CHARLESTON (AP) — A half-century ago, Sam Huff’s bone-rattling hits on NFL running backs earned him his own network television special and the cover of Time magazine.
Those collisions had their roots in Huff’s career at West Virginia.
On Saturday, the 77-year-old will be honored during the ninth-ranked Mountaineers’ game against James Madison in Landover, Md.
Huff will be West Virginia’s honorary captain and be recognized before the game and at halftime. It’s being billed as “Sam Huff Day.”
“I think that’s going to get us motivated because we’re playing for somebody,” West Virginia linebacker Doug Rigg said. “So it should be fun.”
It will be a rare opportunity for Huff to watch his alma mater play. The game will be at FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins, where Huff is in his fourth decade as a Redskins’ broadcaster.
Huff is looking forward to seeing some hits, though probably not like the ones he delivered during a 13-year career with the New York Giants and Redskins.
“I was a hitter. I was a big hitter,” Huff said. “Even in baseball, you have guys that hit the long ball. Mickey Mantle taught me that. I shared a locker with Mickey Mantle at Yankee Stadium. He hit the ball out of sight. He hit the ball, and I hit the ballplayers.”
Those images aren’t easy to recall, unless you’re a baby boomer or beyond. West Virginia’s players and much of its coaching staff weren’t born when Huff retired following the 1969 season.
“They don’t remember the footage of it or anything, but understand who is he and how much he means to the program here at West Virginia,” said Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen, who met Huff at an event over the summer.
While today’s West Virginia offense behind quarterback Geno Smith is one of the most prolific in the nation, Huff said he would put his teams up against any others in school history. Huff played alongside fellow defensive stars Bruce Bosley and Chuck Howley, and the quarterback was Fred Wyant, who would become a longtime NFL referee.
“I still think we had the best team probably ever there,” Huff said.
Huff, who grew up in a northern West Virginia coal mining camp, helped the Mountaineers post a 31-7 record from 1952-55.
A lineman, Huff didn’t start playing linebacker until joining Tom Landry’s defense in New York.
Huff played on both sides of the ball and on special teams at WVU. In many games he was on the field for all 60 minutes.
On offense, Wyant said Huff wanted to do the play calling.
“He’d come back in the huddle and say, ‘Run that play, run that play. I can get that guy,”’ Wyant said. “And I always said, ‘I’m going to tell you what, You say you can get that guy. You don’t get him, you’re never calling another play.’
“He always got the guy. And that would leave him open to be able to make another call.”
Wyant was on the receiving end on one of Huff’s nasty hits during WVU’s 1955 spring game.
“Sam hit me in the jaw, almost knocked me out,” Wyant said. “We won by two touchdowns. But after the game, Sam and I put our arms around each other and walked off the field.”
In 2005, the first jerseys to be retired by the university were the No. 75 worn by Huff and basketball star Jerry West’s No. 44. In 1991 the pair were part of the inaugural class in the WVU Sports Hall of Fame, along with Howley.
“He proved his mettle not only in college but certainly as a professional player,” said West, who was a freshman when Huff was a senior. “Obviously, he’s been a great friend to West Virginia. Certainly his ability to connect with the people of West Virginia is still there.”
In addition to his Redskins duties, Huff stays busy as a thoroughbred horse breeder in Middleburg, Va., and as CEO and board chairman of the West Virginia Breeders Classic in Charles Town, a race he co-founded in 1987.
As for Saturday’s honor, Huff calls it “nice” but isn’t particularly fond of the Mountaineers playing a Championship Division school.
“I think you’ve got to play your equal,” Huff said. “Pitt. Penn State.”
Huff doesn’t plan to get emotional about the day, either, declaring that “every day in my life is Sam Huff Day.”
He didn’t take a soft approach, either, when it came to his punishing brand of football. No regrets there.
“Nope,” he said. “When Jim Brown and Jim Taylor had the ball, I decked them. I put them on their back.”
A style that still has its admirers today.
“I’d like to find a couple of Sam Huffs in this group of linebackers that we have right here,” said West Virginia linebackers coach Keith Patterson.