Sam Huff: Hall of Fame NFL Linebacker Who Was a Broadcaster for 30 Years

From a Washington Post obit by Matt Schudel headlined “Sam Huff, NFL Hall of Fame linebacker of ‘unmatched ferocity,’ dies at 87”:

As one of football’s most feared middle linebackers of the 1950s and 1960s, Sam Huff of the New York Giants starred in one of the most thrilling championship games of all time and became the first defensive player to become a superstar in the National Football League. The Hall of Famer, who also played for Washington and spent more than 30 years as a broadcaster for the team, died Nov. 13 in Winchester, Va….

Mr. Huff, who grew up in a coal-mining camp in West Virginia, spent 13 years in the NFL as a menacing figure on defense, racing sideline-to-sideline to make tackles and intercept passes as he helped define the key position of middle linebacker. Wearing his familiar No. 70, the handsome, affable and fierce Mr. Huff acquired the visibility and fame previously reserved for quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers.

“I had an enviable job,” he said in 1968. “We made defense famous.”

During his eight seasons in New York, Mr. Huff helped lead his team to one NFL title and to five other championship games in which the Giants fell short. He became known for his rugged one-on-one battles with the top running backs of the era, Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns and Jim Taylor of the Green Bay Packers.

In describing how to stop Brown, often considered the greatest ball carrier in football history, Mr. Huff uttered one of the sport’s most famous quips: “All you can do is grab hold, hang on and wait for help.”

Mr. Huff was a marquee name in what has become known as the “Greatest Game Ever Played” — the 1958 NFL championship game, in which his Giants lost in sudden-death overtime to the Baltimore Colts, 23-17.

That game…became a turning point in securing professional football’s long-term popularity on TV, ultimately making it the country’s top spectator sport.

In 1959, Mr. Huff was named the NFL’s top linebacker and was the second pro football player to be featured on the cover of Time magazine, after Detroit Lions quarterback Bobby Layne five years earlier.

“He became the first glamour middle linebacker on the first glamour defense, playing in New York City at the dawn of television’s love affair with pro football,” Hall of Fame coach Tom Landry, his defensive mentor in New York, wrote in an introduction to Mr. Huff’s 1988 autobiography, “Tough Stuff.”

“All those factors — his talent as a player, his name, his personality, the success of the team, the city, the TV explosion — converged at the same time in Sam Huff, a new kind of football star.”

He gained another level of fame in 1960, when CBS News wired him for sound for a full-contact special report, “The Violent World of Sam Huff.”

“Today you will play pro football, riding on Sam Huff’s broad back,” said the narrator, Walter Cronkite, who later became the anchor of the CBS Evening News.

A radio transmitter was placed inside Mr. Huff’s shoulder pads, bringing viewers inside the blunt-force drama of pro football. Mr. Huff’s high-pitched voice — alternately threatening, encouraging and funny — was heard after almost every play on the field.

“What did you do that for, 88?” Mr. Huff shouted at a player for the Chicago Bears, calling him by his uniform number. “If you do that one more time, 88, I’m going to sock you one! Now, don’t do that. You run it again, you’re going to get a broken nose. Don’t do that, hit me on the chin with your elbow.”

“The Violent World of Sam Huff” vividly revealed the brutality of football and the personalities of players in a way that had never been seen before.

“Huff was an outsized character, with enough ambition on and off the field to frighten the faint of heart,” author Mark Bowden wrote in “The Best Game Ever,” his 2008 book about the 1958 NFL championship. “He was outspoken, brash, and unapologetic . . . He played football with unmatched ferocity, reveling in the game’s violence.”

Robert Lee Huff was born in Edna Gas, W.Va., where he grew up in Coal Camp No. 9, the fourth of sixth children. His father and two of his brothers worked in the coal mines.

Mr. Huff became known as Sam at an early age, although “to this day I have no idea how I got my real name, or the nickname,” he noted in his 1988 autobiography, written with journalist Leonard Shapiro.

He was an all-state high school football player and, during his senior year, married classmate Mary Fletcher. When he received an athletic scholarship to West Virginia University, he became the first member of his family to attend college.

He was an All-American offensive lineman while helping his Mountaineers to a 31-7 record during his four years at West Virginia. He was a kicker for the football team and a catcher on the university’s baseball team, showing enough talent to sign a professional contract with the Cleveland Indians.

Drafted by the Giants in 1956, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Mr. Huff had trouble fitting in at first. He was too small for a defensive lineman and too slow to be an offensive guard. Seemingly overlooked and without a position, he threatened to quit the team and move back to West Virginia.

At that time, under the guidance of defensive coach Landry, the Giants were beginning to use a new 4-3 defensive alignment, with four linemen and three linebackers. The middle linebacker became the anchor of the defense.

After the Giants’ starting middle linebacker was injured early in the 1956 season, Mr. Huff took over. “It was like I was born to play the position,” he said.

He spent evenings learning the intricacies of the team’s defense from Landry, who later gained fame as head coach of the Dallas Cowboys….

