Commentary

NFL legend brings toughness to racing industry

Updated: October 17, 2008, 1:19 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

When gridiron great Jim Brown retired from the National Football League in favor of Hollywood movies, the legendary gladiator said, "Would you rather face Raquel Welch or Sam Huff?"

It's a quote that brings a chuckle to the rough-and-tumble Huff to this day, a sense of pride and a testament to the strength and attitude he brought to his football career. Mere days after his 74th birthday, earlier this week Huff was clearing trees around his northern Virginia horse farm and preparing for an event that has become his post-football badge: Saturday night's 22nd running of the West Virginia Breeders' Classics (ESPNEWS, 10:15 p.m. ET) at Charles Town.

The success of the Breeders' Classics program, of which Huff is CEO, should come as no surprise to those who have followed Huff's life. This year boasts a record $1,875,000 in purse money and the West Virginia breeding program continues to grow.

"The first year we ran the Breeders' Classics (in 1987)," recalled Huff, "I had to take out a $10,000 loan from the racetrack and they made me sign a contract -- get this -- that I would have to pay them back within 10 days after the Classics. Ten days? Do you believe that? We've paid them back and then some.

"Twenty-two years later, here we are. We're bigger than the Maryland Million. We came from nowhere, less-than-nowhere, and copied the concept of the Maryland Million, started by the great Jim McKay. I'm smart enough to know that there's no sense in re-inventing the wheel. Take an existing idea and make it better -- that's what we've done. God bless us, we're up to $1,875,000 in purses and have grown from five to nine races."

Still Leading the Huddle
Huff's toughness and candor is unmistakable. The 1982 Professional Football Hall of Fame inductee's helmet displayed in Canton boasts a massive dent from one of his many fierce collisions on the field.

"Football is war without guns," says Huff, a standout for the New York Giants from 1956-'63 and the Washington Redskins from 1964-'69. "I have the highest regard for the men and women of the military and how they operate: the honor code, the dress code, and the fact that they deliver. Sports would be better off if we followed that lead.

Sam Huff
File PhotoSam Huff played for the New York Giants from 1956-'63 and the Washington Redskins from 1964-'69.
"In my day, if you did any of the hoolie-goolie stuff they do today after scoring a touchdown, we would take you out. I'd take the 15 yards (penalty) and deck 'em. Dick Butkus would. Ray Nitschke would. I honestly think some of these guys today sit up at night and dream up what they'll do if they score Sunday."

And as strong as Huff was on the gridiron, he has proven to be equally as stern at the bargaining table.

In 1995, Charles Town Races threatened closure as it postured politically in the race to be awarded casino and slots gaming in the state. Huff did not blink. He told track officials to guarantee him his autumn date for the Breeders' Classics program or risk losing it altogether.

"My father worked in the mines, so I know a thing or two about strikes and work stoppages," Huff said. "They only happen around a big event to gain the most leverage. I wasn't going to be that big event for them to use. I told them if you don't guarantee me the date for the Classics, I'll take the whole damned thing on the road to Mountaineer Park.

"They laughed at me. 'You can't do that, all the horses are here,' they said. You're damned right I can, and I will. I brought in 10 trailer trucks and we hauled 100 horses six hours across the state of West Virginia and we moved the event. The show goes on. I'm putting on the show, and you just run your damned horses."

Huff's local leadership is of the no-nonsense variety that could serve the horse racing industry on a broader, national scale. He balances his horse racing and breeding interests with his broadcasting career as the Washington Redskins radio analyst, along with former teammate and Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgenson.

"I believe this -- you have to have a national organization and you have to have national rules," Huff said of racing's current ills. "If the Redskins go play in New York, we don't play by New York's god-damned rules!

"A lot of people don't like who I am, but I believe in being up front. I've been surrounded by, and fortunate to deal with, some of the greatest coaches and leaders in history. Tom Landry was my defensive coach in New York and later I was a player-coach with the greatest of all-time, Vince Lombardi. I helped a young John Kennedy win the U.S. Senate and Presidential races in West Virginia, introducing him at campaign speeches in Fairmont. I suggested to him that he talk to the people of West Virginia about being Catholic, and not to avoid talking about it. He delivered one of the greatest speeches I've ever been blessed to hear."

Politically Savvy
When asked if Huff would be interested in a national position with a governing body for horse racing, without hesitation he replied, "Certainly I would."

"There are 32 teams in the NFL and they promote their teams together," he reasoned. "Who runs horse racing? I've met every single NFL Commissioner of my adult lifetime, but never once met anyone who runs racing. That's because he or she doesn't exist. Until you get one organization, it's going to remain -- and I'm embarrassed to say it -- almost a disgrace. When are racing people going to wake up?"

The straight-shooting Huff once made a run for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970, one year after retiring from the NFL. But his political experience did not turn out to be a storybook return home to West Virginia. The one-time Time Magazine coverboy was soundly defeated in the Democratic primary.

