'Instant Linebacker' Sam Huff: 1934-2021

Hall of Famers

The football world today is celebrating the life and career of Sam Huff, a ferocious and sure tackler who thrived as one of the first true middle linebackers in the National Football League.

A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 1982, Huff died Saturday. He was 87.

A family attorney told The Associated Press that Huff died of natural causes in Winchester, Va.

“The entire Pro Football Hall of Fame family mourns the passing of Sam Huff,” Hall of Fame President Jim Porter said. “He was an outstanding player on the gridiron and an even greater man off the field.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Sam’s family during this difficult time. The Hall of Fame will forever guard his legacy. The Hall of Fame flag will be flown at half-staff in his memory.”

Coal miner’s son

Robert Lee “Sam” Huff was born Oct. 4, 1934 in Edna Gas, W.Va. His family lived in a coal mining camp, and as the son, nephew and brother of coal miners, his future occupation seemed predetermined.

He had other aspirations, however, but avoiding the mines as a teacher and coach required a college education. And getting that necessary college education – he would be the first in his family to do so – required a scholarship considering his means.

A standout high school career that included an undefeated junior season and all-state honors as a senior opened the eyes of a handful of colleges, with West Virginia University luring Huff to nearby Morgantown. He starred as a two-way lineman, earning All-American honors in 1955. He also was named an Academic All-American.

“Sam’s will and his brain made him one of the most effective middle linebackers in the history of the NFL,” Hall of Famer Jim Brown said of Huff.

That intelligence translated well onto the football field, although he would need some convincing to stay with the pro game after a shaky start to his first training camp with the New York Giants.

Arriving at St. Michael’s College in Winooski, Vt., as the 30th overall selection in the 1956 NFL Draft, Huff quickly found himself on the receiving end of head coach Jim Lee Howell’s stinging criticisms and general disdain for first-year players.

“I really think he hated rookies,” Huff would write in his 1988 autobiography “Tough Stuff.”

It got so bad, Huff and his roommate, fellow rookie Don Chandler, decided to quit.

Planning to hand in their playbooks to Howell, they instead encountered offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi in the coaches’ office. Chandler bailed; Huff stayed for the grilling. In no uncertain terms, Lombardi told Huff the team had invested too much in them for either to quit.

“Vince Lombardi saved us,” Huff would recall many years later. (Chandler, a kicker/punter who lasted 13 years in the NFL, played on four championship teams in New York and Green Bay.)

While Lombardi was the offensive mastermind of the Giants in the mid- and late 1950s, it was another Hall of Fame coach who would make the biggest impression on Huff.

“It was Tom Landry who saw something in Sam that made him think, ‘I can turn him into a linebacker.’ And he was an instant linebacker,” former Giants teammate and Hall of Famer Frank Gifford said.

Landry, the Giants’ defensive coordinator, was looking for the ideal player to roam the middle of his revolutionary 4-3 defensive alignment. Huff possessed the physical attributes, instincts and intensity Landry coveted.

“It was such a beautiful thing for me. It was like I was born to play it,” Huff said of patrolling the center of Landry’s defensive scheme. In a separate interview he told The Sporting News, “Landry built the 4-3 defense around me. It revolutionized defense and opened the door for all the variations of zones and man-to-man coverage, which are used in conjunction with it today.”

Immediate results

Huff was named outstanding rookie of the 1956 season, contributing three interceptions and two fumble recoveries on the league’s best defense. The Giants capped their 9-3-1 season with a 47-7 rout of the Chicago Bears to win the NFL title.

The Giants’ defense ruled the NFL for the next several years, capturing the attention of New York media, which focused a lot of attention on Huff.

“He became an instant celebrity be attaching himself to my legs quite often,” Jim Brown said in praising Huff’s tacking ability.

In a 1958 divisional playoff game, the Giants held the Cleveland Browns to 86 total yards and Brown, the league’s rushing champion that season, to 8 net yards on seven carries. Huff sealed the 10-0 victory with an interception.

Following back-to-back All-Pro seasons in 1958 and 1959 in which he helped the Giants reach consecutive NFL title games (both losses to the Colts, including “The Greatest Game Ever Played” in 1958), Huff became the first NFL player to grace the cover of Time magazine. The article, from the Nov. 30, 1959 issue, described him as “a confident, smiling fighter, fired with a devout desire to sink a thick shoulder into every ball-carrier in the NFL.”

