A shudder went trough the stands as Bob Helmbacher kicked a fourth-period field goal that gave the Jayhawks a 17-15 lead.
As the Tigers' kick-returning unit took the field, Dan Devine had his last hunch as Missouri coach. Mel Gray had been an extremely frustrated player as a senior. A big-play performer for a big-play ball club the year before, he was double-teamed as a senior and found that the passers could not get the ball to him. Or when they did, he would be over-eager and botch it. With a tender shoulder he ran back kickoffs with less than all-out enthusiasm and was relieved of the duties a couple of games earlier.
But now, Dan Devine, his voice pitched high in the emotion and commotion of the sidelines, called out, "Mel ... Mel Gray" and shoved him out onto the field with the receiving unit. Gray caught the kickoff and came up the middle so fast that it was no contest by the time he reached midfield. Gray's "jaunt," as [Kansas coach] Pepper Rodgers wryly called it, went for 97 yards and was the backbreaker by which Missouri won, 28-17.
-- Bob Broeg's Ol' Mizzou: A Story of Missouri Football
Mel Gray was both blessed and cursed by both time and timing. He was forced to spend a little bit of eligibility at Fort Scott Junior College in Kansas, and he fought through a disappointing senior season that saw Mizzou lose all sorts of talent from its 1969 squad, struggle with injury, and fall from 9-2 (averaging 33.2 points per game) to 5-6 (22.1). But on the loaded 1969 squad, he was Terry McMillan's Jeremy Maclin, someone blessed with both absurd speed and even better football speed. In his first game as a Missouri Tiger, he caught a 79-yard bomb from McMillan. In his last, he beat Kansas with a 97-yard kick return.
He was Mizzou's first deep-threat at receiver -- the Tigers have since been blessed with many, from Henry Marshall to Danario Alexander -- but he makes this list not only because of his football ability, but also because of his world-class track and field prowess. He was twice an All-American in outdoor track, once indoors. He won the 100-meter title at the Drake Relays. He was a five-time Big 8 champion, and at the time of his Mizzou Hall of Fame induction in 1993, he was still the school's record holder in the 60, 100, and 220-yard dashes. He ran 9.3 in the 100-yard dash. 9.3!
That Gray went on to have a fantastic NFL career is just a (large) bonus. A sixth-round pick for the St. Louis Cardinals, he was named to both the 1974 and 1975 all-pro teams and made four straight Pro Bowls from 1974-77. He averaged at least 17.7 yards per catch in each of his first 10 seasons in the league and scored 46 career touchdowns, and he was probably the league's best deep threat in his prime. From 1974-78, Gray caught 205 passes for 4,035 yards (19.7 per catch) and scored 28 touchdowns. As means of comparison, in that same time period (1974-78) Lynn Swann caught 199 passes for 3,174 yards and 34 touchdowns.
Mel Gray was really, really good, in other words.