Ex-Packer keeps positive with kids

Gray emphasis that 'brain power' more important than brute strength

Former Packer safety Johnnie Gray has a message for any kid who knows what it feels like to be picked last for a team.

Don't give up - being a successful athlete has more to do with brain power than bench press prowess.

"We want to give hope to the kids who have been told they weren't good enough, not fast enough, or not as athletic as other kids," Gray said during a visit to Green Bay Packers' Youth Football Camp in Kenosha, Wis. this week. "The best thing we can do is let these kids know that education is still the key. Keep working at it. Be intelligent. Be a good student. Read and find information that will help you reach your goals."

His advice combined athletics and life skills, which is a focus of the Packers' traveling camps. The message that sportsmanship, self-esteem and confidence are integral parts of a complete athlete was the underlying theme of the camps' six venues throughout the state. Kenosha is the final stop, wrapping up just as training camp gets under way.

The camp run by ProSports of Green Bay is aimed at kids six to 14 years old, and headed by camp director Keith VandenHeuvel, assistant football coach at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. To promote the themes of leadership, discipline and teamwork, the camp staff includes both professional educators and former players. Some, including Gray, fall into both categories.

Gray was one of nine men, including John Anderson, Bob Long, Dexter McNabb and Bill Schroeder, on the Packer Camp Heroes roster this summer. As he shared stories of inspiration with young athletes on a sunny Kenosha morning, their unwavering attention let the former Packer know his message reached a new generation.

"I look at their eyes and it reminds me of what it was like. It keeps my memories alive," Gray said.

Gray said he speaks from experience when he tells youngsters not to be discouraged by a lack of speed or size. His path to the NFL isn't typical superstar stuff. Gray didn't play football until his senior year in high school. The journey then detoured through Hancock (Calif.) Junior College before reaching Cal State Fullerton where Gray quickly earned notice as an All-Pacific Coast selection. Gray wasn't picked in the 1975 NFL draft, but signed with the Pack as a free agent soon after.

The former Californian's determination and work ethic helped him earn a starting spot as a rookie. He held on to it for his entire Packer career.

"I made it in the NFL at 5-foot-11 and with a 4.65 40 (yard dash). I listened to what the coaches said, did what the coaches told me to do. I paid attention and I lasted 10 years," Gray said. "If kids keep that attitude, they will be successful," Gray said. "If not as a football player, than as a doctor or a teacher."

Gray's work ethic is still in full swing. As his off-season responsibilities wind down, the full-time Green Bay-area resident is ready for another year of sharing his affable Packer expertise all over the airwaves. Beginning this week with training camp, the 2005 slate will find him working for Green Bay's Fox TV affiliate, and doing radio for WDUZ 107.5 FM The Fan. He's in demand as a print analyst, too, with a couple of venues vying for his column this season.

When he's not working in the media, Gray's other ventures include working with children in DePere, Wis. schools and youth football program. That definitely keeps him young, but he got some gentle reminders at camp that time, indeed, marches on.

"The kids bring an autograph home from camp, and they come back and say their grandparents, not their parents, told them they remember."

Laura Veras Marran

Editor's note: Laura Veras Marran grew up in Green Bay, Wis., and is a longtime sportswriter. Her column appears on Sundays on PackerReport.com.

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