The name Tony Gray may not resonate in New Mexico sports lore like those of Tommy McDonald, Gray’s football and track teammate at Highland High School, or Don Perkins, his football teammate at the University of New Mexico.
Perkins and McDonald, of course, went on to storied careers in the NFL. Gray did not.
Yet, pro career or no pro career, Gray’s name is one worth remembering – and his contributions to New Mexico sports worth celebrating.
Gray, a fleet, elusive running back and kick returner who with Perkins helped usher in what can be called the golden era of UNM football, died in Albuquerque on May 13. He was 86.
Born in southwestern New York state, Gray came to Albuquerque with his family at a young age. And between 1951, when he terrorized the city’s junior high football defenses for the Jefferson Jets, and 1958, when he and Perkins gave Lobo football a much-needed, most welcome transfusion of success, his name was to be found in the Albuquerque Journal sports section almost with the regularity of Dukes baseball or ads for Cook’s Sporting Goods.
As a ninth-grader at Jefferson in 1951, Gray – referred to throughout his teen years as Anthony – scored two touchdowns, one on a 90-yard run, as the Jets beat Ernie Pyle 18-0. In a 19-18 loss to the Albuquerque High JV, he returned a kickoff 95 yards for a score.
As a Highland sophomore, Gray and McDonald, then a senior, formed a devastating backfield combo. That October, they scored three touchdowns apiece as the Hornets set a city scoring record in a 93-0 pasting of El Paso Jefferson.
After McDonald departed for what would become an All-America career at Oklahoma, Gray was not left without a partner in the HHS backfield.
“Tony’s touchdown twin was Dewey Bohling,” Joan Gray, Tony’s wife, said in a phone interview. “… From what I’ve read in the clippings, he and Dewey were a pretty good team. Dewey would blast through the line and Tony would fly through it.”
Tony could fly, all right. Coach Hugh Hackett’s Hornets won the big-school state track title in all three of Gray’s varsity seasons, though injuries kept him out of the state meet his senior year.
As a junior, Gray was high-point man in the state meet – winning the 100-yard dash in 10.1 seconds, anchoring the Hornets’ winning 440 and 880 relay teams and setting a state record in the long jump (22 feet, 51/8 inches).
His high school football career culminated in a 1954 Class AA state title.
That season, Gray, the Hornets’ place-kicker as well as their principal running threat, scored a total of 139 points (20 touchdowns, 19 PATs).
In September, he returned two punts for touchdowns in a 20-7 victory over Alamogordo.
Then, on Nov. 27, Gray scored 14 of the Hornets’ 20 points as they upset Artesia, 20-0, in the state championship game. He scored on runs of 85 and 56 yards and booted two extra points.
After high school, Joan Gray said, Gray had an appointment to attend the newly opened Air Force Academy. But, already married to his first wife, Kay, with a family on the way, he opted to stay in Albuquerque.
Gray excelled for the UNM freshman team in 1955 – freshmen were ineligible for varsity play at the time – but painful calcium deposits kept him off the field in 1956 as a sophomore. He would play only two years of varsity football, opting to graduate in the spring of 1959, as a 23-year-old with a wife and two young daughters, rather than return for a redshirt senior year.
The 1957 season started swimmingly for the Lobos, with four wins in their first five games and their first victory over Arizona since 1940. But a 21-6 upset loss at Montana the following week started a tailspin from which the team never emerged, finishing 4-6. Gray rushed for 297 yards on 60 attempts, a 5.0 average per carry, with Perkins (744 yards on 112 carries) doing the heavy lifting.
In the offseason, head coach Dick Clausen left to become athletic director at Arizona. Marv Levy, an assistant on Clausen’s staff, replaced him. The season began modestly with a victory over New Mexico State and a loss to Texas Western (now UTEP).
It was an Oct. 4 game against Montana, which had dealt the Lobos such a crushing blow the season before, that lit the fire. That evening at Zimmerman Stadium, the Lobos ran over, around and through the Grizzlies en route to a 44-16 victory.
Front and center in the rout was not Perkins, but Gray. The Highland grad scored three touchdowns, one on an 86-yard punt return that still stands – though tied by Marcus Hayes vs. Boise State in 2018 – as a UNM record.
The Montana victory launched the Lobos on a five-game winning streak and an eventual record of 7-3, UNM’s first winning season since 1951. Thriving under coaches Levy and Bill Weeks, the Lobos would not have another losing season until 1965 – going 48-23-1 from 1958-64 and winning or sharing the first three Western Athletic Conference titles.
Joan Gray said she believes Gray got feelers from the Baltimore Colts after college, but family concerns and his size – he played his UNM senior year at 154 pounds – dictated against a pro career. His last appearance in a football uniform was for a Lobo alumni team in a 1961 spring game against the varsity.
Gray worked for a time for Standard Oil in Casper, Wyoming, then came home to Albuquerque and an insurance career with Allstate.
But, once a competitor, always a competitor. Gray, a scratch golfer, won an Arroyo del Oso club championship in 1992.
“He never lost that (competitive drive). … He loved beating the younger guys (on the golf course),” said Joan Gray, a 1965 Manzano graduate who as Joan Pearl met Gray when they both worked at Allstate. They married in 1988.
Gray is survived by his wife; two daughters, Dawn Martinez and Keri Golden, and five grandchildren; and brothers Jesse and Don. Another brother, Mark, is deceased.