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Jim McBride | Sunday football notes

John Hannah ideal choice to honor ex-teammate, good friend Leon Gray

Leon Gray (right) opens a hole for Sam Cunningham to break free during a 1973 Patriots game.
Leon Gray (right) opens a hole for Sam Cunningham to break free during a 1973 Patriots game.(Globe File photo)

The memories of Leon Gray are still so colorfully vivid for John Hannah that the legendary left guard likely will be touching on some of his favorites later this month.

Hannah will be back on familiar Foxborough turf to tell tales of how he and Gray turned one particular patch of Route 1 into their personal stomping grounds during a six-year run in the 1970s.

Hannah will make an induction speech on behalf of Gray, who is being posthumously enshrined into the Patriots Hall of Fame on July 29.

“Honestly, ’bout time,’’ Hannah said Friday when asked about his initial reaction to news that came in April. “For some reason Leon never got the credit that he was due. He was as good of an offensive tackle as there ever was and he somehow just never got the notoriety and stuff like that he deserved from the press.’’

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Gray’s résumé is impressive. Three All-Pro selections, four Pro Bowl invites, and the gratitude of countless running backs and quarterbacks he bore holes for and protected during his career.

Few could have predicted Gray’s productivity after an inauspicious start to his NFL career. He was cut by the Dolphins as a rookie third-round pick out of Jackson State, where he played on a music scholarship. New England coach Chuck Fairbanks snapped him up on waivers for less than a song.

“People don’t know this, but he was an unbelievable trumpet player,’’ said Hannah. “[In college], he’d go and play the first half, then take off his shoulder pads and jersey, pick up his trumpet, and then put on the band blouse and hat and he’d go out and play.’’

Arriving from Miami, Hannah remembers Fairbanks putting the 295-pound Gray, who was known as “Big Dog” because of size, on a diet.

Nowadays an offensive tackle reporting in at 295 pounds would be escorted straight to the cafeteria and then the weight room.

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“What was amazing was, even before he went on a diet, he had feet that were unbelievable,’’ said Hannah. “He was like a ballerina out there, I guess, the way he could just dance in front of a guy. He just had unbelievable lateral movement and just very athletic. You knew he was going to be a dominant player.’’

Offensive line coach Red Miller installed Hannah at left guard and Gray at right tackle to learn alongside veteran left tackle Bob Reynolds and right guard Lenny St. Jean.

“That first year I was so worried about trying to learn the game that I didn’t get to know Leon very well,’’ said Hannah. “So, it was just about trying to stay alive, I guess, for that period because I had come out of a wishbone [at Alabama] and I didn’t even know how to get in a three-point stance because we did a four-point stance. So, I had to re-learn everything I had been taught.’’

After that apprentice season, Hannah and Gray roomed together during training camps and on road trips.

They developed a chemistry on and off the field and became one of the most dominant left sides in the history of the game.

With Hannah at guard and Gray at tackle, the Patriots averaged a franchise-record 210.6 yards rushing in 1976. The next season, the team allowed a franchise-low 14 sacks. In 1978, Gray’s final season in New England, the Patriots rushed for 3,165 yards — an NFL record that still stands.

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Hannah, an Alabama native, and Gray, who grew up in Mississippi, were not only a galvanizing force on the field, they had developed a deep friendship off it.

“The first time we really got to know each other was when we first started rooming together when the camp moved from Amherst to Smithfield [R.I.],’’ said Hannah. “We were rooming and just talking and getting to know each other and we just talked about the way we grew up, what we were going through, and things like that and we found out that basically we grew up the same way. Southern boys eating the same things, doing the same things, and everything else.’’

Finding comfort food was a challenge for Hannah, who had spent his whole life in Alabama.

“I looked at Leon one time and I said, ‘You know what I miss most about being in Boston?’ and he said, ‘What?’ and I said, ‘I can’t ever find any good Southern cooking.’ ’’

Gray, however, had a solution.

“It was kind of funny, this happened during the busing issues in Boston, there was real heated times in some areas where they were integrating the schools north,’’ recalled Hannah. “Leon said to me, ‘Well, I know a place, but you’ll need to go with me a few times first.’

