The Case for the Defence (CFL): Herb Gray

The Case for the Defence (CFL): Herb Gray
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The Case for the Defense: Herb Gray.

CFL Free agency was busy again this year. Arguably the biggest signing was when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers retained Outstanding defensive player of the year Willie Jefferson.

All of which got me to thinking. We have run a series on all time great CFL special teams players in the past. * So now I think in honour of Willie Jefferson being perhaps the biggest name this time around, we should focus on some defensive greats.

It is time to redress the balance a little. The series itself so far has featured Willie PlessAngelo MoscaDickie HarrisNorm FieldgateWayne HarrisBill Baker, & Jim Corrigall. Now it is time to look at another great defensive player from the CFL annals. Step forward Blue Bombers great Herb Gray.

Herb Gray provided a dominant decade for Winnipeg

For a decade, from 1956-1965 Herb Gray was at the heart of the D on a successful Winnipeg Blue Bombers team.

An All-American guard with the Texas Longhorns in 1955 Gray was drafted by the Baltimore Colts of the NFL. However he chose to head north to the CFL because the Bombers were offering him more money (how times change!).

Of course it could all have been very different, because he actually planned to leave the Bombers after the 1956 season, having fallen out with head Coach Allie Sherman. However Bud Grant took over as coach and convinced him to stay. They would go on to have great success together.

Over the ensuing 9 seasons Gray and the Blue Bombers would appear in 6 Grey Cups winning on 4 occasions.

Herb was the team’s defensive captain throughout this period. They had particular success from 1958-1962 when the team went 63-17, appeared in 5 consecutive Western Finals and won the Grey Cup in 1958, 1959, 1961 & 1962.

You can’t compare the numbers

People always want to make comparisons across generations. That is difficult enough given that the game has morphed so much over the years. But it is made all the harder the further back you go.

Simply because the stats we keep now weren’t being kept back then. Herb Gray is a perfect example of this. He was clearly a very talented DE as recognized by his peers. Yet there were no defensive tackle or quarterback sack stats kept during the years Gray played, so we cannot point to them to discuss his dominance.

What are on record are 14 career fumble recoveries, 2 career interceptions and 4 career blocked kicks. Which shows some versatility.

Gray was probably happy to point to the 6 Grey Cup appearances and 4 wins as the stat that counted most anyway.

Durability

Herb Gray played as both a guard and a defensive end during his time in Winnipeg.

One thing we shouldn’t overlook is the durability Herb displayed. Playing both ways isn’t easy in itself. To do it on both sides of the line of scrimmage takes great fortitude.

But Gray showed remarkable tenacity, suiting up a remarkable 157 times for the Blue Bombers during the regular season, and across a decade of play missed just 4 games.

The Awards

Herb Gray was named Western All-Star on six consecutive occasions (1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 & 1962).

He was also named a CFL All-Star in 1962. This was the first year CFL All-Star awards were given and you wonder how many more he might have picked up if they’d been doing it earlier in his career.

In 1960 he was selected as the Outstanding Lineman in the league. Making him the first ever defensive player to win this accolade.

Herb was named an original member of the Winnipeg Football Club Hall of Fame in 1984, and the Blue Bombers Ring of Honour in 2016.

Gray was voted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame in 1995 and Induction to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame came back in 1983.

*This included the likes of Pinball ClemonsHenry ‘Gizmo’ WilliamsLui PassagliaBob Cameron, & Dave Cutler. Go take a look if you are interested!

Banner Image: Herb Gray from Pinterest.

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