By Bill Finley
Sam Huff, who made his mark in both the NFL and in thoroughbred racing as an owner-breeder and the co-founder of the West Virginia Breeders Classics, died Saturday. Huff, who had been suffering from dementia since 2013, was 87.
Huff, a third-round draft choice of the New York Giants in 1956, discovered racing during his time in New York when he would frequent Aqueduct and Belmont. Huff was traded to the Washington Redskins before the 1964 season and retired in 1969.
After his playing days were done, he devoted more time to thoroughbreds. Along with his partner Carol Holden, he opened Sporting Life Farm in Middleburg, Virginia. Huff was the owner and breeder of Bursting Forth, a winner of five stakes races, including the GIII Bewitch S., the GIII Vinery Matchmaker S. and the GIII All Along S.
“When you have a stakes winner, it's like hitting the lottery,” Huff told the Saratogian in 2001. “It's the most exciting thing I've ever done. More than winning an NFL championship, more than reaching the Hall of Fame. There's nothing like it. That's why people are in this business.”
Huff attended the inaugural Maryland Million in 1986 and liked the concept so much he decided to copy it. In 1987, Holden and Huff launched the West Virginia Breeders Classics run at Charles Town. The 35th edition of the event, held Oct. 9 at Charles Town, featured nine stakes for West Virginia-breds with total purses of $1,075,000.
“When we first started, I never had any idea we could do it for 23 years,” Huff told The Northern Virginia Daily in 2009. “It seems like a long time, but when you're working in it, time goes fast. It's always been a goal to be bigger than the Maryland Million–that was our guide, that's what we copied.”
Until his health started to deteriorate, Huff was the face of the Breeders Classics, always there to pose for pictures, shake hands and present trophies in the winner's circle.
Huff maintained a small stable for years and, according to Equibase, won 15 races as an owner since 2000. He started his last horse in 2015.
“I'm not the kind of owner trainers like,” Huff told the Saratogian. “I am involved. I stay on top of things. There's no way you can be in one part of this business. You have to do it all. I read about the industry all the time.”
“Most knew Sam Huff as an NFL Hall of Famer,” read a tweet from Charles Town. We knew him as an advocate of racing and co-founder of the @WVBClassics. Sam passed away today at the age of 87. He will forever be woven into the fabric of West Virginia racing. Our deepest condolences to all who loved him.”
Most knew Sam Huff as an NFL Hall of Famer. We knew him as an advocate of racing and co-founder of the @WVBClassics. Sam passed away today at the age of 87. He will forever be woven into the fabric of West Virginia racing. Our deepest condolences to all who loved him. pic.twitter.com/xagFzGlbTO
— Race Charles Town (@RaceCharlesTown) November 13, 2021
Huff was born in 1934 in Edna, West Virginia and was the son of a coal miner. His full name was Robert Lee Huff. He became known as Sam at an early age and always maintained that he had no idea where the nickname came from.
He grew up in a mining camp known as Number Nine, outside of Farmington, W.Va. A middle linebacker, he played collegiately at West Virginia, where he became an All-American.
The Washington Post called him the first defensive player to become a superstar in the NFL, saying that he “acquired the visibility and fame previously reserved for quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers.”
During his eight seasons in New York, Huff helped lead his team to an NFL championship in 1956. During Huff's time in New York, the Giants played in six championship games. The Giants' 1958 championship loss to the Baltimore Colts is widely remembered as “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” and is seen as a catalyst for the NFL's popularity.
He was traded to Washington in 1964. He retired before the 1968 season but came back a year later and played in 1969 before retiring again.
“Sam was one of the greatest Giants of all time,” said John Mara, the Giants' President and Chief Executive Officer. “He was the heart and soul of our defense in his era. He almost single-handedly influenced the first chants of 'Defense, Defense' in Yankee Stadium.”
Huff was a five-time Pro Bowler, a two-time first-team All-Pro and four-time second-team selection, and a member of the NFL's 1950s All-Decade Team.
After spending another season with the Redskins as an assistant coach, he worked for the Marriott Corporation as a marketing liaison between the hotel chain and athletic teams.
He also worked with both the Giants and Redskins as a broadcaster.