By Abram Choate, assistant athletic director for sports information and game administration
A version of this article originally appeared in HPU’s Link magazine.
BROWNWOOD – March 31, 2016 – Recent Texas Sports Hall of Fame inductee Ken Gray had great success on the football field for Howard Payne University and the National Football League, but he says what he went through at Howard Payne really made him who he is.
Gray and seven others comprised the Class of 2016 inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame on February 2. The Waco institution houses displays of more than 300 Texas sports legends.
“It’s one thing to make all-district, all-conference, all-pro or all-anything,” says Gray. “But to receive recognition from your peers – to be inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame – it’s icing on the cake.”
Gray says he’s very sincere in being appreciative of everything Howard Payne has meant in his life.
“I know how indebted I am to Howard Payne for the university’s share of the recognition,” he says.
Born in San Saba County to a father who was a heavy-equipment operator during World War II, the Gray family moved around central and west Texas before finally settling in the Llano area. There, Gray became an outstanding high school player.
At a basketball practice during his senior year, 1954, Gray was introduced to Jack Brewer, who was an assistant football coach at HPU. Coach Brewer asked if Gray liked to play football and if he would like to play at Howard Payne.
“‘Yes, sir, I sure would,’” Gray remembers replying. “‘Do you understand I am married and have a child?’”
Not only did Brewer understand, HPU had an opportunity for a job for Gray and a home for the young family.
In the fall of 1954, Gray played his first game as a Yellow Jacket. Howard Payne was handily beating the other team and Gray was put in on defense. Coach Brewer did not like the way he was lining up and asked him what he was doing.
“I guess he thought I was being lazy,” Gray says. “It broke my heart. I thought I would just get on the bus and go back to Llano.”
Coach Brewer then came over to the bench and put his arm around Gray.
“He said, ‘Ken, I’m sorry. It will never happen again,’” Gray recalls. “From then on, I would die for him. That was my introduction to Howard Payne football.
“Coach Brewer was a great, great man. He got the most out of everybody, he was fair and he made men out of a lot of us. I still tear up when I think about him.”
The Howard Payne coaching staff made practices very tough. At that time, the team included several veterans of the Korean War.
“So when an 18-year-old went against a 25-, 26- or even a 29-year-old, you had to battle,” he says. “The things I went through at Howard Payne really made me who I am.”
As a husband and father at HPU, Gray did not have time for much beyond family, football and work. However, he found support among the team’s other married players.
“There were other players who were married with families, so there were others going through the same things,” he says. “All the older guys kind of put an arm around you to take care of you and teach you. Jack Browning and Joe James were older players. Harold Garms was a former service guy.”
Gray graduated from Howard Payne in 1958 with a degree in history and education. He finished Howard Payne as a four-year letterman (1954-1957), where he was All-Lone Star Conference and named to the Little All-American team.
He went on to be drafted in the sixth round (as the 62nd overall pick) of the NFL draft by the Green Bay Packers in 1958 before earning a spot with the Chicago Cardinals. The team eventually moved to St. Louis.
Gray is one of 17 players in Howard Payne history to be drafted into the NFL and one of approximately 30 Yellow Jackets to have played in the NFL or Canadian Football League.
“When I went from Howard Payne to Green Bay, I really could not believe it. This is pro football,” he says.
However, after his experiences playing at Howard Payne, he was prepared.
“The practices were not really that hard. I found making that jump was really easy.”
In an NFL career that spanned 13 seasons, Gray was named an NFL Pro Bowl guard for the St. Louis Cardinals seven times. He would be named consensus All-Pro six times (1963, 1965-1969) and was honored as a First-Team selection twice during that time. He finished his professional career as a Houston Oiler in 1970.
Gray returned to Llano High School as head football coach from 1973 to 1975.
“That turned out to be the most fun I ever had,” he says. “I got to coach my son who turned out to be an All-State player.”
He then spent the 1977-1978 seasons as the Denver Broncos’ offensive line coach. Since then, Gray has become a member of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and Howard Payne University Sports Halls of Fame.
Gray now lives in Kingsland, Texas, with Shirley, his wife of 62 years. He has fond recollections of his days as a student-athlete at HPU.
“The memories are not so much of what happened on the field but the relationships I had with all the players,” he says. “Howard Payne is the kind of place where you can get a good education along with a dose of character building.”
Photo cutlines: Ken and Shirley Gray stand in front of Ken’s display at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame in Waco.
The Grays are pictured with HPU representatives following Ken’s induction into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. Left to right: Abram Choate, HPU’s assistant athletic director for sports information and game administration; Ken Gray; Shirley Gray; and Stephen Sullivan, HPU’s director of development and alumni relations.
Ken Gray is pictured as a football player at HPU.