Remembering Sam Huff as Washington legend passes away at 87

Washington Redskins linebacker Sam Huff (70), inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 1982, waits for the snap during a 20-14 victory over to the New York Giants on October 9, 1969, at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Nate Fine/Getty Images)
Washington Redskins linebacker Sam Huff (70), inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 1982, waits for the snap during a 20-14 victory over to the New York Giants on October 9, 1969, at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Nate Fine/Getty Images) /

Sam Huff died on Saturday, and with his passing, the window on a golden era of NFL football closes a few more inches.

Huff, who played eight years for the New York Giants before closing out his career for the Washington Football Team, was what we now call a throwback – the type of player who helped invent the modern NFL. His appearance in the short film “The Violent World of Sam Huff” in 1960, was instrumental to helping professional football rocket past baseball and become the nation’s new national pastime – a spot it has had in its fierce grasp for more than sixty years now.

The NFL, which has been coming to terms with the very violence it once happily promoted, would never allow such a film to be made today.

Washington legend Sam Huff passed away at 87 years old.

Sam Huff came from coal mining country and always felt however violent the professional gridiron might be, it was far less dangerous – and far more fun – than working in the mines. His football prowess earned him a scholarship to West Virginia and his play there made him a 3rd round draft pick of the Giants in 1956. The timing was fortuitous. Television was just emerging as the most potent communications tool in the country and the NFL was very wise in capitalizing on the phenomenon.

The Giants had a visionary defensive coordinator named Tom Landry who perfected a new defensive formation known as the 4-3. It featured four down linemen backed by three linebackers. The key to success was the man in the middle of it all – the middle linebacker – who directed the defense. He needed the size to take on linemen, the speed to cover all parts of the field, and the intelligence to read the offense in split seconds. Above all, he needed to be the toughest guy on the field, because he would be in the middle of everything that happened.

Landry found his man in Sam Huff, and Huff helped bring championships to New York. During his rookie season, he and his defensive teammates were dominant, eventually winning the NFL Championship over Chicago 47-7. Two years later, Huff and the Giants would come up just short against Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts. The Colts took the title that year with a 23-17 win over New York, in what would become known as “the greatest game ever played.” Television caught every moment of it and the country gobbled it up.

Professional football was the new king, and Sam Huff was one of its shining stars.

That position was cemented when Walter Cronkite hosted a half hour episode of Prudential’s Twentieth Century series on October 30, 1960. That short film – “The Violent World of Sam Huff” – remains a seminal piece of sports filmmaking. Having the prestige of Cronkite and Prudential legitimized the man, his sport, and the violence at its core.

After eight successful seasons in New York, the boy from West Virginia was traded to a perennial loser down in Washington. He was not happy.

Washington was a bad franchise in 1964. They had been losing for well over a decade. But things were beginning to look up. Bobby Mitchell had arrived a few years earlier. Now Sonny Jurgensen and Charley Taylor were coming on board. Jerry Smith too. The offense was turning into one of the league’s best.

But the defense still lagged behind. Huff, along with rookie sensation Paul Krause, helped begin to turn that around. Huff’s best playing days may have been behind him, but his passion for the game remained infectious. That competitive spirit was never more clearly on display than in a 1966 game against his old team, the Giants.

Huff often said he could not bring himself to hate the Giants. But he had no trouble hating their coach, the man who traded him, Allie Sherman. Sherman had been an offensive coach during Huff’s early years in New York. When he took over as head coach in the early 1960s, he began dismantling the once fearsome defense. Huff was not one to let a grudge die easily.

In that 1966 game, Jurgensen and the offense exploded. Huff’s defense didn’t play very well – (Washington’s defense would not really become a force until defensive-minded coach George Allen came to town in 1970) – but it hardly mattered. Late in the game, Washington held a 69-41 lead. With a few seconds left, Washington had the ball deep in Giants’ territory.

Just before the clock expired, Washington called a timeout and rookie kicker Charlie Gogolak trotted onto the field. His 29-yard field goal made the final score 72-41. On the opposite sideline, Sherman was incensed. This went against one of the basic unwritten rules of football. Even Sonny was surprised that coach Otto Graham would rub in the victory in this manner.

It wasn’t Graham who called the timeout. It wasn’t Graham who sent Gogolak onto the field. It was Huff. He wanted to Sherman to pay for trading him away.

Sam’s streak of 150 consecutive games came to an end in 1967, and he retired the following season. But after a year away, new coach Vince Lombardi – who had been the offensive coordinator in Sam’s early years in New York – convinced him to come back as a sort of player/coach, and he played one more season in 1969.

Five years later, in 1975, Huff would replace Mal Campbell in the radio booth for Washington broadcasts. In 1979, a new play-by-play man, Frank Herzog, would arrive. And then in 1981, Sam and Frank would be joined by Jurgensen. The iconic Sonny, Sam & Frank team would remain in that booth until 2004. Through the most glorious years in franchise history, Sam was one of the voices of a dynasty.

Truth be told, Sam was as much of a cheerleader as an analyst. Sonny handled most of the Xs and Os. Sam, as he had always done, brought the passion. Radio listeners learned pretty fast that Sam couldn’t be relied on for factual information. For years, virtually every time Washington surrendered a long touchdown pass, Sam would yell out that there was offensive pass interference on the play. To the novice listener, that might suggest a referee had thrown a flag and Sam was identifying the infraction. But we all soon learned it was just the old middle linebacker still defending his squad. Sonny would calmly explain that no such penalty was called. To which Sam would invariably respond “Well, there should have been.”

Sam remained in the booth through 2012. Well into his 70s, he had been diminished for several years by that point. Sam would still drop in for a brief spot and though the voice was shaky, the passion was still evident. Even as he grew physically diminished in his later years, Sam remained an impressive figure.

I had occasion to come across him once in an airport back in the ‘90s. In his black Washington Football jacket, Sam was still imposing. You could feel the energy coming from him. And he was nice as could be, easily engaging total strangers in football talk. Then he’d sign a couple autographs and go back to the book he was reading until the next fan spotted him.

If you’ve never seen The Violent World of Sam Huff, you should watch it. One of the many things you will notice is how all the players back in 1960 still sported crew cuts. When I saw Sam some thirty years later, he had let his hair grown out a little bit. The crew cut was gone. The times had changed.

Football has changed. The type of play for which legends like Sam Huff were once exalted is now being legislated out of the game. Maybe that’s not a bad thing. Maybe the world is violent enough already. But Sam Huff will always have a spot in football history, and not simply because he is a Hall-of-Famer. His passion and love for the game remains etched onto film and in countless memories. He played the game the way it was played in its most formative years, and he played it very, very well. He will be missed.

Next. WFT honors late legend Bobby Mitchell. dark