“The Violent World of Sam Huff”—-
Timeout from covering games…QB controversies…injuries…diva wide receivers.
1-of the great personalities in the NFL, who ushered in the league on TV, has passed.
I grew up watching the great New York Giants-vs-my favorite Cleveland Browns. It was the matchup of the year everyone watched, Jim Brown-vs-Sam Huff.
It was spectacular football between two really good teams. It was a greater matchup that running back vs the linebacker
Sam Huff changed the game, even before we knew of Dick Butkus. Jim Brown was the first of the great modern day running backs.
Huff passed away this weekend. A product of the coal mining towns of West Virginia, he became a legendary linebacker under his young defensive coordinator, Tom Landry, before Landry went on to the Dallas Cowboys era.
His impact as a player, then a broadcaster, is legendary. Comments I thought you’d enjoy courtesy of NBC Sports
I saw something Saturday that blew me away. “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” a half-hour prime-time documentary on the life of an NFL player, Giants middle linebacker Sam Huff, was the precursor to anything NFL Films ever did. Huff was wired for a 1960 preseason game against Chicago—a rudimentary battery-pack carved into his should pads, with a Sharpie-sized microphone taped into the front of his shoulder pads. Sixty-one years ago! A player miced up, saying things like, “Kill or be killed!” The juicy stuff on national TV, with one of the foremost newsmen of his day narrating this documentary.
“It’s the first time it’s been done on television,” renowned CBS newsman Walter Cronkite told the American audience, with his famous, serious baritone voice. “You’re on the receiving end, and you’re going to be closer to pro football than you’ve ever been before. This is our story: the violent world of Sam Huff.”
You can actually watch the black-and-white show:
Players resting in the locker room, pre-game, before the night game in a rickety stadium in Toronto. One New York Giant smoking a cigarette. And when the game started, a camera focused on Huff. This was no power-puff modern-day kind of preseason game. It looked altogether like a real game, with stuff like a Chicago tight end named Willard Dewveall elbowing Huff in the jaw coming off the line of scrimmage. Huff was enraged. Something got bleeped out, then Huff laid into Dewveall.
“Whatta you doing that for, 88!” Huff yelled at Dewveall. “You do that one more time, 88, I’m gonna sock you one . . . Don’t do that. Do that again, you get a broken nose. Hit me on the chin with your elbow . . . Hey 88, I’m not gonna warn you no more now.”
The yeller, Huff, died at 87 on Saturday in Virginia. The Hall of Fame middle linebacker—eight years with the Giants, five years in Washington, finishing as a player-coach in Vince Lombardi’s lone season as Washington coach, 1969—was diagnosed with dementia several years ago and had been in decline recently.
Why should you know Huff? He was the first famous defensive player in NFL history. In 1959, when the NFL was 39 years old, just starting to make hay across the country after the nationally televised overtime 1958 Championship Game, something amazing happened. Huff made the cover of Time magazine, as the photogenic, pleasant-off-the-field, menace-on-it key to the Giants’ defense, as the sport grew in popularity.
In 1960, Pete Rozelle’s first as commissioner, CBS approached the league asking about doing a half-hour doc on the great and charismatic Huff, long before NFL Films got in the business of wiring players and coaches. The league and CBS were already discussing the prospect of a league-wide TV contract with a single network, so Rozelle enthusiastically said yes. Cronkite did the nationally televised prime-time special on Huff—which was great for Huff’s brand, and for the league too. For the NFL, trying to break the stranglehold of baseball as the national pastime, Walter Cronkite wiring Huff for sound in a game, and hearing what life on the field was really like, was the kind of publicity the league couldn’t buy, and an incredible boost to the NFL becoming a national sport.
Lots of games in the first 50 years of the sport—the ’58 title game, the Joe Namath Super Bowl III shocker among them—made the NFL the nationally worshiped game it has become. Lots of players—Johnny Unitas, Gale Sayers, Jim Brown—helped too. But in the first half-century of the game, no defensive player was as big a name as Sam Huff, and no defender had the profile of Huff. “A national star,” retired NFL GM Ernie Accorsi recalled Saturday. “He was right in the middle of the NFL becoming a huge national game.”
Huff had great battles with Jim Brown, the best running back of all time in my book. They faced off 16 times in the regular season—Brown with eight 100-yard games—and once in the playoffs. That playoff game, between the Giants and Browns in December 1958, to break an Eastern Conference tie, was the stuff of Huff legend. Giants 10, Browns 0, and Brown carried seven times for eight yards. The next week, Huff forced a fumble and blocked a field goal in the Giants’ OT loss to Baltimore in the Greatest Game. Those things iced Huff’s fame, and led to the national spotlight on him.
A couple of interesting things about Huff. He was bitter that the Giants traded him after the ’63 season, and he held a grudge about it for the rest of his career. In 1966, Washington was routing the hapless Giants 69-41 when, with seven seconds left in the game and Washington deep in New York territory, Huff signaled for a timeout and yelled for the field goal team to go on the field. Charlie Gogolak kicked a field goal as time expired, and Washington won the highest-scoring game in NFL history, 72-41. For Huff, revenge was sweet. And in 1969, a year after he retired, Huff was coaxed out of retirement by the great Lombardi. Fittingly, Huff, at 35, had a very good final season, returning an interception for a TD in Philadelphia in a November game, one of Lombardi’s last as a coach.
In his first two or three years with the Giants, Huff had a fan in attendance for five or six games in New York. “I saw him in person several times,” Bill Parcells, a high-school kid in northern New Jersey then, recalled Saturday. “In fact, I was friends with the son of (then Giants assistant coach] Vince Lombardi, and we went to several games. Sam was the leader of that defense. Oh, I remember.”