CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (WBOY) — In West Virginia, athletics are deeply ingrained in the lives of its people. Whether you cheer for the Mountaineers, the Thundering Herd or any in between, there’s a strong likelihood that you have a team or player to cheer for.
One of the most notable players from the Mountain State to grace professional sports is Sam Huff. A Professional Football Hall of Fame inductee, former Mountaineer and student of football greats such as Vince Lombardi, Huff is one of the most decorated athletes in West Virginia history.
Huff was born in 1934 in the small coal town of Edna Gas, W.Va. He was raised in one of the various coal camps of Farmington, W.Va., and was always just under the nose of West Virginia University, being just 30 miles southwest of Morgantown, according to wvusports.com. Huff played at the now-defunct Farmington High School as both an offensive and defensive lineman, earning All-State honors during the 1952 season, according to an archived post from timeswv.com.
Huff earned a scholarship to play at West Virginia University, leading them to a 31-7 record during his tenure and 3 straight wins over rival Penn State. According to wvusports.com, Huff was a member of “one of college football’s most formidable lines in the mid-1950s.”
Huff was drafted in the 3rd round of the 1956 NFL Draft by the New York Giants, but things almost didn’t work out for him in the NFL, according to profootballhof.com. During the 1956 Giants training camp, Head Coach Jim Lee Howell admitted that Huff was a quality player, but was unsure if he could use him in the Giants’ current scheme. A discouraged Huff packed his bags and headed for the airport before being intercepted by then-assistant coach Vince Lombardi who convinced him to stay with a speech about the merits of guts and determination.
Lombardi’s words rang to be true shortly after as the Giants starting middle linebacker, Ray Beck was injured, allowing Huff to step in. Huff performed so well at the position that Beck retired, making the starting job his to keep.
Huff’s early career was spent on a legendary Giants squad that won the NFL Championship in Huff’s first year as a pro and would appear in the championship in five of the next seven seasons. Huff would go on to become a defacto “face” of the Giants’ defense, appearing on a Time Magazine cover at the age of 24, and even getting his own television special, “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” in 1960, according to profootballhof.com.
After losing three straight championships in 1963, the Giants were starting to shed some of their defensive players through trade in order to gain some pieces they needed. After watching several of his teammates be traded, Huff approached then-owner Wellington Mara in 1964 with concerns that he could be next, according to ESPN. Mara assured him that his place on the team was firm, but a few weeks later, Huff was traded to the Washington Redskins for halfback Dick James and defensive end Andy Stynchula, ending his partial celebrity status in the metropolis of New York City.
Huff was outraged at being betrayed by the Giants organization. He eventually grew to forgive Mara but held different feelings towards then-head coach Allie Sherman saying years later, “as long as I live, I will never forgive Allie Sherman for trading me,” according to ESPN.
Huff briefly considered retirement upon being traded to Washington but decided to remain after being offered $11,000 more than he would have made in New York. The Giants went 2-10-2 during their first season without Huff in 1964, including a loss to the Redskins in New York, according to ESPN. However, Washington only had one winning season with Huff on the team before he retired in 1968.
However, in 1969, Vince Lombardi left his head coaching job for the Green Bay Packers to take the same job in Washington. Given the history between the two, Lombardi talked Huff out of retirement for one season upon arriving in Washington, where the team would go 7-5-2 before Lombardi’s death from colon cancer in 1970. Huff stepped in as a linebacker’s coach during the 1970 season before retiring from football for good the same year, according to ESPN.
Huff underwent several career changes after retiring from football. He ran for U.S. Congress in West Virginia in 1970 but lost in the Democratic primary. In 1971, he joined the Mariott Corporation as a salesman where he worked up to be the Vice President of Sports Marketing before retiring in 1998.
Huff was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982 by Tom Landry. His number, 75, was retired by West Virginia University in 2005 before a home game where No. 12 WVU defeated arch-rival Pitt 45-13. Huff was diagnosed with dementia in 2013 and died in 2021 at the age of 87 in Winchester, Va.