When you are approaching 78, sometimes your memory is not quite what it used to be, but for Hall of Famer Sam Huff, growing up in West Virginia and playing football for the West Virginia Mountaineers have become a permanent part of his DNA.
And that part of his life will never leave him.
Huff spent time on the telephone recently reminiscing about his experiences growing up in No. 9 coal camp near Farmington and then becoming one of the star players on Coach Art “Pappy” Lewis’ powerhouse Mountaineer teams of the mid-1950s.
“He was the best coach,” Huff said of Lewis. “He had control of everything in sports that happened at West Virginia when I was there. It was such a great time to be at West Virginia University and I was so proud to be a part of it.”
On Saturday, Sept. 15, prior to West Virginia’s game against James Madison
at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., West Virginia University and the Washington Redskins once again will recognize Huff’s many accomplishments, first on the playing field, and later as a successful businessman with the Marriott Corporation, color commentator on the Redskins Radio Network and founder and promoter of the West Virginia Breeders’ Classic horse racing program in Charles Town, W.Va.
As a player, Huff became one of pro football’s most recognizable stars in the late 1950s and early 1960s as a member of the famed New York Giants defense. He was the first NFL player ever featured on the cover of Time Magazine and was also profiled on a CBS news special called “The Violent World of Sam Huff” in which he was wired for sound during the 1960 preseason. That documentary gave the viewing audience a first-hand look at what it was like being a professional football player and it made Huff an instant celebrity. He was able to parlay that favorable publicity into many lucrative endorsement deals during the latter part of his playing career.
As for his business acumen, Huff admitted that was likely born out of his modest upbringing in Marion County and later as a young, married football player at WVU.
One humorous story illustrates this point.
During Huff's off-season when the Mountaineer basketball team was packing the old Field House on a regular basis with All-American player Hot Rod Hundley, Sam came up with the brilliant idea of parking cars downtown for a little extra pocket money - that is until one winter evening when Barbara Schaus, the wife of basketball coach Fred Schaus, pulled into the parking lot.
As she eased the car off of Beechurst Ave., Huff pointed toward the back of the lot and said, “That will be $10 please.”
“Do you know who I am?” replied Mrs. Schaus.
“Uh, no, but my name is Sam Huff and I’m a football player here at West Virginia University,” he answered.
“Well, I am Barbara Schaus, the wife of Fred Schaus, and I am not going to pay you $10 to park my car!” she said, testily.
“Whoa!” Huff replied. “Uh, Mrs. Schaus you can park right over here! I will have this parking spot for you for the rest of the season!”
Of course, Huff’s little parking enterprise ended that evening, yet even at an early age, Huff’s mind was always at work seeking out ways to improve his circumstances.
While growing up in Farmington, most of his classmates were destined to finish high school only to go off to work in the mines. Sam’s father worked underground as did his older brother, Donald. But Sam wanted a different life, especially when he saw the ruckus Frank “Gunner” Gatski caused whenever he returned home during the offseason to show off his fancy Cleveland Browns jacket and pro football championship ring.
Seeing Gatski walking around town immediately broadened Huff's horizons, setting off a light bulb inside his head. Football might be the ticket to a different life.
“He was kind of my hero,” Huff recalled. “We were from the same coal camp and then we played against each other (in the pros). He was pretty good because he liked to grab hold of me all of the time. I’d say, ‘Damn it Gunner, you’re holding me!’ He’d say, ‘I’ve got to get you somehow, buddy!’”
Years later, when Huff was a nationally known sports star he would often return to Farmington and visit just as Gatski did before him. Oftentimes during those visits, Huff would implore his father to quit the mines and look for something a little safer to do for a living.
“I went down there and there was a big motor that pulls cars from out of the mine that was called the Sam Huff Special,” he said. “My dad said, ‘Well that’s nice.’ Later, I said, “Dad let’s get the hell out of here. This place is going to explode one day.’ He said, ‘I can’t do that! I’ve worked in here almost all of my life. You just can’t come and go like you do in football.’ I said, ‘This damned place is going to explode.’ And it did. It killed all those people and the Sam Huff Special is still in there buried.”
There is still a touch of sadness in Huff’s voice whenever he recalls the Farmington mining disaster of 1968 that killed 78 - 19 of whom were never recovered.
“Guys that I knew were in there and that’s one of the reasons why I never wanted to go into the mines,” Huff said. “It’s so dangerous. That’s why I studied and went to school and later played professional football in places like New York and Washington, D.C.”
In fact, Huff was in such high demand during his playing days that Democratic Presidential candidate John Kennedy asked him to take part in political rallies throughout the state during the 1960 West Virginia primary. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, badly needed to win a predominantly Protestant state such as West Virginia to prove to party bosses that he was electable in November.
Huff recalled the first time he was introduced to the charismatic candidate.
“I met him in a house, I believe it was in Monongah, and when we met he said, ‘Are you going to help me (win West Virginia)?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but you’ve got to help yourself,’” Huff said. “He said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘What I mean is you are Catholic (campaigning in a mostly non-Catholic state). You have to tell the people here about what you are going to do when you are President. That’s all you have to do here.’
“He said, ‘Nobody ever talked to me like that here, Sam.’ I said, ‘Well, do you want to win or do you want to lose? I’m telling you how to win,’” Huff continued. “He did win. He was just so quick (witted) and so good – what a man he was!”
A couple years later when Kennedy was President, Huff ran into him once again during a black-tie affair at the Walforf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Huff was sitting at the ABC-TV table with famous announcer Howard Cosell when the President made his grand entrance into the ballroom. Huff told those sitting at the table that he was going to walk up and say hello to the President.
“You don’t know the President,” someone sitting next to him said.
“The hell I don’t!” Huff replied. “I’m going to walk up there and say hello to the President!”
“You can’t, you don’t have the proper credentials to get up there!”
“You watch,” Huff answered.
His first attempt at advancing past Kennedy’s security detail was rebuffed because he wasn’t wearing the appropriate badge. Then, when the master of ceremonies left the dais to take a restroom break, Huff pulled him aside and asked for his credential before walking back up to the same security officer.
“Am I good now?” Huff asked.
“Yes, Sam, go ahead and see the President.”
Today, Huff, who lives in Middleburg, Va., still remains busy overseeing his many business interests. Last year, he published his second book “Controlled Violence” documenting his career with the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins.
“That is what the sport is,” Huff explained of his book title choice. “It’s a violent game, so I used those two words. I was one of them.”
Huff still has a stake in the West Virginia Breeders Cup race in Charles Town (W.Va.) that he helped turn into a profitable venture, along with his continuing service to the Redskins organization. Huff has been a member of the Redskins Radio Network since 1975, and has teamed with popular sidekick Sonny Jurgensen since 1981, but this year his role on the network has been reduced as he nears his 78th birthday on Oct. 4.
“Nothing lasts forever,” Huff said. “But West Virginia has always been great to me. The University is just so solid. I’ve been a football player and I’ve been a marketing guy – I’ve been to the mountaintop.
“What I’ve done with my life I wouldn’t trade for anything else,” Huff concluded. “My life has been very good.”
Indeed it has.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History available in bookstores this fall. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.