For 13 years, Sam Huff patrolled the football field as a linebacker for the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins.
Huff made it his mission to obliterate any ball carrier within sight and he did his job well.
He was so good at what he did that CBS aired a television special that showed viewers his “violent world.”
Sam Huff, Ny Giants…. pic.twitter.com/bSje61vUC4
— Sports Days Past (@SportsDaysPast) September 22, 2019
While playing in New York, Huff helped lead the Giants to no less than six NFL Championship games.
Huff was then traded to Washington in 1964 despite the fact that he loved the Big Apple.
The Redskins didn’t have much success as a team while Huff was a member, but he still made his mark on opponents, literally.
After retiring from the game, Huff was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, got into the business world, and called Redskins and Giants games on the radio until 2012.
A year later, he was diagnosed with dementia and passed away from its effects in 2021.
This is the story of Sam Huff.
Born in Coal Country
Robert Lee “Sam” Huff was born on October 4, 1934, in Edna Gas, West Virginia.
Happy Birthday to Giants Great Sam Huff! pic.twitter.com/pifFySs4pi
— Giants (@2023_NYGIANTS) October 4, 2020
Huff could never remember how he came to be called “Sam” but friends and family rarely ever called him by his birth name.
He was the fourth of six children that lived smack dab in the middle of coal country.
Most of Huff’s family, including his father, two older brothers, and several extended family members worked in the nearby mines.
The Huff family also lived in a house with no running water that was purchased from Consolidated Mining and the family bought their clothes and groceries from the company store.
Needless to say, life was difficult for the Huffs, as well as the rest of the nation, during the Great Depression.
“There were times that my mother didn’t eat,” Huff said. “There was just enough food for us kids.”
Apparently, after matriculating to Farmington High School, Huff ate enough that he went from a 150-pound high school sophomore to 210 pounds by his senior year.
Wanting Something More
Huff played football for Farmington on the offensive and defensive lines and was named to the Class B All-State Team as a senior.
It was also during that year that Huff wed his girlfriend, Mary, who he would be married to for 30 years.
With high school graduation looming and now a newlywed, Huff had to face the cold reality that he was destined to work in the local mines like his family.
However, he happened to meet Frank Gatski one day and the course of Huff’s life changed.
Gatski, who went by “Gunner,” had grown up in Huff’s hometown and made his way to the NFL, playing several years for the Cleveland Browns.
Cool that Farmington WV has produced 2 #NFL players, and both wound up in the Pro Football HOF — Frank Gatski and Sam Huff. It was coal country, and both of their fathers worked in the mine. pic.twitter.com/1LFMXFx3g2
— Dan Daly (@dandalyonsports) November 14, 2021
Gunner had already won a number of championships with Cleveland by that time and he showed Huff his title rings.
“He was kind of my hero, and we were from the same coal camp and we later played against each other in the pros,” Huff recalled.
The chance meeting with Gatski confirmed Huff’s desire to do something else besides “going down below” in the coal mines.
“I knew that somehow I was never going down below with my family,” said Huff. “Nobody we knew had ever been to college.”
Thankfully, several colleges wanted Huff to play for their football programs, including nearby University of West Virginia.
When the Mountaineers coaches showed interest, Huff didn’t think twice about where he wanted to receive his higher education.
“I always loved West Virginia University,” Huff said in 2008. “Why in the world would I ever think of going anywhere else? I was born in Edna Gas, right outside of Morgantown. (West Virginia University) was in my blood.”
Huff didn’t have far to travel for college.
Morgantown was barely 30 minutes away, close enough for his family to watch when they weren’t working.
As a freshman in 1952, Huff played guard as a backup for Coach Art Lewis’ 7-2 team.
Then, in 1953, Huff became a starter and saw time on both sides of the ball.
— West Virginia Football (@WVUfootball) October 4, 2019
The Mountaineers fielded one of the best teams in the country and ended the ‘53 regular season 8-1.
“West Virginia has always put out great, hard-knocking athletes,” Huff said. “Look where West Virginia University is centered. We got kids from Pittsburgh and if you take Pennsylvania and West Virginia and you put them together there is not a whole lot of difference. There were the steel mills in Pennsylvania and the coal mines in West Virginia, and we were all basically raised the same way – tough guys.”
West Virginia was invited to play against Georgia Tech in the 1954 Sugar Bowl and lost to the Yellow Jackets 49-19.
It was a loss that always haunted Huff.
“I’ll never forget it. I’ll never get over it,” Huff said. “Never.”
