Having a strong returner can change the dynamic of a football game. Teams never feel like they are out of a game if they have someone with the knack to get into the end zone returning a punt or a kickoff.
The Detroit Lions have had a strong history of return specialists.
Current Lion Andre Roberts has returned his way into the end zone this season.
But there were few players in the history of the NFL to have the ability to change a game on special teams like Mel Gray.
When Gray was on the Lions, you just never felt like they were out of it. One sliver of light on a return and, bam, he was in the end zone—or at least down the field in a hurry, giving the Lions field position closer and closer to the red zone.
While most return specialists do most of their damage on punt returns, Gray was one of the few kick return specialists that found the end zone multiple times in that regard.
It started his rookie year in 1986 while playing for the New Orleans Saints, following two years in the USFL. Gray had a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and the rookie became synonymous with long returns.
After three years in the Big Easy with two return touchdowns, Gray made his way to the Motor City.
His first year in Detroit was in 1989 and he was a part-time returner that season for the Lions.
But in 1990, Gray had one of his best seasons, despite not reaching the end zone. He was named First-Team All-Pro and was selected to his first of four Pro Bowls. He averaged 22.9 yards on kick returns and 10.6 on punt returns that season.
Gray then led the NFL with 929 total kick return yards in 1991, also leading the league with a 25.8 yards per kick return average and 15.4 yards per punt return. He scored his first returning touchdown as a member of the Lions that season with a punt return.
In 1992, Gray found the end zone as a kick returner and punt returner for the first time in his career as he made his third consecutive Pro Bowl, a feat few return specialists have reached.
After one kick return TD in 1993, Gray’s banner season hit the Silverdome in 1994. Gray returned an astounding three kickoffs for touchdowns to lead the league, with one return going for 102 yards. He had the highest yards-per-kick return average of his career at 28.4, which again led the NFL.
Gray also was the oldest player to return a kickoff for a touchdown at 33 years, 276 days. Of course, it broke his own record, which he ended up breaking twice.
Lions fans were excited about how electric Gray was to watch. With him on returns and Barry Sanders in the backfield, there was always a possibility of a mad dash into the end zone.
But in one of the toughest pills to swallow as a Lions fan — and there have been many — that incredible season for Gray was his last for the Lions.
He left the Honolulu blue and played two years for the Houston Oilers before his final season, 1997, when he moved with the Oilers to become the Tennessee Titans, then played the final three games of the season on the Philadelphia Eagles.
One of the game’s greatest return specialist finished with six touchdowns on kickoff returns and another three on punts. He led the NFL in average return yardage twice for kickoffs and twice for punts and was a four-time Pro Bowler and three-time First-Team All-Pro.
Gray was voted onto the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1990s, cementing his legacy as one of the great return specialists of all time.