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When I played in the NFL in the 1950s and '60s, people talked about how tough I was, but that was just how folks were where I grew up. I was raised in a West Virginia coal mining camp called Number Nine, near Farmington. My dad worked in the mines, and so did the dads of every kid I went to school with. In those camps you rented your house from the mining company and bought your food and clothes at company stores. You know that Tennessee Ernie Ford song: "You load 16 tons, what do you get/Another day older and deeper in debt"? That was my dad's life. We had to go to a community pump to get water. We didn't have any heat. Can you imagine? Miners would go on strike for weeks and weeks and still find a way to live. I think I did well in football because I was raised to be like them.
If you were a boy, you played football. At my high school we played on a field cut into a valley and people sat on the hillside to watch. My hero, besides my dad, was Frank Gatski, who also came from Number Nine. He went to Marshall, played offensive line for the Cleveland Browns and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I never imagined I would play in the NFL, but I knew I didn't want to work in the mines. My father had gone to work there when he was 13, and my older brother, Don, did the same when he was 16. I imagined I could become a coach or a teacher. The teachers, I noticed, drove new cars.
I wouldn't have gone to college without a football scholarship. I took recruiting trips to the University of Florida and to Pitt, which was West Virginia's big rival. Then I visited West Virginia and coach Art (Pappy) Lewis. His dad had worked in the coal mines too. Pappy said, "Sam, I'm telling you now, you're either going to come to West Virginia U. or you're going to end up in a coal mine with a number 3 red shovel in your hands." I went to WVU, and I loved it.
Understand, college football was different then: After games I was back at my job in Farmington, bagging groceries. But I was part of one of the best teams the school ever had. We beat Penn State, our other rival, three years in a row, and we played in the 1954 Sugar Bowl. It was the first time the Mountaineers had gone to a major bowl. I still regret that we didn't take the game more seriously. We acted like we were on vacation. (That was the first time I ate shrimp; before then I thought they were fish bait.) Georgia Tech, with Pepper Rodgers at quarterback, beat us 42-19, and the bowl people held our poor showing against us. The next year we went 8-1 and were ranked 12th by the AP, but we didn't get a bowl invitation.
Like most West Virginians, I followed the Pittsburgh pro sports teams, and I would have loved to have played for the Steelers. But I was drafted by the New York Giants in the third round in 1956, and I played for them for eight years before they traded me to the Washington Redskins. I remember coming home to visit my dad and brother during one off-season while I was with the Giants. They took me into the mine and showed me a big loader they had nicknamed the Sam Huff Special. A few years later, in 1968, a huge explosion rocked the mine. Seventy-eight miners were killed—including five of my uncles and cousins. The mine had to be sealed to put out the fire, burying many men down there, and the Sam Huff Special, too.
I consider myself a true West Virginian, but I have to confess: Probably the most popular sports in the state are ones I've never liked—hunting and fishing. The only animals I ever wanted to hurt were the ones carrying footballs. Today in West Virginia you also see extreme sports like rock climbing and Whitewater rafting. No one I knew ever did anything like that, and I don't understand why anyone would.
I now live in Virginia, where I do radio commentary for Redskins games and produce a syndicated radio program on horse racing. I also promote racing. Sixteen years ago I founded the West Virginia Breeders Classic, which is held every October. I haven't forgotten where I came from: On the wall of my office I have an old picture of my dad in his mining uniform, with all the guys from his shift.