Led by middle linebacker Sam Huff, the 1961 New York Giants unleashed the full force of their top-ranked defense on the St. Louis Cardinals.
Sixty years ago, on Oct. 8, 1961, Huff recovered a fumble and returned the ball 12 yards for a touchdown, sparking the Giants to a 24-9 victory in the Cardinals’ home opener at Busch Stadium.
Performing with ferocious flair, Huff epitomized the punishing power of the Giants’ defense and helped define the role of middle linebacker.
In his book, “The Best Game Ever,” author Mark Bowden wrote, “Huff was an outsized character, with enough ambition on and off the field to frighten the faint of heart. He was outspoken, brash and unapologetic … He played football with unmatched ferocity, reveling in the game’s violence.”
Elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Huff played in the NFL for 13 seasons _ eight with the Giants and five with the Washington Redskins. The Giants got to the NFL championship game in six of Huff’s eight seasons with them. He died on Nov. 13, 2021, at 87.
Huff was born in a coal mining camp in West Virginia. He became a baseball catcher and football lineman at West Virginia University. According to the Washington Post, the Cleveland Indians signed Huff to a baseball contract, but he chose professional football when the Giants selected him in the third round of the 1956 NFL draft.
As a rookie at Giants training camp, Huff was tried as a lineman on offense and defense, but was overmatched and became a target of criticism from head coach Jim Lee Howell.
In “The Best Game Ever” book, Huff said he regretted his decision to try football instead of baseball and told himself, “I think I’m in the wrong game.”
Huff and another unhappy rookie, kicker Don Chandler, decided to quit. As they were leaving camp, assistant coach Ed Kolman stopped them. According to author Mark Bowden, Kolman told Huff, “Sam, if you leave here, it will be the biggest mistake you’ve ever made in your life. I played this game, and I really believe you can be a star in this league.”
Huff stayed and convinced Chandler to do the same.
Giants defensive coordinator Tom Landry was experimenting with a concept that featured four linemen instead of the standard five. The key was to have a middle linebacker who, as author Mark Bowden described, was “a kind of super-athlete, a man as big as a lineman, quick enough and fast enough to play pass defense, and smart enough to recognize which role to play with every snap of the ball.”
The player Landry wanted for the role was Sam Huff. It turned out to be the perfect choice. Video
We meet again
Five years later, in 1961, Huff was enjoying the star status Ed Kolman had predicted for him. Landry had left to become head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Allie Sherman, 38, replaced Howell as Giants head coach.
Sherman and the Giants got shocked in their season opener, losing 21-10 to the Cardinals at Yankee Stadium. Both teams were 2-1 when the rematch was held at St. Louis.
The Cardinals’ first three games were on the road and, though they played well, it took a toll. Several players were injured, including running backs John David Crow and Joe Childress, defensive end Joe Robb and defensive back Pat Fischer, and were unavailable for the home opener.
Head coach Pop Ivy started Prentice Gautt at halfback against the Giants, shifted tight end Taz Anderson to fullback and moved flanker Bobby Joe Conrad to tight end, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
The makeshift offense faced a Giants defense with a fantastic front four of ends Jim Katcavage and Andy Robustelli, and tackles Dick Modzelewski and Rosey Grier. The linebackers: Huff, Cliff Livingston and Tom Scott. The backfield: cornerbacks Erich Barnes and Dick Lynch, and safeties Jimmy Patton and Dick Nolan.
In the first half, the Cardinals produced no first downs, according to the Associated Press. The Giants led, 7-2, at halftime. The Cardinals’ points came when Larry Wilson blocked a Don Chandler punt and the ball bounced through the end zone for a safety.
The outcome was determined by the Giants’ defense within 100 seconds of the second half.
On the second play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Robustelli forced a fumble by quarterback Sam Etcheverry. Livingston recovered and ran five yards to the Cardinals’ 11-yard line. From there, Alex Webster carried on four consecutive plays, the last a one-yard touchdown plunge, and the Giants led, 14-2.
Three plays after the kickoff, Modzelewski knocked the ball loose from Etcheverry. Huff recovered and ran for the touchdown. Just like that, the Giants were ahead, 21-2.
In the book “Giants In Their Own Words,” Huff said, “I got myself up for every game, not just the big ones. It was just a natural competitive spirit. I think we all had it on the Giants’ defense … All of us on defense were close: Robustelli, Grier, Modzelewski, Katcavage. It’s like a platoon in the army. You depend on each other.”
Katcavage told author Richard Whittingham, “We used to tell (Huff) that we did all the work for him to set him up so he could make all those tackles and look good to the press and the fans. We loved to kid him, but Sam was a hell of a ballplayer. He could really diagnose plays, and he was a big factor in why our defense was as good as it was in those days.”
Desperate to try anything against the Giants’ defense, Pop Ivy replaced Etcheverry with Ralph Guglielmi, making his first Cardinals appearance since being acquired from the Washington Redskins, but the Giants intercepted him three times.
The Cardinals committed seven turnovers (four interceptions and three fumbles), a total the Post-Dispatch simply called “amazing.” Dick Lynch picked off three passes and Cliff Livingston intercepted the other.
In addition to forcing the Cardinals to make mistakes, the Giants’ defense held them to a total of five first downs and 28 yards rushing.
“Our best defensive performance of the year,” Allie Sherman told the Post-Dispatch. Game stats
The Giants finished the 1961 season ranked No. 1 in team defense. They led the league in takeaways with 54 (the league average was 40) and their 220 points allowed were the fewest of any defense (the league average was 301). The Giants yielded a mere six rushing touchdowns in 14 regular-season games.