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BREWER: Saying goodbye to sports stars of 2021

As the calendar year of 2021 comes to a close, there have been a litany of iconic sports stars who have passed away during the past 365 days.

I think about Hank Aaron, 86, who totaled a whopping 755 home runs during his legendary career in Major League Baseball. Tommy Lasorda, 93, who managed the Los Angeles Dodgers to two World Series titles in the 1980s. Then there were the tragic passings of Pro Bowl wide receivers Demaryius Thomas, 33, and Vincent Jackson, 38, young men who were just getting started in their life after football.

One of the sports figures who had an indelible mark on me as a young sports reporter was NFL Hall of Famer Sam Huff, who died on Nov. 13 at the age of 87. I had the pleasure of being an acquaintance of Huff’s for over a decade. As retired NFL players battled with the league for many years over improved pension benefits, Huff was one of the more outspoken advocates with whom I had interviewed many times.

In addition to gaining insight on the topic of ex-player pension compensation, Huff would also entertain me with stories from his glory years in the NFL. Being a fan of sports history and NFL history in particular, I marveled at the stories he accumulated during his professional playing career which spanned from 1956-1969.

Huff spoke of playing New York Giants home games in the old Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, New York. According to Huff, he shared the same locker with legendary Yankee slugger Mickey Mantle. He also lamented the fact that the New York Giants once had Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry on the same coaching staff, but did not retain either of the future football coaching icons.

The former star linebacker also spoke to me about his memories playing against the Baltimore Colts in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, also dubbed “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” As it turned out, the Colts won in sudden death by a final score of 23-17. This game is credited by many historians as putting professional football on the map as an American television spectator event.

I also recall having conversations about Huff about the upstart American Football League (AFL). During the 60s, the AFL was in fierce competition with the well-established NFL for the right to recruit top-tier talent. Huff said he once met then-owner of the AFL’s New York Jets Sonny Werblin while he was still an active player. However, Huff described the meeting as cordial without any business being discussed.

While Huff was a coal miner by trade from West Virginia, it was quite common place for sports stars during that era to have regular jobs in the offseason. From my vantage point, it was that blue-collar background that allowed Huff to relate to regular folks such as myself. I feel that getting friendly with a iconic sports figure from modern times would be nearly impossible.

Other notable passings this year in sports includes MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton (75), college basketball coaching icon John Chaney (89), former NFL head coach Marty Schottenheimer (77) and boxing champions Leon Spinks (67) and Marvelous Marvin Hagler (66). Although these figures are no longer with us in the physical form, their contributions to their respective crafts will undoubtedly live on for future generations.

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