Had it not been for an Eastern Airlines pilot with a sharp eye for football talent the best left tackle in New England Patriots’ history might have had a life as a musician rather than a career many believe should have led him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Leon Gray was a third round draft choice of the Miami Dolphins in 1973 after an All-America career at Jackson State but Miami was so loaded with talent Don Shula released him at the end of the summer because he could not crack their Super Bowl championship lineup. Enter into Gray’s life Eastern Airlines’ pilot Bruce Kostamo.
Kostamo had played high school football for Chuck Fairbanks, the highly successful Oklahoma coach who was just taking over the arduous task of rebuilding the floundering Patriots. Kostamo had seen Gray play and recommended him to Fairbanks, who that summer was regularly importing players in search of anything that resembled talent. He claimed Gray on waivers and it didn’t take long for Gray to do more than resemble talent. He exuded it.
Gray became a full-time starter in the second half of that 1973 season and within two years formed half of what would become the most dominating left side of an offensive line in pro football.
“Leon and John Hannah?’’ six-time Super Bowl winning coach Bill Belichick once said. “That’s as good a left side as you can get.’’
No one would agree with that assessment more than Hanna, who last summer said on the day Gray was inducted into the Patriots Hall of Fame that “There is not a better offensive tackle that ever played in the NFL. Leon could dance. He had great power. He had great instincts. Leon was just an amazing athlete. If he was playing today he would be making millions and millions of dollars.’’
Gray was named first-team All-Pro three times, went to four Pro Bowls and was twice named the NFL’s Offensive Lineman of the Year (1979 and 1980) after leaving New England for Houston in a block buster trade that Hannah believed cost the then rising Patriots a shot at the Super Bowl in 1979.
By 1976, Gray and Hannah were blowing holes in defensive lines that made the Patriots the most prolific running team in NFL history while also providing quarterback Steve Grogan with one of the safest places to throw a football in the NFL.
In 1977, Hannah and Gray held out together for the first three games of the season. New England went 1-2 after having gone 11-3 the previous season. After their return they went 8-3 and Grogan was sacked only 14 times.
Then came 1978, a year when the Patriots returned to the playoffs powered by a running game that rushed for 3,166 yards, a single-season rushing record that still stands today. Most of those yards came behind Hannah and Gray.
Yet another contract dispute led Gray to be traded to the Houston Oilers following that season for a first and sixth round draft pick. On the day the trade was announced Hannah said, “We just traded away our Super Bowl.’’
Future Hall of Fame defensive end Elvin Bethea, who played for the Oilers, said when he learned he no longer had to face Gray “it was one of the happiest days of my life.’’
Same could be said for Oilers’ running back Early Campbell. With Gray as the All-Pro anchor of their line he rushed for a league-leading 1,679 yards in 1979 and 1,934 in 1980. Both years Gray was named the league’s best offensive lineman as the Oilers reached the AFC Championship game his first season and returned to the playoffs in 1980.
But Gray was then traded to the New Orleans Saints, Campbell’s production dropped to 1300 yards and Houston failed to make the playoffs while Saints’ rookie running back George Rogers led the league with 1,674 rushing yards, an average of over 104 yards per game.
Judging offensive linemen can be a subjective endeavor because they have few statistics to support them. But anyone who saw Leon Gray at left tackle between 1973 and 1983 knew what they were looking back.
“Leon Gray was everything you wanted as a left tackle,’’ insist long-time Bill Belichick associate Ernie Adams. “There are very few teams in the history of the National Football League that have run the ball over the course of a season for 200 yards a game, the ’76 Patriots and the ’78 Patriots were two of those teams. A lot of that was Sam Cunningham running behind Leon Gray.’’