Herb Gray carved out a hall-of-fame football career during his days with the University of Texas and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, so much so that just about every superlative imaginable has been used to describe his considerable talent.
None of them, however, would have likely made Gray beam more than a compliment once heaped upon him by legendary Winnipeg sports writer Vince Leah.
Leah referred to Gray, who passed away in 2011, as ‘the heart and soul’ of the Bomber defence, a team that won four Grey Cups in his 10 years north of the border. And as big as Gray was as a player, you see, he was just as big on humility. In many ways, that’s what made him such a good fit with the Bombers and with this town.
“My dad grew up in Texas and so Canada was pretty far away from his home state,” said Steve Gray, one of Gray’s sons who will attend this weekend’s Ring of Honour ceremony at Investors Group Field.
“And so it says something of Canada, the team and the guys he played with that he wanted to stay. He loved Winnipeg, too. He loved the city because he always felt it gave so much back to him.”
An All-American guard with the Longhorns in 1955, Gray came north to the Canadian Football League like so many Americans at the time because the Bombers were offering more money than the Baltimore Colts, the team that drafted him.
“He could have played with Johnny Unitas in Baltimore, but Winnipeg offered him a few more dollars to go play up there and a few more dollars meant an awful lot to my dad back then,” said Steve. “Growing up, football was an escape for him. He was fortunate to be able to play football because it allowed him to go to college, otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to because his family just didn’t have the means. He got a scholarship to UT and did some wonderful things there, including being an All-American in 1955.
“I know the NFL tried to recruit him away but my dad was always, ‘My honour, my word’ and opted to stay.”
And that man of his word played a mammoth role in an era of Blue Bomber football that, to this day, are referred to as ‘The Glory Days.’
Gray played both guard and defensive end in Winnipeg and, in his 10 years in Bomber colours, was a team captain for nine years, was a West Division All-Star defensive end six times, a West Division All-Star guard in 1965, was named the league’s top lineman in 1960 – the first defensive player to capture that honour – and in 1980 was named the Bombers top defensive player of their first half century of existence.
“I’m so proud of him,” said Maureen Gray, Herb’s second wife. “I realize that the team has been playing since 1930 and have seen on-line that fans have had some say in selecting the players for this and for them to remember Herb after all these years is amazing to me.
“I know that Ken Ploen still lives in Winnipeg and that Bud Grant is so well known, but Herb came back home to be a salesman when he was done and for so many to remember what he did… I’m just in awe of that.”
Born in Goosecreek, Texas, Gray returned home after his retirement from football to work for the Alamo Cement Company in San Antonio. After his sales days were over, he retired to spend much of his time fishing at his retirement home on the Guadalupe River.
“He wasn’t the biggest guy out there on the field, but he probably had the biggest heart,” said Steve Grant. “He just loved the game. I’m thrilled to be included in this tremendous honour for my dad.
“Even though his football career ended a long time ago, it keeps on giving to the family. So many great memories. Of course, I was very young when he was playing, but I do have some great memories of it.
“I remember going into the locker room after they had won one of the Grey Cups and my older brother and myself got to visit with my dad. We’ve got a picture of my dad with me and my brother Kevin on each side of him. That was a special moment.
“I always remember being out at restaurants with my dad and the whole family and I could never understand why so many people were coming up and asking him to sign a piece of paper. Of course many years later now, I get why so many wanted his autograph. As fantastic as he was as a player, I’ll always remember him as a fantastic father.
“I wouldn’t miss this Ring of Honour ceremony for the world. For people to remember him and what he did 50 years later does speak highly of what he did do when he was there.”