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Huff liked hitting people

The Violent World
By Bob Carter
Special to

"Sam Huff was what a linebacker is supposed to be: tough, aggressive, fast, quick. Sam would make a great soldier. I'd be delighted to have him on my side," says General Norman Schwarzkopf on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

The odds - and outs - lined up so deep against the rookie, they nearly snuffed a pro football life before it started. Sam Huff, a tough but smallish lineman from West Virginia, ran headfirst into his first New York Giants training camp in 1956 and quickly found himself:

  • Out of breath after playing in the College All-Star Game only two days earlier;
  • Out of sorts with his coach, Jim Lee Howell, who seemed out of patience with rookies;
  • Out of synch the field with a team that didn't know quite where to play him;
  • Out of line when he mistook graying quarterback Charlie Conerly for a coach;
  • Out of luck when he hurt his knee in his first exhibition game;
  • And out of bounds when he and fellow rookie Don Chandler got fed up with camp and tried to run an out pattern back home, only to be talked out of it by an assistant coach named Vince Lombardi.

    When Huff returned to camp, he beat the odds. Swamped them actually, going from the outs to football's new "in" position on defense and almost instant stardom. The Giants switched him from the line to middle linebacker in their modern 4-3 scheme, and defensive coach Tom taught him how to play in the middle.

    "Sam had all the right qualities," Landry said. "He was an offensive lineman with size and strength. He was mobile. He was smart."

    The rookie won a starting spot by the fourth week of the season and became a fierce, roving force on a defense that spirited the Giants to the NFL title.

    Huff, 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, played in six NFL championship games and five Pro Bowls, won all-pro honors twice and earned a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.

    His aggressive style typified a sport growing in mass appeal, a game that would overtake baseball in popularity, and his duels with running backs such as Jim Brown became renowned. At 25, he became the first NFL player to appear on the cover of Time magazine (Nov. 30, 1959). He was described as a "confident, smiling fighter fired with a devout desire to sink a thick shoulder into every ballcarrier."

    "We try to hurt everybody," Huff told Time. "We hit each other as hard as we can. This is a man's game."

    A year later, a 30-minute CBS documentary titled "The Violent World of Sam Huff," narrated by Walter Cronkite, provided America a close-up look at pro football and one man who craved its raw instincts.

    The fourth of Oral and Catherine Huff's six children, Robert Lee Huff was born on Oct. 4, 1934 in Edna Gas, W. Va., a coal-mining camp near Morgantown. The family lived in a small rowhouse with no running water. "There were times that my mother didn't eat," Huff said. "There was just enough food for us kids."

    Huff, who doesn't know how he got to be named Sam, played offensive and defensive line at nearby Farmington High School and was voted to the Class B all-state team as a senior. In 1952, he went to West Virginia, playing both ways on the line under coach Art "Pappy" Lewis. The Mountaineers were 31-7 in his four seasons, went to the Sugar Bowl in his sophomore year and beat Penn State three times. Huff made several All-American teams as a senior and played in three all-star games.

    The Giants selected him in the third round of the NFL draft, No. 30 overall. They first thought he was too small to make it on the line and too slow to be a linebacker. Landry finally asked Huff to try the middle linebacker spot behind Ray Beck, who was hobbled by an ankle injury. Huff liked the position because he could keep his head up and use his superb peripheral vision to see the whole field. After playing well against Cleveland in the third game, he was promoted to the starting unit.

    The Giants went on to finish 8-3-1 and win the Eastern Conference title, spurred by a defense that included Andy Robustelli, Rosey Grier and Emlen Tunnell. In their 47-7 victory over the Chicago Bears at Yankee Stadium, Huff became the first rookie middle linebacker to start an NFL championship game.

    He not only proved he had the speed and strength for the middle, but as years went on he glamorized the position. Cleveland's Brown said Huff's attention to detail gave him an edge over opponents. "Sam's will and his brain made him one of the most effective middle linebackers in NFL history," he said.

    In 1958, the Giants again won the East and Huff played in a game often acclaimed as pro football's greatest ever, New York's 23-17 overtime loss to John Unitas and Baltimore for the NFL title. Huff even scrapped with Colts coach Weeb Ewbank on the sideline after making a tackle.

    Huff was selected as the NFL's defensive MVP the following season, which ended in a 31-16 loss to the Colts in the championship game. That year, he almost passed up the Time magazine appearance, demanding money to be interviewed, but relented when Time agreed to give him the cover portrait. "It really did have a major impact on my life," he said, "and I almost blew it."

    The CBS show in 1960 had an even bigger effect, the network wiring Huff for sound in practice and in an exhibition game so that the grunts, groans and hard hits could be heard in millions of living rooms. "Any time that you play football," Huff said in the show, "there is no place for nice guys. You have to be tough."

    The Giants' toughness continued as new coach Allie Sherman guided the team to championship games in 1961, 1962 and 1963 - all losses. In 1962, though, Sherman began moves that eventually would strip the defense of its core. He traded Cliff Livingston that year, Grier the next, and in March 1964 sent Dick Modzelewski to Cleveland.

    After that deal, a concerned Huff went to owner Wellington Mara and was assured he wouldn't be traded. A few weeks later, the Giants traded Huff, who was 29, to Washington for halfback Dick James and defensive end Andy Stynchula.

    Mara's lie angered Huff, though the owner later apologized and the two remained friends. Sherman was another story. "As long as I live," Huff said years later, "I will never forgive Allie Sherman for trading me."

    Huff, who would have earned $19,000 the next year with the Giants, briefly considered retiring. But he joined the Redskins when they agreed to pay him $30,000 in salary and $5,000 for scouting, a package richer than those of other NFL linebackers.

    Huff got immense satisfaction from beating his old team while in Washington and gloated when the Giants went 2-10-2 in 1964, the first season without him. "Allie Sherman took a lot of heat," Huff said, "and he deserved it."

    He found his new team to be softer and more disorganized than the Giants, and Washington had only one winning season in his five years there. That came in 1969 (7-5-2) when, after a year of retirement, he rejoined the club to be a player-coach under Lombardi, the new head coach.

    Huff made 19 tackles in Lombardi's first Redskins game, a victory at New Orleans, but his playing time dwindled as the year went on. He retired for good at the end of the season, having made 30 interceptions in his 13-year career. He stayed on as an assistant coach for one more season after running for U.S. Congress in West Virginia in 1970, but losing in the Democratic primary.

    He joined the Marriott Corporation as a salesman in 1971 and worked himself up to vice president of sports marketing before retiring in 1998. His current passion is breeding thoroughbreds.

    He has maintained his link with football as a radio broadcaster after stepping down as an assistant coach. He announced Giants games in 1971 and 1972 and since 1973 he has broadcast Redskins games.

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