Sam Huff died recently. If that name means nothing to you, then you’re not of a certain age.
The son of a West Virginia coal miner, Huff was a bruising, All-American line backer at West Virginia University in the 1950s. He played professionally with the New York (football) Giants and the Washington (excuse me) Redskins. He was inducted into the pro football Hall of Fame in 1982.
In 1958, he was on the field at Yankee Stadium when Alan (The Horse) Ameche of the Baltimore (since moved) Colts scored a winning touchdown against the Giants, in a televised game that helped propel the NFL to a position of national sports preeminence.
In 1959, Huff appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The following year CBS wired Huff for sound for a primetime documentary the network called “The Violent World of Sam Huff.” Narrated by Walter Cronkite, the program anchored Sam Huff in the national spotlight.
Huff spent 13 years in the NFL His last year, 1969, was the worst for the number of concussions he sustained. He estimated he suffered at minimum 11 with no time to recover. According to a friend, writer Leonard Shapiro, Huff’s battered brain betrayed him beginning in 2013.
“I know ... all those violent-world collisions” brought on the dementia Huff suffered from, Shapiro wrote recently in the Washington Post.
In the halcyon year 1959, Huff told a reporter, “We try to hurt everybody. We hit each other as hard as we can.”
In 1970, following his retirement from football, Sam Huff ran for for Congress as a Democrat.
Huff wasn’t exactly a political novice. In 1960, he had campaigned for John F. Kennedy during the all-important West Virginia presidential primary. He was one of hundreds of West Virginians who actively helped JFK defeat Hubert Humphrey, a future vice president of the United States (under Lyndon Johnson). Kennedy’s West Virginia victory brought him to the cusp of the Democratic presidential nomination.
Huff’s support was valuable to the Kennedys. Then, again, the candidate appreciated any aid he could get. The Catholic Kennedy was running in Protestant West Virginia, and the outcome against Humphrey, a fellow senator, was in doubt. (It turned not to be close at all. Kennedy outgunned Humphrey 60-40.)
The seriousness of the campaign was lightened by moments like the one provided by Huff and Joe Alsop, one of the top political reporters of the day. Slight in stature, Alsop was as physically unimposing as Huff was imposing. Moreover, Alsop spoke in the loquacious tones of the East Coast elite. Huff’s slight twang had all the earmarks of upper Appalachia.
When the two met, the result was hilarity, at least that’s how the candidate took it.
The encounter took place in Charleston, W.Va. The place was the Press Club, a favorite watering hole for reporters and members of the Kennedy campaign.
Alsop was in the midst of regaling a group that included Ethel Kennedy and John Seigenthaler, a newspaperman from Nashville, Tenn., about the tribulations of door-to-door political reporting when Huff walked in.
Huff leaned over to Ethel Kennedy and asked, “Who’s the Englishman?”
“Oh, I thought you knew,” Ethel replied. “Sam Huff, Joe Alsop. Joe Alsop, Sam Huff.”
The two men shook hands.
“What do you do? Sam,” asked Alsop.
“I play football.”
“I knew a fellow who played football once at Harvard,” Alsop said. “No, maybe it was baseball. Hell, I don’t know. I can’t even drive a car.”
A discussion ensued between the quirky, erudite Alsop and Huff, a physical education major at WVU. Seigenthaler got such a kick out of what was said and the manner of both Alsop and Huff that around 11 that night he repeated the whole thing to a late arriving Bob Kennedy. The next night when JFK himself was in town, Bob insisted that Seigenthaler provide his brother with a blow-by-blow description of the Alsop-Huff exchange, enunciation, accentuation and all.
“(Kennedy) got a real howl out of it,” Seigenthaler recalled. “He just laughed and laughed.”
By the way, Huff’s campaign for Congress failed. He was better at football. Incomparably better.
Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. He can be reached at email@example.com.