Peak performance

The Baltimore Sun

Ken Huff spent most of his football career at the bottom of piles. But for his 55th birthday, he was on top of the world.

Huff, a former No. 1 draft pick of the Baltimore Colts and an NFL offensive guard for 11 seasons, celebrated the milestone in February by scaling Mount Kilimanjaro, one of the world's tallest peaks.

In football parlance, the four-day trek was akin to climbing the steps to the nosebleed seats - 1,000 times over. The scene at the summit of the 19,340-foot mountain in Africa topped the view in any stadium.

"It was an awesome experience, an amazing sight," said Huff, who reached the crest at sunrise with a group of wheezing tourists. "You're so far above the clouds that you can see forever."

The panorama would have taken his breath away, had the altitude not already done so. The air was so thin that Huff completed the final stage shuffling along and gasping like a flabby rookie during two-a-days in training camp.

Told that Huff was going to tackle Kilimanjaro, the world's highest free-standing mountain, Huff's old teammates shook their heads.

"I said, 'What are you smokin', man? You aren't the type,'" said Bruce Laird, who played with Huff on the Colts from 1975 to 1981. "I wouldn't climb that mountain unless there was a Marriott at the top with a big ol' Jacuzzi."

Said Mark May, with whom Huff played in Washington from 1983 to 1985: "When Ken called to say he was going, I thought he'd lost his mind. I said, 'Make sure I'm in your insurance policy.' I don't know if [the trip] was on his bucket list or if he's just a bucket head.

"Tell you what: The only way you'd get me up that mountain is if I took a helicopter to the peak so I could walk down."

This wasn't the first time Huff had worked his way to the top. The third player chosen in the 1975 draft, the North Carolina grad helped the Colts go from 2-12 to 10-4 in his rookie year - the first of three straight AFC division titles for Baltimore.

Huff spent eight seasons here and three more with the Redskins before retiring to start a home construction business in Chapel Hill, N.C. But as the years passed, Huff grew antsy, as if standing on the sideline in the game of life.

And he thought: An adventurer I will be.

"I've been very lucky physically, making it through 11 years without the problems many of my peers have had," he said.

Last year, Huff went whitewater rafting down the Colorado River and rock climbing in Utah.

At 55, he was the oldest of the 30 or so climbers who huddled at the base of the volcano in Tanzania to begin their 3 1/2 -day ascent. Others noted their graying companion and accorded him respect.

"If they'd known about all of the abuse I put my knees through [in football], they'd have been even more impressed," Huff said.

Tour guides explained that one-third of the group would likely turn back for various reasons. Heart attacks. Broken legs. Altitude sickness.

"It's like starting out in Denver and going up," Huff said.

Each day brought stark climate change.

"You begin in the tropics," he said, "and end up at a glacier."

As Huff tromped up the mountain, his competitiveness took hold.

"It was a source of pride that no one pass you on the trail," he said. "The only ones who went by me were some Austrians in their 20s who'd trained in the Alps."

Each night, after dinner, the guides huddled around a portable radio and listened to broadcasts of African soccer games. Hikers bundled up in sleeping bags. The third and final evening, Huff and his party were awakened at midnight to trudge the last five hours in darkness.

"They wanted us at the summit at sunrise," he said.

What price beauty?

"That last [climb] was the hardest thing I've ever done - harder than any training camp," Huff said. "The air was so thin, I couldn't go faster than a walking shuffle. My stride was 6 inches, tops, and I couldn't pick my feet up. If I'd been going any slower, I'd have been walking backward.

"It was pitch-black except for this little beam of light from the headlamp you wore on your forehead. But that was OK, because you couldn't really see how far you'd have fallen had you wandered off the path."

Several hours from the top, Huff passed at least a dozen tourists going in the opposite direction.

"Those were the ones who didn't make it [to the peak]," he said. "I turned to my guide and said, 'That must be The Walk of Shame.' But then I thought, 'Geez, that might be me in a couple more minutes.'"

Huff struggled to the summit, where he was allowed 20 minutes to savor success.

"It was absolutely gorgeous and a real sense of accomplishment," he said. "I liken it to the feeling you have after a football game in which you've played your heart out and are now totally spent - mentally and physically drained.

"That's a great feeling."

At the base - after a descent that was tougher than he thought it would be - Huff received a certificate verifying his accomplishment and a 16-ounce bottle of Kilimanjaro Beer.

Huff's effort made his former teammates take notice.

"As a player, Ken was one of those calm, quiet offensive linemen that we called 'the grazing cattle,'" Laird said. "At 55, he has blossomed into a defensive back mentality.

"He woke up, smelled the coffee and is enjoying it."

Would Huff repeat the climb?

"Nah," he said. "I've checked it off of my list.

"Now I'm going to try skydiving."

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad