Robert Lee Huff, popularly known as “Sam,” an All-Pro and Pro Football Hall of Fame member who helped popularize professional football during its ascendancy in the late 1950s, and the first recognizable personality who played only defense, passed away at the age of 87 on Saturday.
Huff joined the New York Football Giants in 1956, the first year the team called Yankee Stadium its home. He was an offensive and defensive guard in college at West Virginia who struggled in his first professional camp and nearly walked away before being talked out of quitting by assistant coach Vince Lombardi. Huff would quickly become a star as the Giants would win their first NFL championship in 17 years in 1956 on the strength of defensive coach Tom Landry’s new 4-3 defense. Huff was the first true middle linebacker and his #70 became recognizable on the field and TV screens across the country as the New York fans chanted “DEE-FENSE” and “HUFF, HUFF, HUFF.”
Landry said, “Sam was a very disciplined player. The thing that made him so good was that he would listen, and he would do what was necessary to operate our defense. The effectiveness of the 4-3 depends on the defensive team recognizing a formation, knowing what plays can be run from that formation, and then recognizing keys that tell them the likely play or plays to expect.”
Huff said, “It was really simple when you think about it. We’d have the ‘Inside 4-3,’ where the defensive tackle would shut off the middle and the linebackers would pursue to the outside, or we’d go to the ‘Outside 4-3,’ where the tackle would angle outside and I would come up the middle and make a play in there, or catch the play from behind. All the years we played, that’s all I ever did. We got so good at it, it became almost second nature to everyone on the unit.”
Madison Avenue took notice. After the 1958 season and the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” Huff began appearing in advertisements, which previously had been exclusive to offensive stars. In 1959, Huff graced the cover of Time Magazine, the first professional football player to receive that level of recognition.
The Giants and Cleveland Browns were the NFL’s marquee rivalry during this era. Sam Huff and Cleveland back Jim Brown had a rivalry of their own, as they were the centerpieces of their respective teams units. Typically, whichever player had the better game would have his team on the winning side of the final score. Landry said, “Our defense was not designed specifically for Sam Huff to stop Jim Brown, our defense was designed to stop the offense we were working against. Our defense was based on coordination. Sam was just one of the 11 people who were coordinated. Specifically, the front seven was coordinated against the run. He was just one element in that group. But he got great recognition, which he deserved, because in this particular defense he was stopping Jim Brown, who is almost unstoppable.”
Less than a year later, in October 1960, Huff was the subject of a 30-minute CBS television special hosted by Walter Cronkite, titled “The Violent World of Sam Huff.” The show was groundbreaking as Huff was fitted with a microphone and transmitter in his shoulder pads. The program was a hit and Huff became a sensation.
Despite Huff’s individual success (five Pro Bowls; All-Pro in 1958 and 1959) and widespread popularity, he was shockingly traded to Washington following the 1963 season, ending his eight-year run as the centerpiece of the Giants’ defense. The controversial transaction created a legendary grudge between Huff and then Giants head coach Allie Sherman, who masterminded the move.
Huff exacted his revenge in a 1966 game at Washington. Near the end of the game, with the Redskins leading 69-41 and having possession of the ball on New York’s side of the field, Huff called a time out, unbeknownst to Redskins’ Head Coach Otto Graham, and sent out the field goal team. Charlie Gogolak’s kick extended Washington’s lead to 72-41 and broke two records: most total points scored in a game with 114, and the Redskins’ 72 as the most scored by one team. All of which was intended to humiliate Sherman.
Huff recalled: “While Otto was talking to (quarterback) Sonny (Jurgensen), I took it upon myself to yell for the field goal team to get out there. After the game, Otto took a lot of heat for kicking the field goal and rubbing it in. But that wasn’t Otto’s decision, it was all mine. The 72 points we scored were for a lot of people: me, Mo (Dick Modzeleski), (Cliff) Livingston, Rosey (Grier), and all the old Giants. That was a day of judgment, and in my mind, justice was finally done.”
Huff retired as a player following the 1967 season, but was talked into returning to Washington as a player-coach in 1969 by Lombardi for one final season.
Ultimately, Huff reconciled with the Giants’ organization and spent three years as their color commentator of radio broadcasts from 1972 through 1974.
Huff played 102 games in a Giants uniform. His 18 career interceptions still rank him tied for 15th in franchise history, two of those were returned for touchdowns. He also recovered 11 fumbles and scored twice on those recoveries. Huff’s nose for the end zone was also apparent on special teams as he scored a touchdown on a blocked punt recovery at Green Bay in 1957.
Huff was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982, was named to the 1950s All-Decade Team, and commemorated into the Giants Ring of Honor in 2010. He is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and had his number #75 retired by the Virginia Mountaineers.