BOOK REVIEW: 'Controlled Violence': The Many Worlds of A West Virginia Football Legend

by Rene A. Henry
BOOK REVIEW: 'Controlled Violence': The Many Worlds of A West Virginia Football Legend

Seattle, WA -- Sam Huff is one of the most remarkable individuals I have ever known.  He grew up in a house without running water or indoor plumbing in a coal mine company town.  At any early age he made up his mind that he was never going to work in the mines.  He proved you can be whatever you want to be.  A football scholarship to West Virginia University made that possible.

He was an All-American.  He is in the National Football League’s Hall of Fame.  His number was the first retired by his college.  Starting as a rookie in 1956, he led the New York Giants to six championships in eight years.  He was captain of the greatest defensive team in football history.  He played in five Pro Bowls, was named to the NFL 1950s All-Decade Team and is honored in the Washington Redskins’ Ring of Fame. 

Sam Huff was the first NFL player to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.  He was he star of a 1960 CBS television documentary, "The Violent World of Sam Huff", narrated by Walter Cronkite.  He is a successful businessman, horse breeder and sports announcer.  For the past 20 years Huff and Sonny Jurgensen have broadcast the Washington Redskins games on radio.

His former teammate Frank Gifford best describes Huff in the book’s foreword: “Sam Huff played football with unmatched intensity and he lived by one code: get the man with the football.”

“My impact on opponents was immediate,” Huff writes.  “I always made sure that they felt the hit and I never let go of my killer instinct.  I used to put my head down and stick it to my opponents, telling him that I was going to knock him into the next row of seats.  I always had a comment for the other team after every play: ‘Let’s see what you got!’  That’s how I played the game, all out all the time.”

The Bounty and Jim Brown-Jim Taylor Battles

In "Controlled Violence" Huff describes his head-to-head battles with Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns and Jim Taylor of the Green Bay Packers and the hit that resulted in a $100 bounty on his head.  “Brown had size, speed, strength and intelligence.  He was so strong and fast that if he didn’t run by you, he would run over you.  Hitting him was like running into steel.  Not only was he the greatest player I’ve ever seen, but he showed good sportsmanship on the field.  After I would hit him with everything I had, he would get up real slow and say ‘Nice tackle big Sam.’”

Another fierce rivalry was between Huff and Jim Taylor of the Packers.  In the 1962 championship game Huff writes about one of the most memorable plays in football.  “Taylor ran low and hard and his knees could hit you in the head.  He never took the easy route and tried to find you so he could run right over you.  He had the choice of running outside or cutting back inside and as he went to the sidelines I went with the flow. 

“Right in front of the Giants bench I slammed into him with every ounce of energy and strength that I had.  I didn’t remember getting up, but when I did regain my senses I saw Taylor being taken off the field on a stretcher.  Then an official told me to get a new helmet because of a large dent in mine.  Our trainer ran on the field with a new helmet for me and I was ready for action when play resumed.  The helmet is now in the NFL Hall of Fame Museum.  

In 1969 in the first game of his last season, when Huff was playing for the Washington Redskins, he hit New Orleans Quarterback Billy Kilmer so hard that Kilmer offered $100 to anyone who could get him out of a game.  “Kilmer told me that years later and has never let me forget that hit,” Huff wrote.

Steve Sabol, president of NFL Films, said Huff was he first to bring notoriety to the middle linebacker position and was “a portrait of controlled violence whose play was ruled by his extraordinary athletic ability and emotions.” 

His Life Was Not Always Easy

He writes how his “hometown” was Jamison Mine No. 9 Coal Camp near Farmington, W. Va.  He was one of six children growing up in a rowhouse with no toilet or running water and how his father would come home from work completely covered in black coal dust.  “Every day my mother would boil water so he could bathe in hot water in an old laundry tub.  Jamison Coal and Coke Company owned the houses, stores and everything in the town.

“Our elementary school had 100 students.  A few miles away was Farmington High School with 700 students and all of the boys who grew up in a mining camp were expected to play football.  We were one of the smaller Class B schools in the state and played against larger Class A schools.  That’s how I met John Manchin, father of former governor and now senator Joe Manchin, who played a major role in my life. 

“When West Virginia University recruited me I was the happiest guy in the world and the first in my family to attend college.  Growing up, I listened to the games on the radio by Jack Fleming and knew all of the players.

“The years I played as a Mountaineer are referred to as West Virginia’s ‘Golden Age’ of football.  With Art “Pappy” Lewis as our coach, in four years from 1952-1955 we had a 31-7 record and produced All-Americans Ben Dunkerly, Gene Lamone, Bob Orders, Tommy Allman, Bruce Bosley and me.  Five freshman in ’52 became the nucleus that would impact Mountaineer history – Fred Wyant, quarterback; Bosley, and running backs Bobby Moss and Joe Marconi.”

