2015. “Those experiences make you a better person and a better player. You know what it is to be rejected. It makes you work hard. You’re not so cocky and sure of yourself.”
Once word got out that Gray was available, he had several calls from other squads but settled on the then-Chicago Cardinals, since he had to drive through Illinois to get back to Texas. He didn’t return to Texas until after the 1958 NFL season wrapped.
Gray, who stood 6 feet 2 inches and weighed 260 pounds in his playing days, took great pride in the lineman position. He enjoyed beating the guy lined up across from him, especially the 300-pounders. The reason?
“Their agility is somewhat lacking,” he said. “I think I had a lot more agility than those guys.”
He laughed when he talked about his first NFL contract, which was worth $6,000. At that time, there were six NFL East teams and six NFL West squads and no American Conference.
His last NFL contract was for $50,000 with the Houston Oilers, where he finished his professional football career.
Football took its toll on Gray’s body. Though he had to have both knees, both shoulders, and a hip replaced, Gray said he wouldn’t change a thing; he loved the game then and loved it in retirement.
In his retirement, Gray coached the Llano High School football team for three years, guiding the Yellow Jackets to an 8-3 record and two playoff wins in 1975.
Gray eventually returned to the professional ranks as a coach. He was the Denver Broncos offensive line coach when the Broncos made it to Super Bowl XII in 1978. They lost to the Dallas Cowboys 27-10.
Gray called himself a kid who never grew up, but he always praised God for everything he had.
“The Lord has blessed me in so many ways,” he said. “I pretty much get up and thank the Lord for what he’s done. He’s been awesome. It’s pretty nice not to have to grow up.”
Visitation is 4-6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 28, at Waldrope-Hatfield-Hawthorne Funeral Home, 307 E. Sandstone in Llano. A service is 10 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 29, at the funeral home.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Howard Payne University Jacket Century Football, P.O. Box 2369, Brownwood, TX 76804.