MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – When Chuck Howley played football at West Virginia University, Morgantown ended at the Wally Reed Exxon station on Monongahela Boulevard, WVU was referred to everywhere throughout the state as simply the University (with a capital U), the campus had about 5,000 students and athletes were lucky if they got the necessary tutors and support they needed to get their degrees.
Of course much has changed since Howley last played for the Mountaineers in 1957. He noted as much during a rare campus visit last week.
“I can’t get over the support the school has given the athletes,” Howley said last Wednesday in his noticeable Texas drawl. “I think between my junior and senior year we were starting to get tutors at that time, but that was the extent of it.
“There are so many advantages to come here now.”
Howley, who turns 75 this Tuesday, is a success story on many different levels. The Wheeling native was a five-sport letterman at WVU (football, swimming, gymnastics, wrestling and track) who was named the Southern Conference Athlete of the Year in 1956. He was the 1-meter diving champion in swimming and was a 10.1 sprinter in track; he was a heavyweight on the wrestling team and was also extremely adept on the trampoline in gymnastics.
In fact, he was such a gifted athlete that WVU coach Art “Pappy” Lewis had a difficult time trying to figure out how best to utilize Howley’s ahead-of-his-time talents on the gridiron. During an era when brute strength still ruled over speed and quickness, Lewis thought Howley would be most effective playing along the line of scrimmage at guard and center, where he often fought off triple-teams to make tackles in the backfield.
Once during a game against William & Mary, Howley faked like he was going to rush the passer before using his terrific instincts and quickness to drop back into coverage and bat down a pass (later in the pros with the Cowboys Howley was one of the few players coach Tom Landry permitted to freelance on defense).
“I never saw anyone who recovered so quickly,” Pitt scout Darrell Lewis once marveled of Howley’s football skills.
Despite an injury-plagued career at West Virginia, outstanding performances in the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl caught the attention of the Chicago Bears, which selected him seventh overall in the 1958 draft. At the time, Howley wasn’t too familiar with professional football, once recalling a conversation he had with WVU assistant coach Bob Snyder, a longtime NFL player who joined Lewis’ Mountaineer staff in 1956.
“I asked him, ‘What’s a Chicago Bear?’” Howley laughed. “I didn’t know that much about them. He said, ‘Chuck come on, let’s fly up there. I’ll go with you and we’ll talk to them.’ That’s when I got my first $500 bonus. (Bears coach George) Halas didn’t like to splurge a lot, but I couldn’t have been happier with the way everything turned out.”
That even included a serious knee injury Howley suffered during training camp before his second season with the Bears in 1959 when a wide receiver caught him from behind with a crack-back block. The injury was so severe that it forced Howley out of football for the 1960 season.
Chuck returned to Wheeling to recuperate, working at a filling station to make some extra money while figuring out what he was going to do next with his life. Then in the spring of 1961, he was invited to play in West Virginia’s annual alumni football game with the varsity. His knee felt fine and he decided to make a return to pro football when the newly created Dallas Cowboys traded two draft picks for the rights to his contract.
“I was fortunate because I tore up my knee in ’50 and I retired in ’60, and the Cowboys had their expansion draft and they traded for my contract and I started playing again,” Howley said.
Despite the severity of his injury, Howley never taped his knee throughout his professional career.
“I tried taping it when I first went back and I said I couldn’t do this,” he recalled. “It just reminds me (of the injury) all the time so I wouldn’t tape it. I went to the doctor and I said, ‘I don’t need this tape and I don’t want it so I wasn’t conscious of it.’ I felt by taping it it made me conscious of it and made me feel like I had something wrong with my knee.”
By 1963, Howley had made the All-Eastern Conference team and in 1965 participated in the first of his six Pro Bowls. In the late 1960s, the seven-time all-pro became one of the top outside linebackers in the game when pro football began placing more of an emphasis on speed and quickness – Howley’s two-best football attributes.
He teamed with Lee Roy Jordan, Bob Lilly, Dave Edwards, Jethro Pugh, Willie Townes, Herb Adderly, Mel Renfro and Cornell Green on Dallas’ original “Doomsday Defense,” considered among the best in pro football history. Howley was the weakside linebacker in the Cowboys’ 4-3 scheme where his gambling style of play produced 25 career interceptions and 18 fumble recoveries. Against the Atlanta Falcons in 1967, Howley returned a fumble 97 yards for a touchdown.
