I did a trade with Jake, a friend and member of the autograph group I run on Facebook. I had recently gotten a Jamaal Charles autograph in person on a card he needed, but I liked some of the Action Packed autographs that he was offering up, so I switched him for Rodney Peete and Mel Gray on their cards, knowing that they were not great signers, that they were set needs, and that he had probably gotten this through a paid signing.
Lonnie Turner took a very unique route to the WLAF after playing for Cal Poly Pomona under Roman Gabriel: He played in the USFL from 1983 to 1985. During that period he played one season each for LA (3 catches for 41 yards), Oklahoma (27 receptions for 399 yards and 2 TDs), and Denver (29 receptions for 388 yards). After brief stops with the Cardinals and later the Atlanta Falcons, he’d join the Arena football league, and play for Pittsburgh in 1988. Boasting experience in the Run N Shoot offense, Lonnie signed with the Lions in 1990, but was unable to make the squad. This however got him back onto the radar of the WLAF, and the New York- New Jersey Knights who were coached by former Lions offensive coordinator Mouse Davis.
Lonnie was selected in the WLAF supplemental draft by the Knights. A long in the tooth veteran at 30 years old, Lonnie was one of the oldest players on the team. He paid dividends in 1991, leading NY-NJ with 41 receptions (5th in league) for 629 yards (7th) and caught his only touchdown of the season versus the Montreal Machine. In 1992, Lonnie caught 36 passes for 437 yards and 2 TDs- including a 50 yarder.
With the WLAF reorganizing after the 1992 season, Turner packed his bags for a quick stop with the British Columbia Lions of the CFL in 1993. He posted 27 receptions for 420 yards and 2 TDs, 11 kick returns for 196 yards, and 38 punts for 270 yards. – As a pro, this represented his most productive season- but this was his first and last foray into the CFL.
A few years passed, and Lonnie appears again in the Arena Football League. This time he picks up in 1996 with the Tampa Bay Storm, and along with that 43 receptions for 576 yards and 9 TDs. He’d join the Nashville Kats in 1997 and play there through 1998. With the Kats in 1997 he’d have another solid season (35 receptions, 485 yards, 9 TDs, 28 kick returns, 460 yards, and 1 TD), and then close out his career playing football with one final season in Nashville with 20 receptions for 193 yards and 3 TDs, and 16 kick returns for 251 yards.
I have been tracking Lonnie for some time. With his unique and interesting playing history, I figured that he’d at least be on Wikipedia, but his trail is mysteriously cold. Even USFL fans couldn’t tell me where he was at. It didn’t help that there are actually other Lonnie Turners out there in the world who played and coached football, but after a lot of perseverance, I was able to find him coaching in Los Angeles. He’s apparently spent a lot of time at the high school level and has now climbed into the college ranks.
Mel Gray is an impossible respondent to get through the mail, so I jumped at the chance to get him through a paid signing on these 3 cards. He’s always remained near the top of my list to get TTM due to his lack of respect from HoF voters. Gray along with guys like Eric Metcalf are truly electric players who ground up yardage as dangerous return specialists, daring other teams to punt and kick away from them or converted the critical 3rd down motioning out of the backfield and catching a short pass, dodging a few would be tacklers, and turning it into a 12 yard gain.
I most remember Mel Gray from his days on the Detroit Lions, the twilight days of the Houston Oilers, and as a multifaceted talent on Tecmo Super Bowl. The game really nailed him, allowing you to shift Gray from wide receiver to runningback without blinking an eye.
Mel’s playing days started at Purdue where he was a star at runningback and wide receiver for the Boilermakers. He’d earn Big 10 honors and several All-American Honors during his time there as their featured back. Mel made the transition to the USFL in 1984 for the LA Express, and then was later traded to the Oklahoma Outlaws. After the league folded, Mel Gray was selected in the NFL Supplemental Draft of USFL and CFL players. Selected by the New Orleans Saints, Mel burst on to the scene with a 27.9 kick off return average and a 101 yard TD against the 49ers in his second game in 1986. Gray led the league with a 14.7 yard punt return average in 1987, and scored on his first TD on a punt return the following year. He hopped Plan B to Detroit in 1989.
Gray earned All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors in 1990 and 1991 as he led the league in multiple categories. He’d return to the Pro Bowl in 1992, and earn AP and Pro Bowl honors a last time in 1994. His 1994 season was one of the best in NFL history, as Gray returned 45 kicks for 1276 yards (28.4 average) and 3 touchdowns. In 1995, Mel cashed in and signed as a free agent with the Houston Oilers, a move at the time I lauded, but really didn’t pan out. The Oilers hadn’t really had a marquee name work out as a returner in quite some time, and at the age of 34, I’m not sure really what the Oilers envisioned for Mel to do, in retrospect other than return kicks. In 1997 Gray made the transition to Tennessee with the team, but was cut midway through the season saving the team $200k. He finished the year with the Eagles, and retired. At the time Mel had the most career yards kick returning in NFL history, tied for the lead for career TDs on kick returns – since surpassed. Still Mel clings on to his record for being the oldest player to score a KR TD in NFL history (33). As a pure specialist, Mel may never get his due from the Pro Football HoF, but he still ranks among the most memorable players ever to return the rock.