In 1968, newly drafted by the Denver Broncos, Curley Culp was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs.
The acquisition was a boon for the Chiefs, who already had a stable full of future Hall of Famers.
The team inserted Culp at defensive tackle, and he helped the team win Super Bowl IV a year later.
— Vintage KCChiefs (@Vintage_Chiefs) March 12, 2023
With a background in wrestling, Culp was a natural for football, especially the interior defensive line.
He proved too strong for a single opponent, and most teams attempted to deploy double teams against him.
Of course, that meant the Chiefs had a free man or two to harass ball carriers.
Culp ended up playing 14 years for three different teams and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013.
This is the story of Curley Culp.
Growing Up in Yuma
Curley Culp was born on March 10, 1946, in Yuma, Arizona.
In memoriam: Remembering former #Oilers Hall of Fame NT Curley Culp, BOTD in 1946
🏥 Yuma, AZ
🪦 November 27, 2021 age 75
🎓 Arizona State
📊INT; 8 FR, TD; 31.5 sacks
🏅1975-1978 Pro Bowl
🏈PFHOF inductee in 2013
— 𝕃𝕦𝕧 𝕐𝕒 𝔹𝕝𝕦𝕖 (@BudsOilers) March 10, 2023
Culp and his twin sister, Shirley, were the last of 13 siblings born to Frank and Octavia Culp.
Frank Culp ran a pig farm and also collected garbage for several businesses in the Yuma area.
Curley and his siblings frequently worked alongside their father and would heft 50-gallon barrels of trash into their father’s truck.
All that heavy lifting, plus tending to the family’s pigs, acted as a de facto weight training program for Curley.
Once he reached Yuma High School, Curley was already strong and not one to back down from a challenge.
He went out for the Criminals’ (the name of Yuma High’s mascot) football and wrestling teams, determined to make a name for himself.
When Culp took part in his first wrestling match, those in attendance gasped when he removed his warm-ups.
The manual labor he took part in with his father and siblings made Culp look like a miniature version of the Incredible Hulk.
“He had a body build that was just unbelievable,” Yuma wrestling coach Pat Patterson said. “He had muscles on top of muscles on top of muscles…”
Another side effect of his side jobs, Culp was quick and agile.
“I’ve never seen a man that big who could move as quickly as he could,” said Patterson.
Sports and Academic Star
Athletics came fairly easy for Culp.
On the gridiron, he was a menacing defensive lineman who was also called on to play fullback for Yuma High.
During the Criminals’ homecoming game in 1964, Culp was asked to tote the rock against a conference rival.
Culp answered the call by pounding into the defense several times and rushing for over 100 yards.
His efforts that night led to Yuma’s 7-0 victory, although he returned to play on defense only after the game.
“Coach, I better not play fullback anymore because I won’t last the whole season. They beat me up,'” said Culp to his football coach after the contest.
When he wasn’t pulverizing opponents on the field, wrestlers could rarely match Culp on the wrestling mat.
With his quickness and ability to manhandle his foes, Culp was the state heavyweight champion in 1963 and 1964.
Remembering my classmate Curley Culp, Yuma High School.
Sandra Hollin Flowers pic.twitter.com/fUdC4iynyb
— Sandra_Revised (@revisingmyself) November 28, 2021
His legend grew across Arizona, and even Sports Illustrated called Culp the “Puma from Yuma.”
Culp was no one-trick pony, though. He excelled outside of sports as well.
During high school, Culp was a member of FFA, the National Honor Society, the honor roll, and an American Legion Student of the Year.
“I think he’s the epitome of what a parent would want their son to be,” said Culp’s high school assistant wrestling coach, Tom Daniel. “He was humble, he was sincere, he was caring, he was loving and he was tough.”
Despite his accolades, Culp still encountered people who took issue with him, even in a remote outpost like Yuma.
“Certain restaurants we could not go in because of Curley. Even here in Yuma,” said former teammate Richard Moran. “There was some restaurants that they would not let African Americans into their restaurant.”
As was his character, Culp only used the slights as fuel for his competitive fire.
By his high school graduation, a number of colleges wanted Culp for his athletic and academic ability.
The issue was that most wanted him to choose only one sport to play.
However, Coach Frank Kush from Arizona State University had other ideas.
When visiting with Culp and his family, Kush promised Culp that he could play both sports.
That was all the Puma from Yuma needed to hear. He became a Sun Devil.
