Sam Huff, a defensive force for the New York Giants and one of the greatest linebackers in NFL history, died Saturday. He was 87.
Huff’s death was announced by his daughter, Catherine Huff Myers, per the Washington Post. The former gridiron great died at a hospital in Winchester, Va.
The Hall of Famer was a hard-hitting champion and seminal figure in football’s rise as a nationally-televised spectacle that captured the passions of the entire country.
The third-round 1956 Giants draft pick played 13 seasons, eight with the Giants and five for Washington, earning five Pro Bowl selections and three All-Pro nods.
“Sam was one of the greatest Giants of all time,” co-owner John Mara said in a statement Saturday night. “He was the heart and soul of our defense in his era. He almost single-handedly influenced the first chants of ‘Defense, Defense’ in Yankee Stadium.”
Huff, wearing his trademark No. 70, anchored Tom Landry’s defense on the 1956 NFL championship team and took the Giants to five more title games, none more famous than the 1958 NFL Championship Game played at Yankee Stadium, known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Johnny Unitas’ Baltimore Colts beat Huff’s Giants, 23-17, in overtime. Huff forced a fumble, blocked a field goal and was a tackling machine. The game, which featured 17 Hall of Famers, was a turning point for football’s nationwide popularity on TV.
The NFL just cashed in this March with an 11-year, $110 billion media distribution agreement with its media partners. That business was built on the backs of stars like Huff, who helped carry football to prominence.
“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,” Landry, the Hall of Fame coach, wrote in an introduction to Huff’s 1988 autobiography, “Tough Stuff.”
Huff racked up 30 career interceptions but made his name by standing up to the great running backs of his era, including Cleveland’s Jim Brown, Chicago’s Rick Casares, Baltimore’s Alan Ameche and Green Bay’s Jim Taylor.
“It was like I was born to play the position,” Huff once said of playing middle linebacker.
Huff and the Giants defense held Cleveland’s Brown to eight yards on seven carries in a 10-0 shutout win in the 1958 Eastern conference semifinal.
“You play as hard and as tough as you can, but you play clean,” Huff once said. “We hit each other hard, sure. But this is a man’s game and any guy who doesn’t want to hit hard doesn’t belong in it.”
Huff rose to fame with All-Pro selections in 1958 and 1959, a Time Magazine cover at age 24, and a 1960 TV special, “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” that took the viewers onto the field with the hard-nosed Huff. He became the symbol of a glamorous era for defensive football.
The most unbelievable part of Huff’s journey is that it nearly didn’t even get off the ground.
An All-American guard and tackle at West Virginia, Huff struggled to find a place with the Giants in his first pro training camp. Coach Jim Lee Howell didn’t know where to play him. Huff grew so discouraged that he packed his bags a few days into camp and headed for the airport.
Fortunately for Huff and the Giants, he never made it there. His offensive coordinator stopped him.
“The late Vince Lombardi intercepted him and persuaded him to come back,” Landry recounted while presenting Huff at his Hall of Fame enshrinement in 1982. “I tell you that was the smartest decision Sam ever made.”
Shortly after Huff’s return, starting middle linebacker Ray Beck got hurt, and Huff switched to the position he would occupy for his entire storied career.
Robert Lee Huff was born in Morgantown, West Virginia, on Oct. 4, 1934. He stayed out of the coal mines by starring as a two-way lineman at Farmington High School and as an All-American guard for the West Virginia Mountaineers in college.
Then Giants scout Al DeRogatis noticed Huff while in town to scout another All-American guard at West Virginia, Bruce Bosley. And the rest was history. Huff never missed a single game in his eight seasons with the Giants, either.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly ‘Once a Giant, Always a Giant’ for Huff.
Soon after the Giants lost the 1963 NFL championship to Chicago, 14-10, coach Allie Sherman started dismantling the team despite an 11-3 record that season. And Huff was furious when he learned he’d been traded to Washington, which had gone 3-11.
“As long as I live,” he wrote in his autobiography, “I will never forgive Allie Sherman for trading me.”
Then on Nov. 27, 1966, at RFK Stadium, Huff’s Washington team ran up the score on Sherman’s Giants, 72-41, in what is still the highest-scoring game in NFL history. Washington even called a timeout with seven seconds remaining to kick a field goal.
“Justice is done,” Huff said after the game. Later he confessed: “I took it upon myself to yell for the field goal team to get out there.”
Huff played five seasons in Washington, taking 1968 off before returning for his final season in 1969. He began broadcasting with the Giants 1972 before beginning a long career as a Washington color analyst in 1975.
“Anyone who knew Sam knew what an amazing person he was,” Washington owners Dan and Tanya Snyder said in a statement. “He was an iconic player and broadcaster for the franchise for over 40 years and was a great friend to our family. He represented the franchise with honor and respect on the field in the booth and was beloved by our fans.”