In 1954, the Mountaineers went 8-1 again but weren’t invited to a bowl game.
Then, in 1955, West Virginia had an 8-2 season while Huff was taking care of business on the field.
He met his match in late November when Jim Brown and Syracuse University came to town.
During the contest, Brown ran over Huff, knocking him out and breaking Huff’s nose and several teeth.
A team co-captain, Huff played so well that he was named a first-team All-American by numerous media outlets.
Sam Huff appreciation post:
✅ No. 75 retired by West Virginia
✅ College Football Hall of Fame
✅ 6x All-Pro
✅ NFL Champion
✅ Pro Football Hall of Fame
— Gamblin' Gauchos 🎙️ (@GamblinGauchos) June 17, 2023
Not to be outdone, Huff also shined in the classroom and was selected as an Academic All-American.
Additionally, he played catcher for the Mountaineers baseball team as a senior and caught the eye of the pros.
He then reported for his first year in the NFL.
The Career That Almost Wasn’t
When Huff arrived at training camp for the 1956 season, he wasn’t sure how long he would last.
Initially, the coaches weren’t quite sure where to put the 6’1, 230-pound Huff.
Finally, defensive coordinator Tom Landry thought he would do well as the middle linebacker in his 4-3 defense.
Remembering Hall of Famer Tom Landry on the anniversary of his passing. Here he is as Giants’ defensive coordinator instructing fellow Hall of Famer Sam Huff and teammates in the late 1950s pic.twitter.com/xPJmKKNERV
— Dan Tejas (@DanSmit27845702) February 12, 2023
He was flanked by Giants veterans Harland Svare and Bill Svoboda and the learning curve was steep.
At various points during camp, Huff was on the receiving end of angry tirades from assistant coach Vince Lombardi and head coach Jim Lee Howell.
Howell was known to be especially hard on rookies, according to Huff.
“I really think he hated rookies,” wrote Huff in his 1988 autobiography Tough Stuff.
After a few weeks of verbal abuse, Huff and kicker Don Chandler felt that they had enough.
Both players left camp and headed to the airport.
Huff already had visions of returning to West Virginia and working in the coal mines until fate intervened.
Coach Landry had watched Huff and Chandler leave and chased them down at the airport.
“Guys, you will regret this forever. You will always wonder if you were good enough,” Landry said. “Give it a chance.”
Chandler decided to return to camp, but Huff had one request.
“Well, I’ll only go back if you tell that guy to stop yelling at me,” Huff said.
“There’s no guarantee anyone could do that, but I’ll try,” Landry said.
(It should be noted that other accounts have Lombardi talking both players into returning).
Huff and New York Win a Championship
Huff returned to the Giants and learned Landry’s revolutionary defense.
Before his 4-3 defense, most NFL teams deployed a 5-2 alignment with five defensive linemen on the front line.
Landry wanted more men on the second line of defense, the better for them to see a play develop and stop it cold.
— nflpastplayers (@nflpastplayers) July 9, 2023
Huff proved adept as the middle linebacker of the unit.
The beauty of Landry’s defense led to more blitzing and more plays being funneled to the middle part of the field.
In October, an injury led to Huff becoming a starter.
He found that he loved the position he played and thrived on the contact.
“Sam had all the right qualities,” Landry said. “He was an offensive lineman with size and strength. He was mobile. He was smart.”
During games, Giants fans took to chanting for the defense and Huff responded.
As a rookie in 1956, he had three interceptions and two fumble recoveries (the NFL did not keep track of tackles or sacks at the time).
Two big reasons for the success of the Giants defense in the late 1950s and early 1960s – linebacker Sam Huff (#70) and defensive tackle Rosey Grier (#76). pic.twitter.com/HrNdJnY2OV
— nflpastplayers (@nflpastplayers) June 17, 2023
The Giants then faced the Chicago Bears in the NFL Championship game and Huff had the distinction of being the first rookie middle linebacker to start in a title game.
Chicago had no chance and was dismantled by the Giants, 47-7.
Featuring a roster including Hall of Famers Frank Gifford, Emlen Tunnell, Sam Huff, Roosevelt Brown, Alex Webster & Andy Robustelli, with Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry as assistant coaches, the @Giants beat the Bears, 47-7, to win the NFL Championship #OTD in 1956.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) December 30, 2022
Huff was named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year after the season.
Huff and the Giants Come Up Short in the “Greatest Game Ever Played”
A year after their championship, the Giants went 7-5 and missed the postseason.