#BlackFootballHistoryMonth Continued-Sun Devils' baseball team.] Curley Culp was a 1967 Time Magazine and Sporting News All-American and 2-time All-WAC middle guard for Arizona State University., who played both offensive and defensive tackle. He was drafted 31 st overall, in pic.twitter.com/SeiWioL7C2
— Bill Carroll (@elevenbravo138) February 22, 2021
After Culp arrived on campus in 1964, he continued to shine in the classroom and in the athletic arena.
He was a shade under 6’2” and weighed nearly 270 pounds, putting Culp in the “unlimited” weight class for wrestlers.
Culp’s build helped him keep a low center of gravity, and his speed made him lethal on the mat.
As a sophomore in 1966, he was a Western Athletic Conference (WAC) champion but lost in the NCAA Wrestling Championships.
The following year, Culp was the WAC champion again and also won the 1967 NCAA heavyweight division.
“I have to say that I never experienced human strength to the level of Curley Culp,” opponent Frank Paquin said. “It wasn’t that he was a great technical wrestler. His strategy was just to get his hands on his opponent and destroy him with his strength.”
During the NCAA Championships, Culp proved time and again why he was one of the best collegiate wrestlers in the country.
Match after match, Culp pinned his opponents quickly.
— Sun Devil Wrestling (@ASUWrestling) November 27, 2021
In fact, in the championship round, he defeated his adversary, Dominic Carollo of Adams State, in 51 seconds.
For his efforts, Culp received the Gorriaran Award for the most pins in the least amount of time.
In 1968, Culp was the WAC champion for the third year in a row.
He then spent several weeks at the U.S. Olympic Trials for the 1968 Summer Olympic Games but did not make the freestyle team.
Culp Dominates in Football
There’s no doubt that Culp’s experience with the Sun Devils wrestling team helped him on the football field.
“I think I liked wrestling even more than football,” he said years later, adding that “some of the skills that are necessary to compete are transferable from wrestling to football. The agility, the hand-to-hand combat, the quickness.”
The technique that he molded on the mat carried over perfectly to football, and Culp became a two-time All-WAC selection and an All-American as a linebacker in 1967.
Along the way, legend has it that Culp broke the helmets of no fewer than three teammates due to his brutal hits in practice.
One of the greatest Sun Devils ever.
Rest in Peace, Curley 💛🔱 pic.twitter.com/j7eTzYLrto
— Sun Devil Football (@ASUFootball) November 27, 2021
What scared ball carriers the most was that Culp not only had the size of a wrestling heavyweight, but he also timed out at 4.6 in the 40-yard dash.
“Culp is really strong,” said Dave Middendorf, Washington State offensive guard. “I have never played against a linebacker or middle guard who is as strong in the upper body. He just tosses you off and goes about his business.”
Not only did linemen have trouble with Culp’s strength, but quarterbacks couldn’t get a handle on his speed and quickness.
“Every time I dropped back to pass, Culp would be there to greet me,” said West Texas State quarterback Hank Washington. “He stayed on me all night long and hit like a tank. He would have to be the best defensive player I saw all season.”
During his time in Tempe, the Sun Devils never played in a bowl game, but every NFL team in the country was aware of who Curley Culp was.
Denver Drafts Culp to Play Offense
In 1967, the Denver Broncos hired Lou Saban and gave him a ten-year contract.
His job was to move the Broncos from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the heap.
Saban’s first year didn’t go well and Denver went 3-11.
Then, in the 1968 NFL Draft, he selected Culp with the 31st overall pick in the second round.
“He’s a contact football player,” Saban said after the draft. “He’s an athlete who can play more than one position and a man we feel can step right in and play for us.”
When Culp arrived in the Mile High City, Saban took a look at the rookie and decided the Broncos needed help on the offensive line.
Therefore, Saban reasoned, he needed to turn Culp into a guard.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) January 30, 2013
It didn’t matter that he hadn’t played offensive line in college, let alone the guard position.
Upon being told of Saban’s intentions, Culp explained that he didn’t believe the position change was a good idea.
“I told them at the time it wasn’t my feel,” Culp said in 2013. “I didn’t play it in college and didn’t feel comfortable with it. I’d rather deliver than receive. Offensive lineman basically received and defensive linemen delivered. I wanted to deliver.”
The men argued back and forth until Saban had had enough and decided that, instead of working with a talent like Culp, he would just trade him.
The Kansas City Chiefs were more than willing to add another piece to their defense and sent a fourth-round pick to Denver in exchange for Culp.