"The dumbest thing I ever did was run for office," Huff now admits. "I admire people that are successful, like the Marriott family, who built one of the great hotel empires in the world, and the Mara family, who started the New York football franchise for just $500 and developed it into one of the most successful sports franchises of all time, the Giants.

"So when I retired from football, I wanted to do something to help my state, to be successful. I truly love West Virginia. It's where I went to grade school, high school and West Virginia University; I am a loyal Mountaineer. But none of that made a difference when I came home. Here I had gone off to New York and become successful, and everyone back home said, 'Look at that S-O-B, he made all that money and now who does he think he is?' People I grew up with would literally walk on the other side of the street when they saw me coming down the sidewalk. Jealousy, I guess. But it really hurt. And, I wasn't anything close to Obama or McCain with all that campaign money."

Huff was hardly a big-money celebrity from his football career; he made his hay with a hard work ethic off the field as well.

Said Huff about professional sports in the 1950s and '60s, "On Sundays, I played football at Yankee Stadium. At 9 a.m. every Monday morning, I was going to work down the street at J.P. Stevens and Company selling fabrics. We were selling to Haggar, J.C. Penney, all the big retailers.

"I was making more money with J.P. Stevens than I was with the New York Giants. You didn't get rich off football back then. I was making $19,000 a year with the Giants after six NFL championship game appearances and four Pro Bowls."

Huff would later go on to a long and successful marketing career with the Marriott hotel chain from 1971 until he retired in 1998.

Tough Talk
Huff had the proverbial cup of coffee serving on national racing boards, invited to join in with the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA), based in Lexington, Ky. He recalls attending meetings and coming away frustrated with the status quo.

"I know how the NFL operates and I would tell people in the (TOBA) meetings, 'If we want to be more like the NFL, let's form an organization -- a real one with control to make decisions," he said. "Then, the announcement would come that it's 15 minutes to post time for the next race and the meetings would literally stop. I would ask, 'Who runs racing?' and there would be complete silence. Robert Clay (of Three Chimneys Farm) said to me, 'Honestly, Sam, nobody.' Well, as you might guess, I was not re-elected to the TOBA board. That's fine. I can buy my tickets and go to the Kentucky Derby. But everything is so splintered. It has to be all pulled together.

"I love a challenge. I couldn't get on first base in Kentucky, but I know New York like the back of my hand."

Huff travels the NFL schedule with the Redskins broadcast team, but for the most part spends his professional time in the horse industry these days.

"I'm very interested in the game of racing," he said. "Carol Holden and I work every day on the West Virginia Breeders' Classics, and we have a weekly radio show here spreading the word about this great game. I spend far more time on the horses than I do football, even during the Redskins' season.

"We have five broodmares, five foals, horses in training on the farm and at the track. I've gone broke doing this, and I don't know anyone who has made real money in doing this. Maybe the good ole' boys in Kentucky do with the big farms, studs, the sales companies & otherwise the rest of us do this because we love it. Heck, I've never met Fasig or Tipton, have you? Maybe they have made money."

Mettle of the Man
Huff played in 150 consecutive NFL games at linebacker without missing a Sunday, a remarkable streak for the ferocity of the position and the man behind the facemask. He grew up in a coal mining camp, and lost five relatives in the Nov. 20, 1968 explosion at Mountaineer Coal Company's No. 9 mine in Fairmont, which took the lives of 78 miners. He had long since left home for pro football by then, but admits, "If not for football, I probably would have been in there."

The tough past that has shaped Sam Huff also moves him forward.

"If anything, I've had the ability to offset the bad and not dwell on the past, and put it out of my mind and go on with life," he said. "I just keep going forward. I'm a simple guy. In football, I say every snap should be 'on two.' If it's on three or four, everybody has a chance to screw it up. I'm a plain guy who likes to keep it simple. I drive a Ford, not an Escalade or a Mercedes, and I get there at the exact same time everyone else does."

It's that simple approach to life that guides his common-sense principles. Huff said Thoroughbred racing could benefit from such a reality check in dealing with its current medication scandals, even at the most visible levels.

"Do you really expect all trainers to be good people? No. Three strikes and you're out -- that's the way it is in baseball, and that's the way we ought to treat the drug situation with trainers," he said. "How many rulings does a trainer get today? Fifty? Sixty? Seventy? The Giants' best receiver (Plaxico Burress) was suspended two games for missing practice. That's control, man. That's organization. That's the way it should be. How many charges has Rick Dutrow had? Fifty or sixty-something, I have read. Anyone with that many rulings ought to be in jail. I don't give a god-damn if he trains Big Brown. Three strikes, you're out.

"I don't believe in cheating. I want to admire every trophy. Money is one thing, and it means more to some than others, but trophies are another thing altogether."

On Saturday night at Charles Town Races, Huff will be in the winner's circle handing out nine more precious pieces of hardware to the winners of West Virginia's championship divisions.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@horseplayerpro.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

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