Lombardi, who had moved onto Green Bay in 1959 to become head coach, said of Huff that season: “It’s uncanny the way Huff follows the ball. He ignores all of the things you do to take him away from the play and comes after the ball, wherever it is thrown or wherever the ball goes. He seems to be all over the field at once.”

In training camp and preseason before the 1960 season, Huff was fitted with a transistor radio – in today’s lingo, he was “mic’ed up” – for the series “The Twentieth Century,” hosted by legendary reporter Walter Cronkite.

Titled “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” the show opens with Cronkite saying, as Huff makes a tackle in a scrimmage, “That was Sam Huff, doing what he’s paid to do: Knock the other guy down.”

Which, of course, Huff did with regularity.

“The football field is no place for nice guys,” Huff says in the production. “You have to be tough; you have to go all out.”

For Huff, “all out” meant playing all the time, including preseason games and on special teams. He took great pride not only in his ability but also his availability.

“I played 11½ years and never got hurt. Why? Because I played full speed all the time,” he said.

Huff didn’t miss a game in his eight seasons with the Giants, helping the team to six East Division crowns and appearances in the 1956, 1958, 1959, 1961, 1962 and 1963 championship game. Following the 1963 season, however, head coach Allie Sherman began dismantling the vaunted Giants defense.

In a move that stunned the New York press and rippled across the league, that rebuild included dealing Huff to Washington. To put it mildly, he was not pleased.

“I didn't want to be traded from a championship team, a championship organization,” said Huff, who loved playing in New York. He said publicly he felt he was made the scapegoat for the team’s failure to win another championship, and he carried a grudge for years.

Joining an inferior team, Huff considered retirement. He didn’t report to the team for about two months, but eventually came on board with his usual all-out gusto.

Defensive turnaround in Washington

In 1964, Washington’s defense improved from 12th in the league for yards allowed to fourth. The 1965 team improved again – to second – and Huff was rewarded with his fifth trip to the Pro Bowl.

It took until 1966, but Huff extracted some revenge on Sherman and the Giants. He freely admitted he called a timeout in the waning seconds of Washington’s rout and suggested the team kick a field goal, which it did, to end the 72-41 conquest. The 113 total points in a game remains an NFL record.

Huff’s streak of consecutive games played ended at 157 with a serious ankle injury in 1967. He announced his retirement and did not play in 1968.

Prior to the 1969 season, Washington hired Lombardi as its head coach. The man who had saved Huff’s career from imploding before it had gotten a chance to get going in his 1956 rookie season asked if Huff would consider a player-coach role.

Huff accepted. As captain of the defense, he helped the team to a 7-5-2 finish – Washington’s first winning record since 1955. He ended the season – his last in the NFL – with three interceptions, returning one for a touchdown.

Hall of Fame linebacker Chris Hanburger, a teammate of Huff’s on that 1969 squad, said in a 2013 interview with Leader In Sports: “When you put a helmet on him and a pair of shoulder pads, you’d better look out, because he won’t back down from anybody. Never did and never will.”

Huff retired from the NFL with 30 interceptions and 17 fumble recoveries.

After football, he made a brief run in politics, losing the primary for a U.S. House seat in West Virginia. A horse lover, he created the West Virginia Breeders Classic horse race in 1987.

He also developed a relationship with Bill Marriott, a devoted Washington football fan and CEO of the hotel chain. Huff joined the organization, eventually rising to a vice president over his 27 years. He launched the idea of using Marriott hotels for college and professional teams’ travel accommodations.

Huff also entered broadcasting, first on Giants games, then with Washington. Soon, he was reunited with his best friend and former roommate, Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen, for an on-air partnership that lasted until 2012.

Huff’s athletic accolades are many: member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1950s, induction into the College Football Hall of Fame (1980), West Virginia University’s inaugural Hall of Fame class (1991) and the National High School Hall of Fame (1999).

“My life has been extraordinary,” Huff told a reporter in West Virginia in 2008. “God, I have such great memories. … I have been truly blessed.”

Huff’s passion for the Game and his legacy in football will be preserved forever at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

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