“I guess I proved them wrong,” Culp told The Associated Press in 2013. “A little fireplug, that’s me.”
Culp Joins a Loaded Chiefs Team
In hindsight, Saban’s trade of Culp is viewed as one of the worst moves in Broncos’ history.
Saban himself seemed to admit this fact only two years later.
“We knew Culp was a fine defensive tackle,” Saban said in 1970, ” but we tried to convert him into an offensive lineman.”
Just like that, Culp was a member of a Chiefs defense that was already one of the best in the American Football League (AFL).
— Vintage KCChiefs (@Vintage_Chiefs) March 28, 2023
The unit was third best in the AFL in 1967 and boasted names such as Willie Lanier, Buck Buchanan, Ernie Ladd, Bobby Bell, Johnny Robinson, and Emmitt Thomas.
“It was almost unfair to have Culp and Buchanan and Lanier and all those guys,” Joe Namath told The Kansas City Star in 2013. “How did they find all those guys in Kansas City?”
Culp was used as a reserve defensive tackle and the Chiefs became the top-ranked defense in the AFL in 1968.
Sacks didn’t become an official NFL stat until 1982, but recent efforts have been made to add unofficial sack totals for various players dating back to 1960.
As one of the most dominant defensive tackles of his era, Curley Culp helped propel the @Chiefs to a win in Super Bowl IV and the Houston Oilers to becoming contenders throughout the late '70s.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) March 11, 2023
During his rookie year, Culp has been credited with one sack in nine games played.
After a 12-2 season in 1968, the Oakland Raiders crushed Kansas City in the Divisional round, 41-6.
Kansas City Reaches the Super Bowl
In 1969, Kansas City was an absolutely dominant football team.
The Chiefs’ offense was ranked second in the AFL while the defense was once again the league’s top unit.
Before the year began, head coach Hank Stram challenged Culp.
“At the end of my first year, Ed Lathomer, and I were returning left defensive linemen,” Culp said. “Hank Stram said whoever graded out the best in training camp would win the position.”
Culp won the competition and started 14 games as left defensive tackle.
— Vintage KCChiefs (@Vintage_Chiefs) March 1, 2023
As he earned his first of six Pro Bowl nods in 1969 due to his 8.5 unofficial sacks, Culp became known throughout the AFL as a ruthless defender who was stronger than most pros.
“Everybody loved Curley. He was tough, quick,” Bobby Bell said. “When he was in front of the center, he would laugh and say, ‘You need two people to block me.’ I loved playing with him. He was mean and tough.”
Kansas City won 11 games that year and beat Namath and the Jets in the Divisional round before eliminating the Raiders in the AFL Championship, 17-7.
Super Bowl IV
Before the Chiefs met the Minnesota Vikings and their top-ranked offense and Purple People Eaters defense in Super Bowl IV, Las Vegas installed the Chiefs as 13-point underdogs.
That’s when Stram decided to tinker a little with Culp.
Culp liked playing for Stram because of how the coach’s mind worked.
“He always wanted to do something that was beneficial,” said Culp in 2013. “He would even write plays down on napkins and things like that. He was very classic when it came to trying to do some things differently.”
In order to slow Minnesota’s offense, Stram moved Culp right in front of Viking center Mick Tingelhoff.
In the days before the NFL started disrespecting the USA, I watched football. Hall of Fame defensive lineman Curley Culp was a force to be reckoned with, and a key member of the Chiefs' Super Bowl IV team, dies at age 75 R.I.P. https://t.co/wu51M0aYwS pic.twitter.com/BWJNrQy7zI
— BTDT (@B_T_D_Ti) November 28, 2021
Tinglehoff was a frequent All-Pro and Pro Bowler and was tough as nails.
However, Culp’s teammates knew he was up to the task.
“Tingelhoff was one of the best centers in the league at the particular time; Hank (Stram) put Curley over his head and it was history,” recalled Emmitt Thomas in 2013.
With Culp playing as a nose tackle, he stymied the Vikings’ potent run attack and gave his teammates more freedom to make big plays.
The result was a resounding 23-7 Kansas City win against a Minnesota offense that averaged 27 points per game in 1969.
Culp Is Traded to Houston
For the next several years, Culp was a leader on the Chiefs’ defense that had a difficult time replicating its success from 1969.
Between 1970 and 1973, Culp had 27.5 unofficial sacks, including nine in 1973.
However, during that same period, Kansas City returned to the playoffs just once (after the 1971 season).