“So anyway, we went over to Bob the Chef’s in Mattapan and he let me eat and man I had me some ribs, some black-eyed peas, some collards, and I was in heaven,’’ said Hannah.

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Hannah went back a few more times before Gray gave him the OK to be on his own.

“He introduced me to the people and let them know that I was OK and finally started taking the family in there,’’ he said. “That’s just the kind of relationship we had — it was just a whole lot of fun.’’

The busing issue was a sensitive topic and Hannah and Gray could relate to it and, as recognizable leaders in the community, they did their best to help.

“We did a lot during that busing stuff, we’d go around to all the schools in Southie and Charlestown, around in there, and talk to the kids,’’ said Hannah. “And we’d try to let them understand that we grew up in the ’60s in the South and we understood what they were going through, and we’d try to help them understand that those differences aren’t real differences.’’

It was hard not to notice how Hannah and Gray always seemed to be on the same page and in the right spot.

“We used to have a football camp for my little hometown in the summertime and Leon was unbelievable with kids. He loved kids and kids loved him,’’ said Hannah. “Each day one of the guys would talk about a position skill. So, one day Leon and I were talking about offensive line play and we were demonstrating things. And when we got through, a friend of mine, Ken Hutcherson, who played in Seattle said, ‘Man, y’all look like a dance team out there, you just move together perfectly.’ And that didn’t come by accident. We worked very, very hard at coordinating.’’

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Sam Cunningham, the recipient of an untold amount of crushing blocks that led to gaping running lanes, remembered Gray as a player who could be fiery yet had the ability to keep things light.

“He was like a big leprechaun,’’ Cunningham said with a belly laugh. “Not a little leprechaun. He always brought something to the table that kept us loose, kept us ready to play through everything every day.’’

Following that historic 1978 season, where the Patriots had four players rush for 500-plus yards (Cunningham, Andy Johnson, Horace Ivory, and Steve Grogan), both players were due for new contracts and the Patriots decided to pay Hannah and trade Gray to the Houston Oilers for a first-round pick.

“Probably the maddest I’ve ever been in my life,’’ Hannah recalled. “I went to Billy Sullivan and basically told him he was stupid. That he didn’t care anything about winning. And that all he cared about was money and that he just traded away the best player we had. And that he was the dumbest guy I ever met in my life and everything else. We were in Smithfield, R.I. [for camp] and I remember sitting there on the sofa steaming and he walked by and I lit into him. It was awful. He didn’t care about the team — anybody that would trade Leon away was an idiot.”

Both players continued to enjoy success after the trade, but you can still hear the disappointment in Hannah’s voice.

“You know, I never was as good after Leon left,’’ he said. “Offensive linemen depend on each other. They help each other. And when Leon left I never was as good as I could have been, and I wonder if he felt the same way. I would hope he felt the same way about missing me.’’

Asked just how dominant a player Gray was, Hannah paused and chuckled.

“Well, I guess I don’t know what to tell you. We had a weakside running attack, right? And he could control anyone in front of him — he was just that dominant,’’ he said. “We blocked for Bam [Cunningham] and all those guys and then when the Sullivans traded [Gray] away he goes and blocks for Earl Campbell and he sets rushing records. So, you tell me how dominant he was.

“You’ve got to have a guy that’s making holes for those guys to create the yards that they created and mounted up. You want to find out how dominant he was, ask Earl or ask Sam. They loved the guy because he was such a dominant blocker.’’

Gray died of natural causes in 2001, just shy of his 50th birthday.

LIGHTER LOAD

Gronk as a wide receiver: possible

Rob Gronkowski has said he’s not coming out of retirement, but if he does, could he be used as a wide receiver to put less stress on his body?
Rob Gronkowski has said he’s not coming out of retirement, but if he does, could he be used as a wide receiver to put less stress on his body?(Steven Senne/AP/File)

Tight end Rob Gronkowski won’t be reporting for duty when veterans are due in Wednesday. But could wide receiver Rob Gronkowski report to Foxborough at a later date in 2019?

The hottest Patriots question of the summer has been will Gronkowski unretire? It flares up frequently.

There’s been plenty of conspiracy theories to chew on.

The case against him returning: He’s too skinny. He’s enjoying his red-carpet rides.

