Back, spine injury forces Seahawks' Gray to retire after 15 seasons

8/4/2008 - NFL Chris Gray Seattle Seahawks + more

KIRKLAND, Wash. -- The last day of Chris Gray's unsung career was the first day he got star treatment.

"So this is what [Matt] Hasselbeck goes through every day," the invaluable yet relatively anonymous Seahawks offensive lineman joked as he sat in front of cameras and microphones Monday to announce he was retiring on the eve of his 16th NFL season.

At least he could joke. And walk.

Seattle's record holder for consecutive games played at 121 from 1999 to 2006 is retiring because of a lower back and spine injury that had doctors telling him he risked paralysis if he continued playing.

"There wasn't much of a choice. Once they told me the seriousness, I couldn't risk being confined to a wheelchair just to play a 16th year," the 38-year-old Gray said.

That was after a handshake and warm pat on the back from Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, one of 11 passers and two Hall of Famers Gray protected as a center and guard for Miami, Chicago and Seattle since 1993.

Gray made his announcement nine days after he felt his back pop while hitting a blocking sled in training camp. Then Saturday, three team doctors told him he should quit while he could literally walk away.

"I have two young kids and a wife who has supported me the whole time. It would be fun to spend time with them," while healthy, Gray said in his Southern drawl of spouse Julie, daughter Grace and son Matthew.

He is the second Seahawk forced into retirement by a potentially crippling injury in 10 months. Former Pro Bowl fullback Mack Strong quit last October after waking up for a game in Pittsburgh with his arm tingling. Doctors told the 36-year-old Strong he had a herniated disk in his neck that was pinching his spinal cord.

Doctors -- including team physician Stan Herring, a spine specialist -- told Gray as long as he rehabilitates and stays away from 320-pound defensive lineman banging into him, he should maintain relatively good health. That will allow him to pursue his next job he joked about.

"I'm talking to the team about a marketing deal. Kind of like the Brett Favre thing, you know?" he said, a reference to the reported megamillions the Green Bay Packers offered the now un-retired quarterback in vain to stay away from training camp.

"It's not for $20 million. But a couple hundred Gs? It would work," Gray deadpanned.

Just because Gray's decision was clear doesn't mean it was easy.

"The last two days, every time I started talking to someone, I started crying," the 6-foot-4, 305-pounder said of the end to what he's done every summer since he was in sixth grade in Birmingham, Ala.

"All of a sudden -- whoo -- it just cut off. It's kind of a shock.

"But it's been a fun ride."

It started as a fifth-round draft choice by the Dolphins out of Auburn in 1993. After blocking for Dan Marino as a starter for three seasons, Gray went to Chicago for one year. Then Seattle signed him in 1998. His first eight starts for the Seahawks was at center because Kevin Glover's back was injured. He also snapped for field goals and extra points.

Gray replaced Glover again in 1999 when Glover had a blood clot. He didn't leave the lineup for the next eight seasons, despite countless aches and even microfracture knee surgery at the beginning of this decade that he says should have ended his career.

An old Dolphins offensive linemate taught him perseverance.

"Ron Heller told me the fastest way out of the NFL is to get hurt," Gray said, prophetically. "I always prided myself on being able to play through pain.

"I've been fortunate to play 15 years."

With little fanfare but the appreciation and trust of an entire franchise, Gray started 146 of 147 regular-season and playoff games, through the 2006 Super Bowl and last January's playoff loss at Green Bay. His only miss was the 2006 regular-season finale at Tampa Bay, when Gray had a thigh injury and the Seahawks had their playoff position clinched.

Coaches told him he was going to be a backup center and guard this season.

Gray's response: Whatever

"I've heard that for 10 years," he said.

"I'm not the biggest, fastest or strongest guy, but I knew what to do and how to prepare. Ninety-five percent of the time I got the job done. And that was enough to be in the Super Bowl."