Then, before the 1974 season began, Culp signed a contract to play for the Southern California Sun of the new World Football League in 1975.
Stram was not happy that Culp planned to defect and traded him to the Houston Oilers during the 1974 season for defensive lineman John Matuszak.
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) April 26, 2018
Culp reflected on the reasons for the trade years later.
“They were trying to help the defensive line in Kansas City, knowing I would be lost the next season, and two, they just wanted to slap me in the face,” Culp said.
When Culp’s teammates found out that he was leaving, they were devastated.
“After we traded Curley,” Willie Lanier told The Houston Chronicle in 2013, “we just started coming apart.”
Culp joined a Houston defense that included end Elvin Bethea, and both men were a ball carrier’s worst nightmare.
“Curley had these thick, nasty forearms that were hard as rocks,” Bethea told The Chronicle. “He’d use those forearms to hit centers on the side of the head. He’d knock them off balance and their ears would be ringing.”
In eight games with the Oilers in 1974, Culp had five sacks.
Culp Finds More Success in Houston
Although it didn’t take long for Culp to shine for Houston, the Oilers took a while to shine as a team.
In 1975, Culp convinced head coach Bum Phillips to use a 3-4 defense so Culp could take the brunt of the offensive force as the nose tackle.
Despite playing a position that was less than glorious, Culp still managed to bring down quarterbacks 11.5 times (a career-high) and collect his only career touchdown on a fumble recovery.
Houston went 10-4 that year but failed to make the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Culp was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Curley Culp, #78 has white facemask, he was traded from Chiefs at mid-season and kept his helmet, which was painted into Oilers colors. All other Oiler masks were grey @UniWatch pic.twitter.com/yrKHQ03XgN
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ 🏈 (@NFL_Journal) June 12, 2018
He was also selected for his only career first-team All-Pro award while getting picked for his third Pro Bowl.
While Culp and Bethea spent the next few seasons collecting sacks like baseball cards, Houston couldn’t do better than eight wins.
Finally, in 1978, rookie running back Earl Campbell ran through tacklers for over 1,400 yards and 13 scores to help lead the Oilers to a 10-6 record.
Culp had just three sacks but was still disruptive enough that he earned another trip to the Pro Bowl.
In the postseason, Houston beat Miami and New England before getting dispatched by the eventual Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
The following year, Culp had four sacks while the Oilers returned to the postseason after an 11-5 regular season and wins over Denver and San Diego in the playoffs.
Then, for the second season in a row, the Steelers destroyed Houston’s Super Bowl dreams by winning the AFC Championship game, 27-13.
By 1980, Culp’s career was running out of gas, but he was still respected as a player and as a person and started five of ten games with Houston.
Then, with only a few weeks left in the 1980 season, he was dealt to the Detroit Lions.
Culp played the rest of the year with Detroit and stuck around for 1981, although he saw action in only two games.
After the season concluded, he retired from the game of football.
During his career, Culp had an unofficial 68.5 sacks, 13 fumble recoveries (including one returned for a score), and one interception for 25 return yards.
The NFL did not keep track of tackles at the time.
Culp was a five-time All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler, AFL and NFL champion, and NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Hall of Famer Curley Culp passed away today at the age of 75. Enshrined into the Hall of Fame in 2013, Culp played 14 seasons of professional football w/ the @Chiefs (1968-1974), the Houston Oilers (1974-1980) and the @Lions (1980-81).
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) November 27, 2021
His Canton bio reads, “I have learned that football is not just a sport but a life lesson in what it means to be a team player… I have learned how pain can build character and endurance and believe that life itself is like playing a very long and exciting football game where every play can determine the outcome.”
Life After Football and Death from Cancer
After he retired from the NFL, Culp spent the next few decades in business and earned a master’s degree from Arizona State in 1990.
Among his many business ventures were a limousine and taxi service and a pest control company.
In November of 2021, Culp announced publicly that he was suffering from Stage IV pancreatic cancer.
Today, we remember Curley Culp on what would've been his 77th Birthday. Miss you, Curley ❤️ pic.twitter.com/Yl9cA72Tpb
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) March 10, 2023
Less than two weeks later, he passed away from the disease, leaving behind his wife, Collette, two sons, and seven grandchildren.
Culp was 75 years old.
“I was very sad to hear of his passing. Curley had so much class. He was a true gentleman, became an outstanding businessman after his football career and always stayed in touch,” said former Broncos general manager John Beake.