By Leonard Shapiro
Almost anyone living in the Middleburg area for any length of time surely shook hands or exchanged greetings with long-time resident Sam Huff at the very least, and more than likely was soon engaged in a lively conversation.
Never mind that he’d once been a nationally famous, all-world pro football player, in fact a Hall of Fame middle linebacker many believe helped boost the game over Major League Baseball as America’s true sports pastime.
And never mind that he also was an iconic member of the Washington Football Team’s radio broadcasting crew for more than three decades paired with his pal, fellow Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen, and play-by-play man Frank Herzog.
Around Middleburg, he was simply every-man Sam, an affable guy you might run into at the post office, in the Safeway, at the counter at the old Coach Stop restaurant where he ate breakfast every day. No airs, never pretentious, always friendly and willing to stop and chat, tousle your kid’s hair and even offer an autograph to anyone who asked, total strangers who stopped him on the street included.
Sadly, Sam Huff, our friend and long-time neighbor, died on Saturday, November 13. He was 87 and had suffered from dementia since 2013. There will be a memorial service to celebrate his life on Dec. 13 at 1 p.m. at the Middleburg Community Center.
I have little doubt that his 13 years of NFL head-knocking play, when he was a tackling terror for the N.Y. Giants and the Washington Redskins in the 1950s and ‘60s, had plenty to do with the onset and worsening continuation of that dementia in the final years of his remarkable life.
In 1960, Sam was the subject of a CBS documentary narrated by Walter Cronkite called “The Violent World of Sam Huff.” He had a mike and radio transmitter in his helmet, and for the first time, viewers could actually hear the sound of a big-time hit, not to mention the colorful back and forth dialogue between opposing players on the field.
Many believe that show helped further popularize the league, a process that may well have begun two years earlier with Sam also front and center. In the 1958 NFL Championship game, the Baltimore Colts, led by quarterback John Unitas, rallied in the closing minutes to beat Sam’s Giants in what often has been called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
In 1988, I had the honor and the pleasure of collaborating with Sam, one of my own childhood heroes growing up a Giants fan on Long Island, to write his autobiography. We called it “Tough Stuff” and I spent more than 40 hours interviewing him at his Middleburg home.
Out came a stream of remarkable stories—growing up in a West Virginia coal mining camp, college football at West Virginia University, his legendary NFL years, becoming a top executive for the Marriott Corporation, the radio days, his foray, along with his long time significant other Carol Holden, into horse racing. And of course he spoke of his love affair with Middleburg, where they lived on a horsey property just outside of town.
Two days after his death, I wrote an appreciation column on Sam that appeared in The Washington Post. Over the next few days, I received a number of emails, Facebook replies and texts, more than a few sent by people who knew Sam as their Middleburg neighbor.
My favorite came from local resident Leah Thayer Ferguson, who admitted she did never really know much about sports save for horse racing the first time she ever met Sam. She began by writing, “Like everyone in Middleburg, I have Sam Huff stories.
“When I moved here 21 years ago I had decided I wanted to create a local radio show,” she continued. “I looked in the yellow pages and saw ‘Middleburg Broadcasting,’ so I sent a letter. To my surprise, I quickly received a phone call from a man whose name I did not recognize asking me to come in for a chat.
“I went to Sam’s office behind the Exxon station. When I entered the reception area I saw photos of thoroughbred horses, so I thought to myself ‘this is nice, a horse person.’ Soon an attractive man came out and invited me into his office. There I noticed all these football photos so I said, ‘I see that you like horses, do you like football as well?’
“Sam’s jaw dropped. He stared at me for a moment, then replied ‘Well, yes.’
“I asked, ‘Did you ever play football?’
“With a smile on his face, he responded ‘a little.’
“Where did you play. ‘In high school, (pause) and then for the New York Giants and the Redskins.’
“At this point my thick brain realized that this guy must be a big deal. When I told this story to the men in my family they all gasped. From that point on, every time I saw Sam in town, often coming out of his beloved Coach Stop, he would walk up, grab my hand and say, ‘Let me introduce myself. I’m the football guy.’”
Leah Ferguson did, need, broadcast her radio show from Sam and Carol’s studio, and one day Sam went on as her guest.
“I asked Sam why he had pursued professional football rather than staying in West Virginia to work in the mines like the rest of his family,” she recalled. “He told me that working in the mines is very dangerous. I replied, ‘Sam, there are lots of people who consider getting knocked around on a football field dangerous.’ Sam responded, ‘I was always the knocker, never the knockee.’”
“Sam was unique, and he will be missed,” Leah Ferguson ended her touching email.
And especially so here in Middleburg, which he loved, in a town where he was beloved