Ray Bray: A Key Member of the “Monsters of the Midway”

Throughout the years, there have been legendary “enforcers” in the NFL. Guys like Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Ray Lewis, and even Warren Sapp have been in the thick of things when needed by their teammates.

So, I must share my embarrassment that I was not very familiar with a gentleman who did his share of intimidation as a key member of the “Monsters of the Midway” for the Chicago Bears when the team won four NFL titles from 1940 through 1946.

There were plenty of big names on those clubs from Sid Luckman to Bulldog Turner, to George McAfee, to Joe Stydahar, all of whom eventually found their way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And there were several others such as Ken Kavanaugh and Hugh Gallarneau who enjoyed All-Pro seasons while helping the Bears dominate the NFL during the 1940s.

But our subject on this episode of “When Football Was Football” was neither voted into the Hall of Fame, nor was he a regular visitor to the All-Pro squad, although he was named to four Pro Bowls. His name was Raymond Robert Bray or Ray for short. However, those who played with him during those glory years for the Bears simply referred to him as “Muscles.”

He'd Hit You Right In The Face!

As a solid 6-0, 237-pound offensive guard and defensive end, Bray was a member of three title-winning Bears’ teams and managed to continually impress both his teammates and his opponents. For Hal Van Every, a running back for Green Bay in the early ‘40s, the reminder of facing Muscles Bray was ingrained in his memory.

He once said that “Bray was the worst. He’d slug you in the face any time. He’d make a charge and he’d start out with his fist down low to the ground and he’d come up and hit you right in the face. He’d level you. Ray Bray. I remember him above all of them.”

Bray, a native of Caspian, MI, was born in 1917 and attended Western State Normal School, which is now Western Michigan, and graduated in 1939. He was then selected by the Chicago Bears in the ninth round of the 1939 NFL draft. Bray played for the Bears from 1939 through 1942 before entering the military during World War II. During his time in the service, Bray played football for the Del Monte Pre-Flight bases.

No Pads: He Said It Was Too Hot!

In 1943, he was named to the Armed Forces All-American team as a guard for Del Monte where he gained quite the reputation for his toughness according to the Belleville Daily Advocate: “But the man up front, where football games are won is Ray Bray. With big Ray Bray on the prowl. Lt. Commander Glenn Killinger deploys a five-man line with Bray, the former Chicago Bear, covering everything in the center.”

The service squads encountered a variety of tough opponents, including major college teams. Even here, Bray made an impression with his strength and toughness, even if it was for an unusual reason. Said the Daily Advocate: “Ray Bray played the last three quarters against Duke without the semblance of a pad. He said it was too hot!”

He then picked up his career with the Bears from 1946 to 1951 and concluded his time in the professional ranks by joining the Packers for one season in 1952. He is considered to be one of the top 100 Chicago Bears’ players of all time.

Known For His Hot Temper

Bray played both ways during his extended stay in the NFL, excelling as an offensive guard and as a defensive tackle/end. Yet it was his skills as a fearless brawler and enforcer that charmed everyone. Unfortunately, his temper may have also curbed some of his talent.

In 1951, Edward Prell of the Chicago Tribune wrote: “Ray is a remarkable athlete in more ways than one. In his early years, the brawny Wolverine was noted for his hot temper, which frequently led to his expulsion. Ray still is a star because he learned how to curb his temper and his appetite. It’s been a long time since an official waved him off the field. And Ray doesn’t have to be waved away from the table, either.”

By 1951, Bray had been in the league since 1939 (except for his war service) and was proud of the fact that he was able to control his weight and stay in shape both during and after, the football season. This enabled Bray to maintain his skills and flexibility long after other linemen had eased into retirement.

In fact, by 1951, Bray and quarterback Sammy Baugh were the only two NFL players who were still around since the 1939 season. To help keep in shape during the off-season in Chicago, Bray explained that he played handball almost daily at the Firemen’s Court in South Chicago and also played tennis, when possible, at Calumet Park.

I Eat a Two Pound Steak Every Day

But it was the control of his dietary habits that appeared to really assist Bray. He once told the Chicago Tribune: “I eat a lot of meat. During the season, I have a two-pound steak every day, with salad and vegetables. If I didn’t watch myself during the off-season, I’d weigh at least 260 when football time came around. And at my age, I wouldn’t be able to get into shape for competition.”

As Bray gracefully aged, the Bears’ coaching staff noted that his formerly fearsome temper had mellowed a bit as well. Perhaps it was the fines that always occurred when on-field shenanigans were addressed by the officials? Veteran line coach Hunk Anderson thought this might indeed be the case as stated by the Tribune in late 1951:

“Anderson, in a humorous vein, suggested that the Bears earlier in the season had gone soft because of fear they would incur fines for rough play. Hunk said: ‘They were thinking of a $50 or $100 fine from Commissioner Bert Bell and that our club might then double it. Now, you take Ray Bray. The first couple of years he was with the Bears he’d get a $25 fine—then he owed the club an additional $50. But the boys won’t be worrying about losing money [now]. We’ll all chip in and help them pay their fines, if necessary!’”

And that was the type of loyalty that a respected “enforcer” received from his brethren: if you help us, we’ll certainly help you. In addition to his strong performances on the gridiron, Bray was a proven team leader as well. During the off-season, Bray would generally gather Bears’ players residing in Chicago for workouts. Then, when the pre-season camp began, Halas would trust Bray with helping to get the team in shape.

In 1951, the Chicago Tribune reported on that responsibility: “Guard Ray Bray, starting his 10th season with the club by assuming his usual role as calisthenics sergeant, took the center of the circle on the football field promptly at 3:30 and the 32nd season of the Chicago Bears was underway.

Bray, who never seems to vary from his weight of 240 pounds, had the Bears puffing shortly after the exercises began and seemed to be taking mental notes of candidates for the fat man’s table, one of the traditions at the club camp.” 

American football player Ray Bray on a 1951 Bowman card.
This photo is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons American football player Ray Bray on a 1951 Bowman card.

He Could Pick Up a Car!

Bray earned the nickname “Muscles” for both his strength on the field and for his solid body structure. For example, quarterback Solly Sherman once attempted to describe the strength of Ray Bray by stating: “He could pick up a car to change a tire!” 

George Connor, another Hall of Famer from the Bears, flatly indicated that “Bray was the strongest man I ever saw. He could do 50 one-armed pushups, switch hands and knock off 50 more with ease.” The Dixon Evening Telegraph added: “Reputed by many to be the strongest man in professional football, Bray has spearheaded the drives for many a Bear great.”

One of his greatest contributions on the blocking side of the game occurred in the 1946 NFL championship against the Giants. The score was knotted at 14-14 early in the fourth quarter when the Bears’ coaches noticed a trend in the New York defense that might allow the Bears to utilize one of their most under-used offensive weapons: the running of quarterback Sid Luckman.

A brilliant passer who still holds some Bears passing records, Luckman rarely carried the ball unless it was out of sheer desperation. Luckman completed 904 passes out of 1,744 attempts for nearly 15,000 yards during his 12-year NFL career but rushed the ball only 204 times in 128 games, or less than twice an outing.

Bingo Keep It

So, it was with some surprise that Luckman received the call from the bench to run a new play called “Bingo Keep It” from the Giants’ 19-yard line. The intent was for Luckman to fake a handoff to the halfback, but then keep the ball and head off into the opposite direction. In order to succeed, the play would require an honest sell of the fake by Luckman as well as expert blocking from the minimal protection on the other side of the line.

Since the Giants’ defense had been solid all afternoon in anticipating the Chicago rushing attack, Bears’ coach George Halas figured that this bit of misdirection might prove beneficial to his team. Ray Bray replaced Pat Preston at guard and brought the play into the game with him, telling Luckman to run “Bingo Keep It.”

Sure enough, when halfback George McAfee took the fake and plunged into the left side of the line, the Giants defenders were all over him. So, Luckman simply tucked the ball away, reversed course to the right side, and followed the accurate blocking of Bray into the end zone.

Bray Knocked Down Two Giants

Reporter William Fay of the Tribune wrote: “Bray knocked down two Giants. When the Bears huddled in the end zone [to celebrate], Ray received more pats on the back than Sid!” The surprise touchdown by Luckman paved the way for the Bears to win the 1946 championship game 24-14, which was the third title collected by Bray in his time with the Bears.

There was one other game from which Bray is well remembered…perhaps too well! In one of his last performances for the Bears in December of 1951, Bray was standing on the sidelines minding his own business when Rams’ defender Jerry Williams intercepted a Bears’ pass and began streaking down the sideline in front of the Bears’ bench.

Not wishing to see his team fall further behind, Bray quietly slipped onto the field and tackled the fleeing Williams. It was a light moment in the Rams 42-17 win over the Bears, and since the Rams also incurred a penalty on the same play, the calls offset each other. In Bray’s case, it was a situation of no harm, no foul, despite his outrageous influence on the play.

The Packers purchased the rights to Bray on July 28, 1952, and he played one final season in Green Bay, starting all 12 games at guard. In retirement, he became a successful auto dealer and later collected several honors. He was elected to the Upper Penninsula (MI) Sports Hall of Fame in 1973 and was also selected (along with Danny Fortmann) as a first-team guard on the Bears’ all-time team compiled by the Chicago Tribune in 1986.

During his ten-year playing career with the Chicago Bears from 1939-1951, the team finished with a superlative 88-26-1 record, made five playoff appearances, and won three NFL titles. Ray “Muscles” Bray passed away at the age of 76 on December 26, 1993, leaving his mark as one of best, if not the strongest, guard in Chicago Bears’ history! 

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Author and Host - Joe Ziemba

Joe Ziemba is the host of this show, and he is an author of early football history in the city of Chicago.  Here, you can learn more about Joe and When Football Was Football, including all of the episodes of the podcast.

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