Huff earned extra money with Joe Marconi parking cars at Mountaineer Field House for basketball games.  In 1954 WVU great Fred Schaus was hired as the coach and neither had met his wife Barbara.  At the first home game the two tried to charge her $2 to  park.  The next day they lost their jobs.

In 1956 he was drafted by the Giants and signed a contract for $7,000.  An outstanding baseball player, he also was signed by the Cleveland Indians.  After one summer season with the Class A Reading, PA team he was told that while he could hit, he could not catch good enough to make it in the major leagues.  There were no designated hitters then.

There were 33 players on the Giants roster and most had to work part time.  His wife Mary had a job and off-season Huff would even bag groceries in a Farmington market to make ends meet.

The Landry 4-3 Defense

Jim Lee Howell was the Giants head coach, Vince Lombardi the offensive coordinator and Tom Landry the defensive coordinator.  Lombardi and Landry later became Hall of Fame coaches at the Packers and Dallas Cowboys respectively. 

Landry’s innovative 4-3 defense was perfect for Huff as middle linebacker, which  then was a new position.  He became the first rookie middle linebacker to start in an NFL championship game.  “Soon our defense was becoming more and more popular as the fans chanted ‘Deeefense!  Deeefense!  Deeefense! and Huff!  Huff!  Huff!’ Three players from that team are in the NFL Hall of Fame.”

Don Smith, the Giants’ public relations director, proved Huff’s popularity.  When the Giants played the Rams in Los Angeles, Smith addressed a postcard to “#70, New York City” and dropped it in a mailbox.  A week later it was delivered to the Giants’ offices in Yankee Stadium.  That wouldn’t happen today without a zipcode!

In his book he describes what many call “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 championship against the Baltimore Colts.  The Colts won 23-17 in sudden death overtime.

When Howell retired and former offensive coordinator Allie Sherman became head coach, Huff writes that ego could not stand having the media refer to the “Landry Defense.”  One-by-one Sherman traded away the league’s best defense.  Huff was the last,  traded in 1964 to the Washington Redskins.  At the Redskins he was reunited with Lombardi and began his friendship with Sonny Jurgensen, his partner for more than 20 years on the radio broadcasts.

“In the second game of the season it was great returning to Yankee Stadium with the Redskins and being given a long standing ovation by the crowd when I was introduced.  Even better was beating them 13-10.  After the game Pate Sheehy, the Giants locker room clubhouse man who had worked for the Yankees since the 1920s, told me ‘Sam, I’ve been here since the days of Ruth and Gehrig and that ovation was equal to anything I’ve ever heard.’”  

Politics in West Virginia

In 1960 Huff campaigned with and advised John F. Kennedy how to win the West Virginia primary which proved to be a decisive battleground in the presidential campaign.  Kennedy, who had not faced serious opposition in the other primaries, suddenly faced a serious challenge from Hubert Humphrey.  In order to secure the nomination Kennedy had to win West Virginia.

“I told Mr. Kennedy that my father, a typical coal miner said, ‘Son, I don’t want the Pope running the country.’  I advised him,  ‘Senator, I really do believe these people will think a whole lot more of you if you talk about being Catholic and what that means.  Just be truthful with them.’ As part of JFK’s speech he said: ‘I want to tell you good people that when I joined the service of our country, no one asked me if I was a Catholic, a Protestant, or a Jew because I was there to fight a war.’  Winning the primary was critical to his winning the nomination and election.”

Friends encouraged Huff to run for Congress against a four-time incumbent.  He wouldn’t be anyone’s puppet and didn’t get the support needed to win.  One high ranking official told him “Sam, I’ve known you since you were a little boy, I’ve admired you and followed you through your entire football career, and there’s no doubt in my mind you would make a great congressman.  But that’s not what we want.  We want someone when we say jump, he jumps.  You’ve never done that and you never will.”

Huff also was a successful businessman.  As a stockholder in Marriott he knew that the hotel chain’s biggest problem was filling rooms on weekends.  He met with Bill Marriott, son of the founder, and proposed that with his prior off-season marketing experience with Philip Morris and J.P. Stevens that he could sell college and professional teams to stay at Marriott Hotels where they played games.  In 1987 Huff’s idea resulted in nearly $50 million in revenue for Marriott from sports-related business.  He retired as a vice president after 27 years.

I value our friendship of nearly 60 years and Sam will never let me forget that when he was named first team All-American on a number of teams he only made second team All-Southern Conference.  “I did my job making All-American and Rene was responsible for my honors on the Southern Conference team,” he loves to tell people.  Any sports fans, and especially all West Virginia Mountaineers, will enjoy reading Controlled Violence.

Rene A. Henry is an author and writer  who was born in Charleston, W.Va. and now lives in Seattle.  He has been a close friend of Sam Huff’s since he  was the Sports Information Director at West Virginia University from 1954-1956.  Many of his commentaries are posted on his website at

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