By Dennis Dillon
The oldest living member in the Pro Football Hall of Fame rose from his chair, eyed his target squarely and moved in for the play. With his wife, Peggy, cheering him on, he huffed, and he puffed, and he blew out every one of the 99 candles on his birthday cake.
His health may be betraying him—his hearing is shot, his mobility is compromised, and he fell and broke his shoulder while walking out to the mail box a few months ago—but Charley Trippi hasn’t lost the singular trait that defined his magnificent football career, where he was a multi-dimensional player at the University of Georgia and in the NFL.
“I’ve never met a man more determined than my grandpa,” says Clint Watson. “If you go back and look at all the pictures of him in action, you’ll see a similarity. You’ll see the face that he’s making. He’s gritting his teeth and straining with every ounce of energy and determination that he has. When you see those pictures, you’re like, ‘That’s Pa-Pa.’ He has a determination about him that a lot of people just don’t have.”
Trippi lives in Athens, Ga., not far from the college stadium where he starred in the mid-1940s. You used to be able to drive by his house and see Charley out in his yard, raking leaves. But he pretty much stays inside any more.
Born on December 14, 1921 in Pittston, Pa., Trippi was the son of a Sicilian immigrant coal miner. His mother died when Trippi was young. Trippi played football at Pittston High School, but he felt he needed to add some weight before playing in college.
I only weighed 165 pounds out of high school. Georgia was the only school that offered me a scholarship, Trippi said in the 2014 book “The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL.” I then went to a prep school in Long Island, N.Y.—LaSalle Military Academy. After gaining 10 pounds, I made the All-Metropolitan team in New York. With that exposure, Notre Dame wanted me, but I promised Georgia I would go to Georgia.
In 1942, his freshman year, Trippi played alongside halfback Frank Sinkwich. Georgia went 11-1 and Sinkwich won the Heisman Trophy. The next season, Trippi helped lead Georgia to the Rose Bowl, where the Bulldogs beat UCLA 9-0. Trippi gained 130 yards on the ground and was named the game’s most valuable player, but that may not have been his fondest memory of going out to California.
“When they went out there, they were treated like movie stars,” Watson says. “They were having dinner with famous people, movie stars, and I think that was a pretty amazing experience for him.”
Trippi then went into the Air Force (where he didn’t enter into combat but mostly entertained troops playing football and baseball) and missed the entire 1944 season and all but six games in 1945.
The 1946 season was the high point of Trippi’s college career. He won the Maxwell Award as the nation’s most outstanding player, was a unanimous first-team All-America selection and finished runner-up to Army halfback Glenn Davis in balloting for the Heisman Trophy.
Then it was time for Trippi to take his football skills to the next level. Having been selected No. 1 overall in the 1945 NFL draft as a future pick by the Chicago Cardinals, Trippi capitalized on Cardinals owner Charles Bidwill’s generosity and signed an unprecedented $100,000 contract with a $25,000 first-year bonus.
It was a lot back then, Trippi said in “The Game Before The Money”, but I would like to be negotiating today. Boy, they make big money now.
As an NFL rookie in 1947, Trippi became a member of the Cardinals’ “Million Dollar Backfield” (or the “Dream Backfield,” as Bidwill called it) which also included quarterback Paul Christman, halfback Marshall Goldberg and fullback Pat Harder. In 11 games, Trippi displayed his multidimensional skills: he rushed for 401 yards, had 240 yards in receptions, averaged 43.4 yards punting, returned eight punts for 181 yards, 15 kickoffs for 321 yards and returned an interception 59 yards for a touchdown. The Cardinals defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, 28-21, in the NFL Championship game at Comiskey Park where, despite an icy field that forced players to trade in their cleats for sneakers, Trippi scored two touchdowns—one on a 44-yard run, the other on a 75-yard punt return.
Trippi led the NFL in all-purpose yards in 1948 (1,485) and 1949 (1,552), and his 5.4 yards per rush ranked first in ’49.
After primarily playing halfback from 1947-1950, Trippi moved to quarterback in 1951 and ’52, went back to halfback in ’53 and played primarily on defense in ’54 (he intercepted three passes). He also was the Cardinals’ punter in ’53 and ’54.”
How did Trippi become so versatile?
“I think, honestly, a lot of it just came very natural for him,” says Watson. “He was extremely athletic and gifted in a lot of ways. And then you add the determination factor.”
A vicious tackle by John Henry Johnson of the 49ers in a 1955 preseason game precipitated the end of Trippi’s playing career. Trippi suffered a broken nose, a concussion and a protruding bone behind his eye that gave him double vision. Trippi played in only five games in ’55, his last NFL season.
When he retired, his 7,374 yards of total offense—3,506 rushing, 2,547 passing and 1,321 receiving—were the most in NFL history for one player.
Trippi wasn’t quite finished with football. He returned to Georgia, where he was an offensive assistant for head coaches Wally Butts (1958-60), for whom Trippi had played for, and Johnny Griffith (1961-63). Trippi coached future NFL star quarterback Fran Tarkenton. After that, Trippi joined the coaching staff of the Cardinals, who had moved to St. Louis in 1960, and worked under head coach Wally Lemm for three seasons (1963-65).
“He wasn’t one of my coaches, but I remember him being a very nice person,” Jackie Smith said of Trippi, who coached the offensive backs during Smith’s rookie season in 1963. “He was passionate about his job and a nice guy.”
Trippi was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame (1959); the Pro Football Hall of Fame (1962), where he is the only player to have accumulated at least 1,000 yards rushing, passing and receiving; and the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame (1965). He also was named to the NFL’s 1940s All-Decade Team.
After football, Trippi became successful in commercial real estate. He still owns some property. Says Watson, “He told me one time that he would own half of Athens if he had been more aggressive with his money back in the day. He was a little took risk averse.”
Yard work was Trippi’s passion. Watson remembers a moment from two years ago when Trippi was on his back deck and noticed leaves starting to fall from a big tree in the yard. “He went out there with his rake and started beating the tree, just to get the leaves off so he could rake them up,” Watson says, laughing. “That’s the kind of intensity and determination I’m talking about. They just don’t make them like that anymore.”
(About the Author: Dennis Dillon is a former writer with the St. Louis Globe Democrat and the Sporting News)
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