Claude Humphrey was one of the best defensive linemen in Atlanta Falcons franchise history.
Humphrey could also make a case for being one of the best pass rushers in league history. Only Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Kevin Green, and Julius Peppers bested his nine double-digit sack seasons from 1968 to 1981.
Humphrey, the 1968 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and linebacker Tommy Nobis were one of the few bright spots on a Falcons team that had struggled mightily since its expansion year in 1966.
Despite Atlanta’s ineptitude, Humphrey became a six-time Pro Bowler, five-time First-Team All-Pro, and three-time Second-Team All-Pro selection in his pro football career.
Humphrey later joined the Philadelphia Eagles and led them to a Super Bowl appearance against the Oakland Raiders in 1980.
After a long wait, Humphrey finally became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in the summer of 2014.
This is Claude Humphrey’s inspiring football story.
Claude B. Humphrey was born in Memphis, TN, on June 29, 1944. He has two sisters, Laura and Omelia, and a brother, Charles.
Humphrey’s gridiron journey officially began when he was running an errand for his mother while he was growing up in Tennessee.
One day, while he was playing in their front yard, Claude’s mother, Millie Ann Humphrey, asked him to go buy some cornmeal and baking powder.
Claude obliged and stumbled on a group of boys playing football at Lester High School. He stopped for a while and watched them playing a scrimmage game from a distance.
One of the coaches saw him, approached him, and asked him if he would like to play football.
Claude told him he would love to but he was running an errand for his mother. The coach told him to ask for his mother’s permission when got home.
Claude did just that. However, Millie Ann Humphrey told him he had to be back in time for dinner. Otherwise, he would not eat. That was how his parents ran their household.
When Humphrey entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH in the summer of 2014, he remembered his mother acting as the family’s main breadwinner.
Whenever Claude sustained an injury playing football, his mom stayed up late just so she could take care of him.
Some six decades later, Claude told the crowd in Canton, OH he appreciated his mother’s gestures. Although she had a full workday ahead of her, she always made her family a priority.
On the other end, Claude’s father stayed mostly at home and worked odd jobs to help put food on the table.
Laura, Claude’s older sister, was the best cook in the Humphrey household. Claude swore nobody in the state of Tennessee cooked turnip greens, cornbread, and ham hocks better than she did.
Claude looked up to his older brother, Charles. He considered him his hero. According to Claude’s Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech, Charles was the second-fastest man in the Volunteer State.
Claude was certain he inherited some of Charles’s speed. The former put that to good use whenever he played on the defensive line.
Claude also praised his sister, Omelia. She was a caring sister who purchased Claude’s first suit for his high school prom.
High School Years
Claude Humphrey attended Lester High School in his hometown of Memphis, TN.
When he was a junior at Lester High in 1962, Humphrey met the love of his life, Sandra, when she introduced herself to him.
They soon became a couple and remained together until her tragic death in 2013.
Claude was a three-sport star who excelled in football, basketball, and track during his high school days.
Humphrey participated in the low hurdle and shotput events in track. He was so good in the latter event, he set a new Tennessee state record that stood until 2004.
Two of Claude’s teammates on the basketball team were high school All-Americans, Charlie Parker and Richard Jones. With the three of them clicking on all cylinders, Lester High earned runner-up honors in the state tournament for two straight years.
During his career, Merritt built a powerful program that produced NFL stars like "Jefferson Street" Joe Gilliam, Ed "Too Tall" Jones, Claude Humphrey & many others. The John Merritt Classic, named in his honor, will be played Saturday in Nissan Stadium #BigBlueRising #Legendary pic.twitter.com/x6ahIYRYf6
— Tennessee State Athletics (@TSU_Tigers) August 28, 2019
Claude’s high school years coincided with Herman O’Neil’s first few years as an assistant football coach.
O’Neil played on both sides of the ball during his college days at Lincoln University. Claude gave him credit for toughening him up on the gridiron many years later.
“Coach O’Neil made me meaner than I needed to be to play football,” Humphrey said in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 2014. “So Coach O’Neil gets the credit for that.”
Choosing a College
A tougher Claude Humphrey received plenty of scholarship offers when he was in high school. His first visit was with legendary Grambling State Tigers head football coach Eddie Robinson in Louisiana in the mid-1960s.
However, Humphrey decided there was nothing much to see in Grambling, LA, so he crossed the Tigers off his short list.
For Claude Humphrey, the college football coach who stood out the most was the Tennessee State Tigers’ John Merritt.
Merritt visited Humphrey during his senior year at Lester High School in 1963. The first thing the coach did was ask Claude to stand on their front porch while he talked to his parents.
Merritt assured them Claude would get a good education, go to church on Sundays, and receive the best possible care if he committed to Tennessee State.
To Claude’s astonishment, Merritt got down on one knee and said a prayer after he recruited him. That gesture sold Claude Humphrey on Tennessee State.
He turned down subsequent offers from the Illinois Fighting Illini, Nebraska Cornhuskers, and other big-name college football programs. Claude was going to remain in-state and play for the great John Merritt.
Millie Ann Humphrey also knew Merritt was the right coach for her son. She told Claude he would take care of him, and he did.
Claude eventually became one of the greatest defensive linemen in Tennessee State Tigers football history.
College Days with the Tennessee State Tigers
Claude Humphrey attended Tennessee State University, a historically black university in Nashville, TN, from 1964 to 1967.
Humphrey was an offensive tackle during the first half of his true freshman season in 1964.
However, Tennessee State Tigers head football coach John Merritt switched Claude to defensive end, where he excelled and eventually earned All-American honors three times.
Happy birthday to @BCFHOF Class of 2012 Inductee CLAUDE HUMPHREY!
Humphrey was an All-American lineman for @tsu_football under Coach John Merritt. He was drafted in the 1st round of the 1968 NFL Draft by the @AtlantaFalcons. He was named to 6 Pro Bowls and had 126½ career sacks. pic.twitter.com/q3tAMCqYEt
— BlackCollegeFootball (@BCFHOF) June 29, 2019
Humphrey gave credit to Tigers defensive line coach J.C. Coffee, whom Claude and his teammates fondly referred to as “Old Buddy,” for making him an All-American defensive lineman.
“‘Old Buddy’ knew football, and he was the reason that I ended up being an All-American, because he taught me how to disengage, to engage, and disengage, to tackle to run,” Humphrey said in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech in 2014.
Humphrey helped Tennessee State win all of its ten games in 1966. Humphrey, who had a school-record 39.0 sacks with the Tigers during his four-year stint, emerged as one of the nation’s best defensive linemen during his senior season in 1967.
He suited up in four college all-star games that year: the Senior Bowl, the Blue-Gray Game, the Coaches All-American Game, and the College All-Star Game.
Claude Humphrey was just getting started. He would take his game to a higher level and become one of the greatest pass rushers in Atlanta Falcons franchise history.
Pro Football Career
The Atlanta Falcons made Claude Humphrey the third overall selection of the 1968 NFL Draft.
Humphrey remembered moving to Atlanta, GA during turbulent times in the South in the late 1960s.
After the Falcons concluded their training camp in the summer of 1968, they assigned Humphrey and his family to a hotel in Atlanta. It was a hard time for Claude, his wife, and his firstborn daughter.
“Now, I’ve got an 18-year-old wife and a small child, Cheyenne, and hey, it was just tough,” Humphrey said in his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech some forty-six years later.
Fortunately, Humphrey and his family crossed paths with African-American baseball player Herschel Harper, who played second base for the Atlanta Jets.
Herschel and his wife, Juanita, took the Humphreys under their wings and showed them the Jim Crow ways of the South. Claude felt he would not have endured in his pro football career had it not been for the couple’s timely intervention.
Falcons defensive back Ken Reaves was Claude’s roommate during the latter’s rookie season. Reaves essentially taught him the ropes of the pro game.
“Kenny taught me what it was like to be a pro football player,” Humphrey said in 2014. “He helped me to get everything in line.”
Claude Humphrey started all fourteen games in 1968 for Falcons head coach Norm Van Brocklin. He had 11.5 sacks in his first pro football season and earned 1968 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Unfortunately, the Falcons, who were in their third year in the National Football League, won just two of fourteen games.
It was a trend that continued for the majority of Claude Humphrey’s tenure in Atlanta. He and linebacker Tommy Nobis excelled on defense for a bad Falcons team well into the late 1970s.
A New Coach Makes a Difference
The Falcons hired defensive coordinator Marion Campbell before the 1969 NFL campaign, marking a massive turning point in Humphrey’s pro football career.
To make a long story short, Campbell made Humphrey into an elite pass rusher in the National Football League.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) June 29, 2022
When Campbell met Humphrey for the first time, he told him winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award wasn’t enough. Players at football’s highest level get better every year. Humphrey could not afford to just sit around and be content.
Campbell was coming off stints as the defensive line coach of the Boston Patriots, Minnesota Vikings, and Los Angeles Rams.
Two of Campbell’s proteges were Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen—two of the greatest pass rushers in pro football history.
Campbell passed on his knowledge to Humphrey, who absorbed his newfound football knowledge like a sponge. Claude thought the learning process was easy because Marion Campbell was a great teacher, per ProFootballHOF.com.
Marion Campbell’s teaching paid huge dividends for Humphrey, who racked up five consecutive Pro Bowl appearances from 1970 to 1974. Claude recorded double-digit numbers in sacks four times during those five years.
