The Violent and Impactful Life of Sam Huff

(Photo courtesy of West Virginia University)

On a fall weekend, while millions of fans focused their attention on the most popular sport in America, Sam Huff, the player who more than anyone epitomized the brutality, but also the transcendent appeal of football, passed away at a Winchester, Virginia hospital.

Huff was 87 and had been suffering from dementia since 2013.

Robert Lee “Sam” Huff grew up in the coal camps of Marion County. But while most of the men in his family went underground to work, Huff found his calling on the football field of Farmington High School.

He earned a scholarship to WVU and played guard and tackle for coach Art “Pappy” Lewis during the first Golden Era of Mountaineer Football.   The Mountaineers went 31-7 during his tenure at WVU.  He earned first team All-American honors in 1955.

Huff was drafted by the Giants, where assistant coach Tom Landry was crafting a new defensive scheme.  Huff was installed as the middle linebacker in the new 4-3 defense, where he could wreak havoc on running backs and quarterbacks.

The middle linebacker became one of the glamor positions just as the league was beginning to grow in popularity because of television. In November 1959, Huff was featured on the cover to Time Magazine accompanying the story “Brawn, Brains and Profits.”

The following year, Huff was the subject of a CBS special report where he was wired for sound. The piece, narrated by Walter Cronkite, was entitled The Violent World of Sam Huff.  The widely watched documentary brought the country face to face with the brutality of the game, but it also captured the alluring personality of Huff as he verbally sparred with his opponent.

“Why did you do that for 88,” Huff shouted to a player for the opposing Bears.  “If you do that one more time, 88, I’m going to sock you one.”

In 1963, the Giants traded Huff to the Washington football team (then known as the Redskins), a move for which Huff never forgave Giants head coach Allie Sherman.   He played for Washington until his retirement after the 1969 season.

Huff had myriad interests after he quit playing.  He dabbled in politics and run unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for Congress back in his home state.  He was a long-time color commentator on the Washington radio broadcasts.  He worked for the Marriott hotel chain and developed a passion for horse racing.

The Charles Town Race Track said in a statement, “Most knew Sam Huff as an NFL Hall of Famer. We knew him as an advocate of racing and co-founder of the West Virginia Breeders Classic.  He will forever be woven into the fabric of racing.”

Huff is a member of the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame and the National High School Hall of Fame.  In 2005, Huff’s number 75 was retired at WVU.

Football is a violent game.  One must wonder whether the countless collisions during Huff’s long career contributed to his dementia, as it has for so many other players.  As the Washington Post reported, “He remained a proud throwback to the NFL’s rough-and-tumble days of the 1950’s when players were known for their stoic toughness.”

He also epitomized what it meant to be a West Virginian from the coal fields where toughness was not only a virtue but a necessity to survive and, in the case of Sam Huff, also thrive and lead a full life.



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