No Gray area in homecoming

6-6-01, 4:30 p.m.

Updated: 6-6-01, 8:30 p.m.

Updated: 6-7-01, 2:10 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Cornerback Carlton Gray comes home poorer in the wallet but richer in the mind.

As in peace of mind.

"You chase the money and sometimes all the other things get lost," said Gray Wednesday from Los Angeles. "I've been caught up in the business side of football lately, but in this stage of my life different things are more important to me and that's why I'm glad I'm coming home."

Gray, the Forest Park High School product, wanted to knock on wood because his deal with the Bengals was contingent on him passing Thursday's physical in Cincinnati. As expected, there were no physical problems for Gray, a veteran of eight seasons, four teams, and 62 starts in the NFL, and he signed a two-year contract believed to be in the range of minimum salaries worth nearly $1 million.

But Gray, who turns 30 at the end of the month, will be the first to tell you his body isn't banged up. Not after playing just three percent of the defensive snaps last season in Kansas City, where he started one game the past two seasons.

"About the only good thing you can say about the experience in Kansas City is my body is well rested," Gray said. "I feel like I'm only 27. You could say the last two years have been a waste, except that when you're not playing you find out what is important."

What is important now for Gray is to be close to his family, particularly 11-year-old daughter Amber. Amber Gray attends Landmark Christian Academy and, at 5-7, is turning heads as a basketball player.

"She's starting to travel with AAU teams and getting more involved and I want to be there for her," Gray said. "Plus, my foundation is here and it's nice to have a home base when you're doing things like that."

In Gray, the Bengals don't know if they have a starter. But they do know they are getting a GTE Academic All-American at UCLA who is one of those solid locker-room guys they have picked up the past two months a la Richmond Webb and Lorenzo Neal.

They are also getting a player active in his hometown in the John Jackson character mold.

His father, Carlos Gray, a guidance counselor for the Deer Park schools and the Brighton Center, helps him run the Carlton P. Gray Foundation that every year

gives two Winton Woods High School seniors one-year scholarships to the University of Cincinnati.

The foundation also provides the tutorial services for the Winton Woods schools.

"I'm very happy with his decision because I think it's a very mature one," Carlos Gray said. "Nine years is a long time to see things and watch things. He heard from two or three teams, but the important things are here."

Gray has had a curious career since 1997, when he has one more interception (three) than $3 million signing bonuses (two).

"It seems like I've had a knack for going to a place where new (management) comes in and they're looking for their own players," Gray said.

After starting 43 games with Seattle during his first four seasons in the league and picking off nine passes, the Colts gave him his first big contract before the 1997 season. He started 13 games and had two interceptions, but Bill Polian came to Indianapolis as the general manager after the season and pulled a trade for Carolina's Tyrone Poole.

Poole was a cornerback Polian took in the first round when he was at Carolina. After Gray observed publicly he could see the writing on the wall and that Polian was going to bring in his own people, the Colts cut him the week of the '98 regular-season opener.

After a one-year stop in New York to help the Giants replace the injured Jason Sehorn, Gray got another $3 million bonus from the Chiefs before the '99 season.

The Bengals thought Gray snubbed them in the free-agent derbies of '97 and '99 when they pursued him heavily, but other teams were putting down more money.

Even then, the Chiefs hardly played him and Gray never got a logical explanation from head coach Gunther Cunningham. When Dick Vermeil replaced Cunningham after this season, the point was moot that Gray would be cut after June 1 because of his bonus.

"I'm just glad that chapter of my life is behind me," Gray said. "I haven't experienced a lot of fun in football lately. It's been too much business and I'm looking to get the fun back."

Which means the 6-foot, 203-pound Gray isn't thinking about starting, backing up or special teaming it. At the moment, he's just thinking about fitting in. He's close to free safety Darryl Williams from their days in Seattle and he's friendly with fullback Clif Groce from the season in Indianapolis.

"I don't know much about the team," Gray said. "I just want to concentrate on doing what ever I can to help. To provide some leadership and experience. It's a good fit."

Gray becomes the Bengals' most experienced corner with Tom Carter. He went No. 30 in the second round of the 1993 NFL Draft to Seattle, 13 picks after Carter went to Washington in the first round.

Gray's dozen career interceptions are five more than those produced by the young quartet of Rodney Heath (3), Artrell Hawkins (3), Robert Bean (1) and Mark Roman (0). The Bengals usually keep six cornerbacks, but won't rule out going after others in free agency.

"Carlton is an experienced guy with a lot of athleticism and intelligence," said Jim Lippincott, the club's director of college/pro personnel.

Gray's first assignment in town isn't training camp, but his July 6 golf tournament at the Mill course that raises money for the foundation. Some of the old Bengals, such as Isaac Curtis, Louis Breeden and Jim Breech, usually attend.

Now the host is a current Bengal.

"It really is a good feeling for everybody," Carlos Gray said.

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