Huff was named a second-team All-Pro for the first time while logging one interception and a fumble recovery.
In 1958, the team went 9-3 and returned to the playoffs while the linebacker was a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowler for the first time.
During the season, New York beat the Cleveland Browns and running back Jim Brown twice.
Huff was always ready for battle, but his meetings with Brown were a match made in heaven.
Jim Brown and the Cleveland #Browns vs. the #NYGiants. Brown’s personal wars with Giants linebacker Sam Huff were legendary. “He was smart. He’d psyche you. I would hit him and hit him and he’d get up, pat me on the back and say, ‘That was a nice tackle, big Sam.’🏈 #RIPJimBrown pic.twitter.com/zKnpoxuxgH
— Ken Gelman (@kengfunk) May 25, 2023
He never forgot about how Brown knocked him out in college and Huff made sure to bring his “A” game against him in the pros.
Each time New York faced Cleveland, Huff stuck to the running back like glue.
“That was a tough assignment, covering Brown,” said Huff. “When you hit that guy, he lunges like a bull and sometimes he lunges right out of the tackle.”
By the end of the regular season, the Giants and Browns were tied with a 9-3 record and played each other for a third time in the Eastern Conference Playoff.
New York won again and advanced to play the Baltimore Colts in the NFL Championship Game.
Long considered to be the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” the Colts and Giants were locked in a 17-17 tie at the end of regulation.
That led to the first overtime playoff game in NFL history.
Throughout the contest, Huff was a sideline-to-sideline terror and even took time out to give Baltimore coach Weeb Ewbank an earful at one point.
Best photo of Sam Huff. Coach Ewbank of the Colts just yelled at him for a late hit out of bounds in the 1958 championship game.
Look at that size difference! Huff – a true Giant – could've picked up the ref & smashed Ewbank with him if he were so inclined.
— Michael Socolow (@MichaelSocolow) November 14, 2021
In the extra period, the Colts’ Alan Ameche scored from a yard out to help Baltimore win the title.
Huff Gets Some Publicity
New York may have lost the 1958 NFL Championship game, but Huff was considered possibly the best defender in the NFL.
In 1959, Time magazine wanted an article solely about Huff and his exploits on the field.
Huff balked and said he wanted to get paid for the interview.
He finally agreed when the magazine decided to put Huff on the cover.
“It really did have a major impact on my life,” Huff said, “and I almost blew it.”
The article was titled “A Man’s Game” and described Huff as, “a confident, smiling fighter, fired with a devout desire to sink a thick shoulder into every ball-carrier in the NFL.”
Sam Huff was on the cover of Time Magazine in 1959 http://t.co/2CjR9RiOFs
— Kevin Jones (@Mr_KevinJones) June 21, 2013
Huff was candid when interviewed and had no trouble describing his role in professional football.
“We try to hurt everybody,” Huff told Time. “We hit each other as hard as we can. This is a man’s game.”
That same year, Huff and the Giants returned to the NFL title game yet lost again to the Colts, 31-16.
Huff scored his first touchdown as a pro in 1959 on a fumble return and returned to the Pro Bowl while receiving first-team All-Pro honors again.
Then, in 1960, New York went 6-4-2, but Huff had three picks and was credited with 3.5 sacks.
(In 2022, an effort was made to review all NFL games from 1960-1981 and credit sacks unofficially. The NFL first made sacks an official stat in 1982).
Although the Giants had a rough year, Huff received even more publicity when CBS and host Walter Cronkite did a special report on him called “The Violent World of Sam Huff.”
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) November 14, 2021
In the special, viewers heard Huff ply his trade as he was mic’d up during practice and an exhibition game.
The piece revealed how Huff approached the game and his effort while on the field.
“Any time that you play football,” Huff said in the show, “there is no place for nice guys. You have to be tough.”
It also gave viewers an idea of the brutality of the sport.
At one point during the exhibition contest, Huff believed he had received a cheap shot from an opponent and threatened to “give him a broken nose” if he did it again.
The Giants Trade Huff
In 1961, assistant coach and Giants offensive coordinator Allie Sherman took over for Howell as head coach.
Between ‘61 and 1963, New York went 33-8-1 and played in three consecutive NFL title games, losing each time to Green Bay (1961 and 1962) and Chicago (1963).
By the end of the ‘63 season, Sherman and Giants management had begun trading players from the Giants defense.
Huff had no intention of leaving the Big Apple and was assured by management that he wouldn’t be traded.
