The Times West Virginian

December 1, 2013

Marion County legend Sam Huff to be honored with academic scholarship

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — Sam Huff, the football legend, had long ago traded his No. 70 football uniform in for business clothes and now, at 78 years of age, he was showing the new suit he had purchased, the one with the “Sam Huff” label that had been made especially for him.

He’d come a long way from Farmington and Coal Camp No. 9, but there was a lot of the son of a coal miner and Hall of Fame football player both at West Virginia University and in the National Football League that remained.

The site was Oliverio’s in the Wharf District here in Morgantown, the reason for the visit home because he was being honored by the WVU Alumni Association, which was creating an academic scholarship for the student in Marion County to be presented in Huff’s name.

“Not many people know he was an academic All-American,” Steve Davis, the head honcho of the alumni association would point out.

Huff allowed that he was honored to have the scholarship named for him, but was far more comfortable when the talk turned to life as a legend, perhaps because he never really ever let the big city overtake him.

Oh, you could put the fancy suit on him, turn him into a broadcaster with the Washington Redskins, make him an executive with Marriott, but the images of the life he lived that laid the foundation from him never strayed from his mind.

That’s right, not long before they brought him the perfectly cooked, two-inch-thick steak he had ordered, he sat at a table off to one side and talked about life in Coal Camp No. 9.

“My dad was a coal miner. He breathed that coal dust. He’d come home from work and my mother had hot water in a tub ready for him when he came home to get that coal dust off my dad, who died pretty young because that coal dust will kill you,” he said.

It wasn’t the life he wanted to follow.

“I took after guys from West Virginia that were in the NFL,” he began. “Frank ‘Gunner’ Gatski,” he said, with a heavy emphasis on the nickname as he did every time he used the name.

“He was from Coal Camp No. 9, too, and when he home it was like God came home.”

Gatski was a bit older than Huff and had gone off to Cleveland to become a Hall of Fame center for Paul Brown. Now it’s hard to imagine Farmington sending off a pair of NFL Hall of Famers, but there it was.

“It was always wonderful to talk to him. I was in high school, and he came home from Cleveland and the Gatski brothers were in the coal camp at that time,” Huff said. “I learned from watching the way they walked, watching how they’d get around. It’s all part of the game.

“I got to know Frank ‘Gunner’ Gatski pretty well. I was around 16. I mean, I went to West Virginia and I wanted to play pro football. These guys were playing like crazy when we were in college … you’d get to play against them sometimes in pre-season games.”

Times, as you might guess, were different then between World War II and the Korean War.

Football players didn’t make a whole lot of money and had to work in off-season, which got Gatski home and which kept Huff busy in the off-season, be it when he was playing at WVU or starting out with the Giants.

“It was different. I worked for grocery stores,” Huff said. “I worked for the Manchin family, delivering groceries, delivering tables and mattresses and box springs. I worked all the time. I learned from Gunner Gatski. I learned from people playing the game.”

The one thing Sam Huff didn’t have to learn was how to hit. That came naturally and there no one was spared, not even Gatski. See, the Browns and the Giants were quite the rivalry when Huff arrived in the NFL, and it soon became a rivalry between Huff and the great Jim Brown.

“The great thing was I got to play against ‘Gunner’ Gatski in a pre-season game. He wasn’t ready yet, and I had to hit him a few times and he grabbed a hold of me,” Huff recalled, animatedly grabbing hold of his own shirt and tie.

“He grabbed me like this and pulled me up and I said to him, “Gunner, put me down, for crying out loud,’ and Gunner looked at me and said ‘Then don’t hit me anymore!’”

“I’m just trying to get you out of the way,” Huff said to him.

“I’m telling you now, Sam, don’t do that anymore,” he said. “After that, we got along great.”

Gatski’s and Huff’s professional careers didn’t cross for long, Gatski having been 12 years Huff’s senior when the two of them were growing up six houses down from each other.

That, of course, was Huff laying the foundation for what would be made famous by Walter Cronkite and CBS-TV with the famed special “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” a documentary that actually wired him during a game … and, remember, this was in 1960, 53 years ago.

It was a violent world, too. Huff readily admits it.

When Brown or Alan Ameche or Jim Taylor, the big, bruising fullbacks of the day had the football, Huff was on them and on them hard.

He remembers one time knocking Jim Brown cold and remembers another time hitting Alan Ameche only to have him say “Sam, why do you have to hit me like that?”

His reply?

“Because you got the damn football!”

“You can just picture it,” Huff explained. “He was like my brother. My brother and I had more fights than anybody around. I didn’t sleep at night because he beat the hell out of me.

“One time I tried to kill him, had a gun right on him. I was a mean son of a gun. My dad took us hunting one time and I said, ‘You mess with me and I’m going to blow your head off.’ I was crazy, but it was just family feuding,” Huff said.

Right, just family feuding … without Richard Dawson.

Huff knows he wasn’t the only one laying out the hits. He played at a time that was middle linebacker heaven, with Bill George playing for the Bears, Ray Nitschke for the Packers, Joe Schmidt for the Detroit Lions and Chuck Bednarik of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Yes, Chuck Bednarik.

“Hardest hit I ever saw,” Huff said.

Frank Gifford, Huff’s teammate and later one of the famous voices on Monday Night Football, went across the middle and tried to go low under Bednarik.

“You never go low on a linebacker. They trained to take your head off,” Huff said.

Gifford almost lost that Monday Night Football career before it started as Bednarik laid him out cold, Huff demonstrating what he saw of the hit.

“I carried him off the field,” Huff said.

It isn’t well known, but even before football, Huff tried his hand at baseball.

“I was a catcher. I went up to Pennsylvania to play minor league ball but they were throwing that ball 90 miles an hour. I took one look at that and said ‘I’m out of here.’ The guys said, ‘You’re doing fine catching,’ and I said, ‘That guy is throwing that ball too hard.’ So I left minor league baseball and went to the Giants’ training camp.”

Baseball, however, never left him.

He wound up playing in Yankee Stadium, which was home not only to the Yankees but to the New York Football Giants.

“I shared a locker with Mickey Mantle,” he said.

Imagine the value of that locker today.

Huff and Mantle became friendly, along with Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra and a number of other top players, and Huff was as big time as all of them.

“You get to know so many people,” he said. “Everybody wants your autograph. People chased me around, and I never turned anybody away.”

He’s no different today. Sam Huff may not be as intimidating, but he’s just as accommodating.

Just ask him for an autograph. Everyone did at Oliverio’s, and he still hasn’t turned anyone down.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.