Howley played in the famed “Ice Bowl” at Lambeau Field in Green Bay for the 1967 NFL championship that was later immortalized by NFL Films. The conditions that afternoon were unbearable with the temperature at minus 13 degrees at game time and the wind chill reaching 40 below. Green Bay came back to defeat the Cowboys, 21-17, in the waning seconds on a quarterback sneak by Bart Starr.
Howley recalled the frigid conditions the players had to endure.
“My only problem was the second half there was a mist in the air and the heater on the field ceased to work about halftime, and it began to ice up and it was very difficult to get your footing,” he recalled. “You were slipping and sliding and when you were trying to cover somebody out of the backfield you had to make a choice. If you made a choice and it was the wrong one you couldn’t stop and go back the other way.”
Howley is best known for being named most valuable player in Super Bowl V when he made two interceptions and a fumble recovery against the Baltimore Colts. But Dallas lost the game, 16-13, on a last-second field goal, making Howley the only player in Super Bowl history to earn MVP honors from a losing team.
Not a single reporter came to his locker to talk to him after the game, and to this day he can’t remember who first notified him that he had won the award.
“It was the losing locker room,” he said. “It’s very difficult. It didn’t mean anything to me sitting there when somebody came in and told me I was MVP. I said, ‘I think that’s fantastic but we didn’t win the game.’ That’s what it was all about.”
Howley didn’t even get to enjoy the Dodge Charger that was presented to him afterward for being named MVP. He decided to give it to his wife and she promptly returned it to him.
“She went out to a bridge party one night and she hit that accelerator and the tires squealed and she brought that car right home and she said, ‘You can take it. I don’t want it,’” Howley laughed. “She had a ball with that.”
Howley played during an era when guys struggled to get good contracts. Fraternization was discouraged by management because they didn’t want players from other teams discussing how little they were getting paid. All of Howley’s contracts with the Cowboys were negotiated without representation.
“Maybe that’s why I lost out so much,” Howley joked. “I always felt I was somewhere in the ballpark with the rest of them, though.”
Howley recalled the first contract he negotiated with Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm in 1961.
“He gave me $7,000 and he gave me a $500 bonus because I told him I was going to get married before training camp,” Howley said. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you what. You call me the week before and here is a check for $500 and if it’s still on, I’ll send you the check.’ And he did.”
In the late 1960s, toward the end of his playing career, Howley became friends with a neighbor who had an idea for a dry cleaning business. That evolved into a uniform rental company that grew into an extremely successful venture. Howley sold his shares in 1992, but maintained the direct sales end of the business. Though semi-retired, Howley says he still remains involved with the company.
“I think I’m retired,” he said. “I’ve got a son-in-law who has kind of taken over the business. It’s the best thing. I’m feeling fantastic now.”
Howley says he enjoys watching football on television, but he admits he’s not a big fan of the self-promoting and the demonstrating that the players do today.
“I don’t like the hoorah stuff, the beating on your chest and doing all of that stuff,” he said, noting those things were frowned upon when he played.
“We had guys on defense that when someone would do stuff like that they would grab them and say, ‘Hey, we can’t do stuff like that.’ That’s just what you do. We played as a team,” he said.
And although not a big professional basketball fan, Howley said he thoroughly enjoyed watching the Dallas Mavericks take over the city when the organization won its first NBA title earlier this month. He said he went through something similar when the Cowboys became one of pro football’s glamour franchises in the late 1960s.
“To me, what happened here recently with the Mavericks and what that team showed was what we had back in the ‘60s with the Cowboys,” he said. “There was a link with the city and the players, and it’s good to see that with the Mavericks today.”
Today, Howley says he spends most of his weekends tending to his ranch in suburban Dallas where he breeds quarter horses. And yes, he still gets calls from time to time from reporters asking him about the Super Bowl his team lost. He gently reminds them that the Cowboys beat the Miami Dolphins the next year (he says he actually played a better game in that one) but they always seem to want to steer the conversation back to the previous one against the Colts.
“That’s the thing they remember me for,” he sighed.
Perhaps one day voters will recognize what Howley did throughout his 15-year career with the Bears and Cowboys and elect him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which has become heavily tilted toward offensive players. Howley was the fourth player to be honored in the Cowboys' Ring of Fame.
If it happens he will be ecstatic, but if it doesn’t, he knows he gave maximum effort every time he stepped out onto the football field.
“I know in my own mind that I did what I needed to do and that was my best,” Howley once said. “If my best wasn’t good enough then maybe I should have tried harder, but I feel that I gave 110 percent all of the time when I was playing back in college as well as when I went to the pros.”Learn more about Chuck Howley by following John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik