Johnnie Gray to receive Starr character award

Richard Ryman
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GREEN BAY - Standing in Bart Starr's kitchen while Cherry Starr cooked supper 42 years ago was not where rookie safety Johnnie Gray wanted to be after having visited several local watering holes.

But standing in front of 1,300 Packers fans later this summer while Bart Starr Jr. presents him with the Bart and Cherry Starr Recognition Award is a spoiler that the kitchen episode didn't turn out so bad for Gray. He will receive the award at the sold-out Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Lambeau Field on July 22, when Donald Driver and Mark Lee are inducted into hall.

Gray, who played from 1975-83, is effusive in praise of the Starrs, especially, Bart, his former coach, whom he credits with teaching him to be a professional and an involved community member.

"All the things I learned from him were passed down from Vince (Lombardi): be on time, be disciplined, have a work ethic and remember Packers fans," Gray said.

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An interview with Gray and Hall of Fame representatives about the award turned into a session of Bart Starr stories, including the one about Gray's early training camp experience.

Gray was usually the last player in the locker room. One day after practice, a business associate of Starr's asked Gray if he wanted to get supper with him. Instead, Gray found himself bouncing from bar to bar until finally he reminded his host of the supper offer. The guy said, "Sure, I know a  place," and he drove Gray to a house, which set the rookie's radar pinging. The driver said, "Let's get Cherry to fix us something."

"I said 'No! No!' I was sweating bullets," Gray recalled.

And then Starr came home, only adding to Gray's already extreme discomfort.

"This is my rookie year. I'm thinking I'm not going to have a job in the morning," he said.

Instead, Starr took him through the house and showed him photos of the Lombardi years.

"They were so genuine," he said of the Starrs.

Come morning, Gray still had a job, but the pressure never lessened.The Packers told him to just go out and kick butt, then gave him the same number — 24 — as future Pro Football Hall of Fame member Willie Wood (to say nothing of Johnny "Blood" McNally and Mike Michalske, also Pro Football Hall of Fame members).

Gray excelled for the Packers, starting in 124 games over nine years. He had 22 interceptions and 22 fumble recoveries, was considered one of the hardest hitters in the NFL, and was inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame in 1993.

But the Bart and Cherry Starr Recognition Award doesn't honor skill on the football field specifically. Rather, it recognizes a person who has exemplified outstanding character and leadership in their field of expertise while consistently demonstrating a personal conviction and commitment to the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame and the preservation of Packers history.

In addition to being a uniform inspector at Lambeau Field for the NFL and making appearances on local broadcasts of Packers games, Gray is an instructional aide at Syble Hopp School, which focuses on educating students with disabilities from ages 3 to 21. A member of the Packers board of directors, he continues to speak to groups, especially those with children.

"He helps promote Packers history," said Perry Kidder, Hall of Fame past president. "These kids are born into it, but Johnnie can make that come alive. That's important to us."

Kidder said Gray gets tapped a lot for personal appearances because he lives here.

"It's just Johnnie representing the Green Bay Packers and the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame," said Denny Tattum, vice president of sales and marketing for the hall. "The man does it with such professionalism and class."

Starr wanted players to stay in Green Bay to participate in offseason conditioning programs, but also to speak to groups and participate in other community events. He said the more players got into the community, the more they were part of it.

"Bart and Cherry lived here. Bart said these fans will support you through thin and thick," Gray said. "They are just always there. Bart would say they will treat you like family."

And that proved to be true in Gray's experience.

"They've always been that way," he said. "It's nice to be asked and to be involved in charitable outings."

So Gray, who was raised in California and wanted to be a baseball player, learned about the Packers, their history and their relationship to Green Bay. He stayed here, built a life here and over the years was involved with Special Olympics, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Cerebral Palsy, March of Dimes, Boy Scouts, and Boys & Girls Club of Green Bay, among others.

"These things I did, this is what Bart and Cherry instilled in me," Gray said.

Bart and Cherry Starr Recognition Award

2017: Johnnie Gray, Packers director and Hall of Fame member 

2016: Michael Gage, Hall of Fame president 

2015: Tom Hutchison, Hall of Fame director 

2014: Herman Reckelberg, Hall of Fame and Packers director 

2013: Bill Brault, Hall of Fame founder and Hall of Fame member

2012: Bob Harlan, Packers chairman, president and CEO and Hall of Fame member

Packers Hall of Fame Inc. leadership

President: Tom Konop

Vice president/secretary: Tom Murphy

Treasurer: Randy Brice

Past president: Perry Kidder

Other executive committee members: Denny Tattum, Donald Sipes, Jim Feenstra and John Smits

New directors: Jennifer Ark, Mark Higgins, Chris Nerat, Aaron Popkey, Scott Teerlinck and Jason Wied.

Former Packers safety Johnnie Gray received the Bart & Cherry Starr Recognition Award Saturday from the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
Packers alumni Johnnie Gray helps a student during the Green Bay Packers Youth Football Outreach Camp at Syble Hopp School in De Pere.
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