Mr. Huff’s stellar play helped the Giants win the 1956 NFL championship over the Chicago Bears, 47-7.

For the next several years, football fans debated whether the game’s best middle linebacker was Mr. Huff, Joe Schmidt of the Detroit Lions, Chuck Bednarik of the Philadelphia Eagles, Bill George in Chicago or Green Bay’s Ray Nitschke.

Mr. Huff roamed the field, plugging holes at the line of scrimmage and dragging down runners going wide. In one game against San Francisco, he charged toward the 49ers’ Hall of Fame halfback Hugh McElhenny, who was racing downfield behind two blockers. Mr. Huff knocked all three out of bounds.

“It’s uncanny the way Huff follows the ball,” Green Bay coach Vince Lombardi — a onetime assistant coach for the Giants — said in 1959. “He ignores all the things you do to take him away from the play and comes after the ball, wherever it is thrown or wherever the run goes.”

In a division title game on Dec. 21, 1958, Mr. Huff and his teammates held Jim Brown to 8 yards rushing, as the Giants beat Cleveland, 10-0. A week later, in freezing weather at New York’s Yankee Stadium the Giants and Colts met in the “Greatest Game Ever Played.”

Mr. Huff forced a fumble, blocked a field-goal attempt and made tackles all over the field. Once, after he knocked Baltimore’s star receiver, Raymond Berry, out of bounds near the Colts’ bench, the Colts’ head coach, Weeb Ewbank, began to beat on Mr. Huff with his hands.

As time expired, the teams were deadlocked, 17-17, and game was extended to overtime: Victory would go to the first team to score.

As night fell over the stadium, the Colts, behind quarterback Johnny Unitas, drove downfield to the Giants’ 1-yard-line. As Unitas handed the ball to fullback Alan Ameche, Mr. Huff slanted toward the left side of the Colts offensive line in anticipation. But Ameche ran off right tackle and had an open path to the end zone for the winning touchdown.

“I can still see the picture of him running through that big hole at the goal line,” Mr. Huff later said. “That still haunts me.’’

Soon after the Giants lost the 1963 NFL championship game to Chicago, 14-10, head coach Allie Sherman began to dismantle the team. Mr. Huff was furious when he learned he had been traded to Washington, which had a 3-11 record in 1963.

“As long as I live,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I will never forgive Allie Sherman for trading me.”

It took years, but Mr. Huff was able to exact a measure of revenge when the Redskins met the Giants at RFK Stadium on Nov. 27, 1966. Late in the game, Washington was leading Sherman’s Giants, 69-41. With only seven seconds remaining, the Redskins called timeout and sent the field goal team on the field.

Head coach Otto Graham was criticized for running up the score, but Mr. Huff later confessed, “I took it upon myself to yell for the field goal team to get out there.”

Charlie Gogolak’s 29-yard field goal made the final score 72-41. It remains the highest-scoring game in NFL history, and the Redskins’ 72 points are the most ever scored by a team in a regular-season game.

“Justice is done,” Mr. Huff said afterward.

An ankle injury forced Mr. Huff to miss several games in 1967, and he retired at the end of the season. After a one-year layoff, he returned to action as a player-coach in 1969 at the urging of Lombardi, who had become Washington’s head coach. Lombardi, who won five championships in Green Bay, including the first two Super Bowls, led the Redskins to their first winning season in 14 years. Mr. Huff retired for good after the 1969 season and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.

In 1960, Mr. Huff campaigned in West Virginia for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. A decade later, Mr. Huff ran for Congress in his home state, but he lost in the Democratic primary. He spent a season as a Redskins assistant coach, then took a job with Marriott, acting as a marketing liaison between the hotel company and athletic teams from 1971 to 1998.

Mr. Huff began broadcasting with the Giants in 1972 before becoming a color analyst for the Redskins in 1975. For years, he formed a popular radio broadcast team with his former Redskins roommate, Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. Along with play-by-play announcer Frank Herzog, they covered the glory years of the 1980s and 1990s, when the Redskins played in four Super Bowls, winning three.

In 2004, Larry Michael replaced Herzog as the play-by-play announcer. In 2012, Mr. Huff’s radio schedule was cut back, and he retired before the 2013 season.

He published a second autobiography, “Controlled Violence,” co-written with Kristine Setting Clark, in 2011.

For years, Mr. Huff and and his domestic partner of more than 30 years, Carol Holden, raised horses on a farm in Middleburg, Va. They produced syndicated broadcasts on horse racing from 1989 to 2016….

In his final years in the broadcast booth, Mr. Huff sometimes forgot the names of players or had difficulty recalling certain football rules and other minutiae. In 2013, he was diagnosed with a form of dementia….

During his broadcasting days with the Redskins, Mr. Huff sometimes railed against changes in the game, including rules to prevent head-on collisions and protect players from concussions. He remained a proud throwback to the NFL’s rough-and-tumble days of the 1950s, when players were known for their stoic toughness.

“We try to hurt everybody,” Mr. Huff said. “We hit each other as hard as we can. This is a man’s game.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida.

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