Humphrey also went on to earn five First-Team All-Pro and three Second-Team All-Pro selections in his legendary NFL career.
Humphrey was an ironman in the first half of his career. He missed just two out of a possible 98 games in his first seven pro football seasons.
Injury and Comeback
Regrettably, a knee injury forced Humphrey to sit out the entire 1975 NFL season. With Claude out of commission, Atlanta won just four games that year and recorded its ninth losing season in its first ten years of existence.
At that point in Humphrey’s career, fans and pundits alike thought he was done. He tore a ligament and both cartilages in his knee.
When Claude earned his gold jacket and bust in Canton, OH in 2014, he thanked diminutive surgeon, Dr. James Funk, for putting his knee back together.
Funk, whose head reached the 6’4″ Humphrey’s waist, told his patient it was all on him from that point onward.
After Claude’s surgery with Dr. Funk, his road to recovery was far from finished.
Humphrey had blood clots because he lived a sedentary life after he injured his knee. Claude visited Dr. Charlie Harrison, who helped heal the Falcons pass rusher’s blood clots.
Before long, Humphrey started to put in the work and came back with a vengeance in 1976. Despite a one-year hiatus from the gridiron, Claude had 14.5 sacks that year.
To nobody’s surprise, Humphrey’s Falcons teammates voted him their team MVP in 1976.
Although Claude Humphrey was back in harness, Atlanta won just four games for the second consecutive year.
Time to Move On
Another coach who made a profound difference in Humphrey’s life was Jerry Glanville.
Glanville served as the Falcons’ defensive backs coach in Claude’s last two years in Atlanta from 1977 to 1978.
Glanville helped shore up a stingy Falcons defense which he dubbed “The Grits Blitz.” The defense mainly called for the defensive linemen to blitz the quarterback.
Behind Jerry Glanville’s genius, the Atlanta Falcons produced the fifth-best defense in league history in the late 1970s.
The Falcons finally made their postseason debut in Claude Humphrey’s last season in Atlanta in 1978.
Regrettably, the Falcons lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the 1978 NFC Divisional Round, 27-20.
It was unfortunate Humphrey never tasted postseason football while he wore the Falcons’ red and black for eleven years. Claude retired from the NFL just four games into the 1978 NFL campaign.
In 2016, Humphrey told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he left at an inopportune moment because the Falcons refused to pay him what he was worth at the time.
Humphrey also found it hard to negotiate with Atlanta general manager Eddie LeBaron. Everything LeBaron said got on Humphrey’s nerves to the point the latter walked out of their final meeting in 1978.
At that point, Claude knew his time in Atlanta was over.
“One day, I was sitting at my locker and I just felt like we weren’t going anyplace,” Humphrey said in 2014. “So I left the Falcons football team. Nobody messed with me. Nobody did anything to me. I just left.”
A New Career
Humphrey focused on his burgeoning career as a sports media personality after he left the Falcons.
He hosted The Claude Humphrey Show on Atlanta radio station WAOK in the late 1970s. One of his tasks was to interview the most recent game MVP of the Falcons’ game.
Humphrey flew to Nashville, TN in prior offseasons to work for the city’s Metro Board Parks and Recreation. Claude worked with many kids from all over the city during his time there. Although the pay wasn’t great, his fondness for children made up for it, per ProFootballHOF.com.
Fast forward many years later, some of the kids he had worked with stopped him on the streets of Nashville and thanked him for his efforts. That gesture meant everything to Claude Humphrey.
Claude Humphrey’s first retirement from the NFL did not last long.
Traded to Philly
The Falcons eventually traded the disgruntled Humprey to the Philadelphia Eagles for two fourth-round draft selections prior to the 1979 NFL campaign. He spent his last three pro football seasons in the City of Brotherly Love.
Humphrey’s first season in Philly coincided with the legendary Dick Vermeil’s fourth as Eagles head coach in 1979.
Claude joined the Eagles during a memorable time in franchise history.
The Philadelphia teams of the late 1970s were a dedicated bunch. Humphrey and the other defensive linemen such as Carl Hairston, Ken Clark, and Charlie Johnson had pre-practice meetings before the coaches even arrived.
Since winning the NFL Championship in 1960, Philadelphia had missed the postseason for seventeen straight years from 1961 to 1977.
Vermeil, a hard-nosed workaholic who previously served as the Los Angeles Rams’ quarterbacks coach from 1971 to 1973, promptly righted the Eagles’ sinking ship.
Under Vermeil’s leadership, the Eagles averaged eleven wins per year and made four consecutive postseason appearances from 1978 to 1981.
In 2015, Humphrey told Jim Gehman of the Eagles’ official website that Philly played like a cohesive unit in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was the kind of team-oriented football that resonated deeply with him.