In April of 1964, Huff was traded to the Washington Redskins and he was less than thrilled.
After 8 very successful seasons as the middle linebacker for the New York Giants Sam Huff was traded to the Washington Redskins were he played a total of 5 more seasons. he was a Hall of Fame inductee in 1982. pic.twitter.com/MkiDxUjB1D
— nflpastplayers (@nflpastplayers) June 22, 2023
He balked at the idea of becoming a Redskin, especially given the fact that the organization had not been to the postseason since 1945.
“I didn’t want to be traded from a championship team, a championship organization,” said Huff. “Allie Sherman was an offensive-oriented coach, and he didn’t like us because we were Tom Landry’s team that he put together defensively.”
For several decades, Huff held a grudge against Sherman.
“As long as I live,” Huff said years later, “I will never forgive Allie Sherman for trading me.”
Washington was able to sign Huff after two months when the team offered him more money than he would have received with New York.
During his first year as a Redskin, Huff had four interceptions and 1.5 sacks in 1964, leading to his final Pro Bowl selection.
Looks like former Giants great Sam Huff during his stint with the Redskins. https://t.co/Q6Mmz7TbNf
— Giants Daily Trivia (@trivia_nyg) July 31, 2023
Even better for the linebacker, while Washington won six games that year, the Giants won just two.
“Allie Sherman took a lot of heat,” Huff said, “and he deserved it.”
In 1966, the Redskins and Giants met in Week 12.
The two teams had also met in Week 6 and New York won that day, 13-10.
In the rematch, Huff was aching for payback against his old club.
— Joe Belock (@JoeBelock) November 27, 2016
Playing with fury and fire, he helped the Redskins crush Sherman and New York 72-41, the highest scoring game in NFL history at that point.
“It was between me and Allie Sherman,” said Huff. “I took an oath that I would never quit until I got him fired. That game was my anger coming out at the way the whole thing happened.”
After two consecutive 7-7 seasons in 1967 and 1968, Sherman was fired by the Giants following the ‘68 season.
Huff Retires then Returns for One More Year
At the conclusion of the 1967 season, Huff decided to hang up his cleats.
That ended his streak of playing in 150 straight games.
He was out of football in 1968 and received a phone call from Vince Lombardi in 1969.
The coach had stepped down as head coach of the Packers in 1967 and wanted to return to the sidelines.
Washington hired him before the ‘69 season and Lombardi wanted Huff to play for him.
“I thought the world of Lombardi and Tom Landry, they were such great, great people in the sports world,” Huff said. “They had a great influence on my life.”
Huff returned for a 13th year and had a whopping 19 tackles against New Orleans in Week 1.
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) February 13, 2019
When the season ended, Huff retired for good.
In his career, Huff had 30 interceptions including two pick sixes, 17 fumble recoveries including two returned for scores, and an unofficial 29 sacks.
He was Rookie of the Year, a six-time All-Pro, five-time Pro Bowler (including MVP of the contest in 1961), and an NFL champion once.
Huff was eventually placed in the Washington Commanders Ring of Fame and the New York Giants Ring of Honor.
In 1982, Huff was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.
“Sometimes you wonder if football players are as tough as they seem,” Allie Sherman said in 2015. “With Sam there was never any question about that. He was tougher than leather. He enjoyed contact. He enjoyed everything about playing football. He was a football player.”
Life After Retirement
In 1970, Huff joined the Redskins staff as the linebackers coach.
He also ran for a spot in the U.S. House of Representatives that year in West Virginia but lost.
Huff then joined the Marriott Corporation in 1971 and worked for the company until 1998.
Horse breeding became a passion for Huff and he got ESPN to televise the West Virginia Breeders Classic horse race.
As if his corporate job and horse breeding wasn’t enough to keep Huff busy, he also became a color radio commentator for New York Giants games in the early 1970s before being hired for the same role with the Redskins in 1973.
Sam Huff, Sonny Jurgensen, & Frank Herzog, along with the WMAL Radio crew at Super Bowl XVII in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Riggo's run came five hours later. pic.twitter.com/uz42gOloBn
— Allison Luthman (@AllisonZog) August 11, 2019
After nearly four decades, Huff stepped down from his Redskins radio job after the 2012 season.
In 2013, he was diagnosed with dementia and passed away from its effects on November 13, 2021.
Huff was 87.
“Sam was one of the greatest Giants of all time. 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,” Giants team president John Mara said in a statement after Huff’s passing.