A Gray Day in Detroit
In preparing for Sunday's game against the Bears. Lion return specialist Mel Gray did everything he could not to think about the fact that he needed only five yards to set an NFL record for most kickoff-return yardage in a career. But no matter how hard he tried, somebody always brought up the record. The biggest distraction came right before he left the locker room for pregame warmups, when he was instructed to hand the ball to a representative of the Pro Football Hall of Fame immediately after breaking the mark.
That was all it took to derail Gray's concentration. He caught Chris Gardocki's opening kickoff, returned the ball up the left sideline for 21 yards to set the record, then promptly handed it to the Bears' Kevin Miniefield instead of to the Hall of Fame rep. Miniefield recovered Gray's fumble, and the Lion return man went to the sideline in a state of panic.
"I really had to pull myself together," admits Gray, who has now set three NFL records—for career kickoff returns (289), combined kickoff-and punt-return yardage (9,122) and kickoff-return yardage (7,092)—in the past four games. "It has been a lone time since I've fumbled an opening kickoff. This was one of the biggest games of the season and of my career. I couldn't let it get to me. I kept telling myself, You've got a lot of time left to redeem yourself."
He got his chance with 4:02 left in the third quarter, after a Bear field goal had cut Detroit's lead to 14-10. Gray took a Gardocki kick and raced right up the middle, all the way for a 102-yard touchdown that provided the winning margin in the Lions' 21-16 victory.
It was a must-win game for the Lions, who had lost three in a row. A loss would have put Detroit three games behind Minnesota and Chicago—and virtually out of the hunt in the Central race.
"I rate this return as my greatest," says Gray, a nine-year veteran. "Not only because it was my longest return, but because of the importance of the game."
Gray's electrifying performance helped cut some slack for special teams coach Steve Kazor, who has been under a microscope all season. The Lions admit that they miss special teams guru Frank Gansz, who left Detroit after five seasons to take a job with Atlanta, and their play reflects it. In a 24-14 loss to Tampa Bay on Oct. 2, Lion special teams units made six costly errors that handed the Bucs 17 points.
In Kazor's defense, coach Wayne Fontes seemed to deemphasize special teams play after Gansz left, moving the special teams' segment of practice to the end of the day, when players' concentration levels are down. Three weeks ago Kazor asked for more quality time. Fontes moved special teams to the middle of practice, and on Sunday the renewed emphasis paid off.
Even Gray has been subjected to media criticism. The talk was that at 33 he had lost a step. "I'm faster now than when I came into the league," insists Gray. "I just haven't gotten any seams to run through."