Claude considered his three-year stint in Philly a major blessing. He just regretted the fact it happened so late in his fourteen-year pro football career.
Heading to the Super Bowl
The pinnacle of that memorable four-year stretch came during the 1980 NFL season when Philly won a then-franchise record twelve games.
Claude Humphrey was a big reason behind that resurgence. The 36-year-old pass rusher showed everyone he was far from finished. He recorded a career-high 15.5 sacks in 1980.
With Humphrey wreaking havoc on the Eagles’ defensive line, they made their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history that year.
Alas, Humprey and company lost to Tom Flores’s Oakland Raiders in humiliating fashion in Super Bowl XV, 27-10.
To add insult to injury, officials called a penalty on Claude for roughing the passer during the game. An irate Humphrey scooped up the flag and threw it at referee Ben Dreith.
Claude Humphrey retired for the second and final time following the 1981 NFL season.
Although the NFL did not make sacks an official statistic until 1982, Claude Humphrey was one of the best at roughing up the quarterback during his 14-year pro football career.
Unofficial statistics claim Humphrey had 130.0 sacks in his NFL career. He recorded double figures in sacks nine times during his pro football career.
Consequently, Claude became part of some elite company. Only Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Kevin Green, and Julius Peppers had produced more double-digit sack seasons than Humphrey.
His 99.5 sacks with the Falcons from 1968 to 1978 are the most in franchise history.
Defensive end John Abraham, who had 68.5 sacks for the Falcons from 2006 to 2012, is a distant second.
Claude Humphrey also had two interceptions, 11 fumble recoveries, and one touchdown off a fumble recovery in his fourteen-year pro football career.
Humphrey’s ferocity as a pass rusher struck fear into the hearts of many blockers who got in his way.
“I didn’t want that job (of blocking him),” former Denver Broncos halfback Floyd Little told The Daily Herald in the summer of 2014. “Claude was a beast. He was a great, great defensive end.”
In the summer of 2014, Humphrey told the Falcons’ official website that he considered Hall of Fame right tackles Bob Brown, Rayfield Wright, Ron Yary, and Dan Dierdorf the best offensive linemen he went up against during his pro football career.
On the other hand, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton was the most elusive quarterback Humphrey had ever faced.
“If I had gotten a sack every time I caught Fran Tarkenton, my sack stats would be astronomical,” Humphrey told AtlantaFalcons.com in 2014. “Fran Tarkenton, by far, was the quarterback that gave me the most problems.”
Post-Football Life and Death
According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s I.J. Rosenberg, Claude Humphrey returned to his native Memphis, TN where he raised cattle after retiring from the National Football League.
Humphrey also appeared in the television comedy series The Dukes of Hazzard during his retirement years.
Claude Humphrey became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH in the summer of 2014. His daughter, Cheyenne Humphrey-Robinson, was his presenter.
Humphrey gave credit to his wife, Sandra, for stating his case for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. She stopped at nothing so her husband could get his gold jacket and bust in Canton, OH.
Sandra Humphrey became Claude’s de facto campaign manager. She called people and talked to various connections.
Claude’s first four attempts at entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2009 were unsuccessful.
He and Sandra sat down, cried, and consoled each other after every failed attempt. They also went out and ate so they could get their minds off things.
Finally, Claude Humphrey joined football’s elite in the summer of 2014. When he took the podium that year, he also gave credit to Sandra for being a great mother who raised three upstanding daughters.
Sadly, Sandra Humphrey passed away due to ovarian cancer in 2013.
Hall of Famer at Last
After 32 years, Claude Humphrey finally received his gold jacket and bust in Canton, OH. When he found out about his induction in early 2014, he described his gung-ho style of play on the gridiron.
“I was aggressive—very aggressive. I tried to play the game to the point where when I walked off the field, there was nothing that I didn’t cover. I tried to play all out. I didn’t take any prisoners. I just tried to do my job.”
Humphrey is also a member of the Lester High School Athletics Hall of Fame, the Tennessee State University Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, the Atlanta Sports Hall of Fame, the Black College Football Hall of Fame, and the Atlanta Falcons Ring of Honor.
Humphrey donated several of his awards—including some of his Pro Bowl plaques, NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year trophy, and a certificate of appreciation from President Richard Nixon—to the Pro Football Hall of Fame several months before his enshrinement.
Claude Humphrey, one of the greatest pass rushers in Atlanta Falcons franchise history, died on December 4, 2021. He was 77 years old.
Doctors took removed one of Humphrey’s kidneys due to cancer several years before he passed away. He had been struggling with diabetes for years prior to that procedure, per Rosenberg.
Humphrey left behind his three daughters: Cheyenne, Claudia, and Chandra.
Claude Humphrey was an avid checkers player during his retirement years.