LIFE ON THE EDGE
All of the Lions got a scare after one of their teammates, guard Mike Utley, was paralyzed when he injured his spinal cord in a game last November. But for Mel Gray, a 5'9", 162-pounder who each game gets knocked into next week when he returns kickoffs and punts, Utley's paralysis was especially disturbing. "After Mike got hurt," Gray says, "I really wanted to stand up and say, 'I'm sorry y'all, I'm done. That's it. This is too much.' My wife wanted me to do it, too."
But there he was on Sunday, back in the pinball world of a return specialist, running back three kickoffs for 69 yards and one punt for six in a 27-24 loss to the Bears. "I came to the conclusion that this was Mike's fate, I guess," Gray says. "I think I became more motivated then to go out on the field and do everything right. Hey, I'd still rather be [playing another position], because this is so dangerous."
Despite living on the edge, Gray last year became the first return specialist in NFL history to lead the league in both kickoff-return average (25.8 yards) and punt-return average (15.4) in the same season. He clinched the punt-return title with a 78-yard sideline dash for a touchdown on a bitterly cold December day in Green Bay.
In the 1992 preseason he was up to his old tricks, returning a kickoff and a punt for TDs. "What an incredible weapon," says Detroit's new offensive coordinator, Dan Henning, who will use Gray sparingly at receiver—the position Gray favors—this year. "A great return man adds so much to a team."
Gray, 31, never imagined himself returning kicks for a living. He led Purdue in rushing in 1982 and '83, then ran for 1,151 yards in two seasons with the Los Angeles Express of the United States Football League. Gray signed with the Saints as a kick returner in '86, added punt-return responsibilities a year later and has been doubling up ever since. When New Orleans naively left him unprotected in the first year of Plan B free agency, 1989, Detroit signed him.
Gray says there are two keys to a return man's success: Never think, and always move. "When I get out there, everything shuts off," he says. "It has to be that way. You can't be going through a long thought process when you're out there; it has to be natural. And I never stand completely still, even when the ball's coming to me. Watch me on a punt return, and you'll see that within a hundredth of a second of the ball hitting me, I'm moving. You have to make people miss."