The case in favor of him returning: He’s told Drew Brees, “Yeah, I’m coming back.” He’s played catch out west with Tom Brady.

So, here’s an idea that could be a happy medium for everybody. Sign up Gronkowski for some lighter duty — literally and figuratively.

Related: Rob Gronkowski dispels comeback rumors: ‘You can put them to rest’

Gronkowski is a savant when it comes to this offense, so he could return at any time and have an impact. By turning him into a hybrid receiver and reducing or eliminating his duties as an in-line blocker, he would save untold wear and tear on his body. Sure, it’s still physically taxing to run routes (both targeted and decoyed) but it’s a lot better than slamming into defensive ends and linebackers on a ton of snaps.

Gronkowski talked often about “grinding it out” but if he were to miss training camp and, say, the first eight weeks of the season, it would be a much easier grind.

In other Gronkowski news, the big galoot has always been generous with his time and his compassion. It’s tremendous to see that he is still visiting with children, producing smiles, and granting wishes. A giant kid himself, there’s few things better than seeing Gronkowski spread his joy around.

ETC.

Hill is deserving of a suspension

The NFL will not suspend Tyreek Hill after a domestic violence investigation surrounding Hill and his 3-year-old son was dropped.
The NFL will not suspend Tyreek Hill after a domestic violence investigation surrounding Hill and his 3-year-old son was dropped.(Charlie Riedel/AP)

“You need to be terrified of me, too.’’

Can’t help but continue to come back to Tyreek Hill’s words after the NFL announced Friday the Chiefs receiver would not face suspension under its personal conduct policy relating to a domestic violence case involving his 3-year-old son, who had suffered a broken arm.

Hill said those words to his fiancée, Crystal Espinal, after she told Hill their son was terrified of him.

The NFL said it has been allowed access to information in court proceedings about the case. In June, a district attorney said an investigation was halted after it couldn’t be proven who injured the boy.

In a statement, the league said, “based on the evidence presently available, the NFL cannot conclude that Mr. Hill violated the Personal Conduct Policy.’’

The words “you need to be terrified of me, too” is pretty compelling evidence that Hill needs to be held accountable and penalized for his behavior. How are those threatening words not a violation of the personal conduct policy?

Hill was dismissed from the Oklahoma State football team in 2014 after his arrest on domestic abuse charges for strangling Espinal. He pleaded guilty to that charge, served three years probation. Hill has since denied he harmed Espinal. His record was expunged after he completed his probation requirements.

This would have seemed like an ideal time for the league to throw a yellow flag and send a strong message about domestic violence. Instead, it threw up a white flag.

Extra points

One leftover nugget from the conversation with John Hannah as he touched on how much bigger offensive linemen are now compared with his day. “Well, it’s a different game,’’ he said. “They don’t have to be quite as mobile as we did because of the way they run their offense. Their running game is not what I would call an attack-type offense. It’s more of a you-stay-with-your-man and the back finds a hole. Whereas when we played, we created holes.’’ . . . Let me preface this by saying I’ve never played a second of Madden in my life, but I still loved Jason McCourty’s reaction to his “ranking” on the game. “LOL. To be honest I could care less. I haven’t played a game of Madden since 2010. I got too many kids now lol.’’ . . . Can’t imagine the Redskins were too thrilled with one aspect of Josh Norman’s offseason conditioning program. The cornerback didn’t just run with bulls at Pamplona — he hopped over one. Twice. Norman, 31, said it brought him “peace and joy.’’ He also told NFL Network’s Rich Eisen that it felt like “somebody else took control” of his body during the jump. It’s quite possible somebody else took control of his mind, too . . . Running backs Sony Michel and James White will host the New England Women’s Football Clinic on Sept. 23 from 6-9:30 p.m. at Gillette Stadium. The clinic is open for women 21 years and older and more information can be found at newenglandfootballclinic.com . . . The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced this week that Ty Law will be presented for induction this summer by childhood friend Byron Washington . . . As a reminder, in addition to L eon Gray, Rodney Harrison also will be enshrined in the Patriots Hall of Fame. The ceremony is Monday, July 29, at 4:30 p.m., and is free and open to the public.


Jim McBride can be reached at james.mcbride@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globejimmcbride. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.