Claude Humphrey: Inside the Legacy of 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee

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Claude Humphrey: Inside the Legacy of 2014 Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee
Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

Over 30 years after retiring from football, and following four denied entries as a finalist or senior candidate, former Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Claude Humphrey will be officially inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

The wait was long for one of the first great members of the Falcons franchise.

Humphrey, who made six Pro Bowls and eight All-Pro teams, retired from the game after 13 seasons in 1981. His finalist bids at the Hall of Fame came up short in 2003, 2005 and 2006, and he was not selected as a first-time senior candidate in 2009. 

Over 171 career games, Humphrey tallied 122 sacks—including 94.5 with the Falcons, a franchise record—plus two interceptions, two safeties and a fumble return for a score. 

Here is the rest of Claude Humphrey's Hall of Fame story:

 

High Pick, Immediate Impact

A college career that included a 35-3-1 record, two Black Colleges National Championships and an All-American selection in 1967 helped make Humphrey one of the earliest small school prospects to be a top overall selection in the NFL draft.

The recently founded Falcons—born just three years earlier in 1965—took Humphrey with the third overall pick in the 1968 draft. He became the franchise's third-ever first-round pick and second pick inside the first three selections. 

Only Ron Yary, who went on to become a Hall of Fame offensive tackle, and Bob Johnson, whose No. 54 jersey is retired by the Cincinnati Bengals, were drafted ahead of him.

Top 5 Overall Picks, 1968 NFL Draft
Player Team Career
1. OT Ron Yary MIN HOF
2. C Bob Johnson CIN AFL All Star
3. DE Claude Humphrey ATL HOF
4. OT Russ Washington SD AFL All Star
5. LB Fred Carr GB Pro Bowler

*1968 draft featured seven Hall of Famers

Humphrey, the first-ever player from Tennessee State picked in the first two rounds, made an immediate impact. 

As a rookie, the 6'4" Humphrey registered 11.5 sacks and three fumble recoveries for the two-win Falcons. He was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, becoming just the second-ever player to win the award, which was first introduced in 1967.

By 1969, the Falcons defense had improved to sixth in points allowed and first in turnovers forced. The most memorable of those takeaways came via Humphrey, who returned a fumble 24 yards for a touchdown against the eventual Super Bowl-bound Vikings in late December. The defensive score propelled Atlanta to a 10-3 upset victory, snapping Minnesota's 12-game winning streak. In an all-around impressive performance, the Falcons defense forced eight turnovers and allowed just nine first downs to the NFL's No. 1-ranked scoring offense. 

 

Big Numbers, Lacking Wins

A career so tall on individual achievement ended up shockingly short on team success. 

Humphrey spent 10 full seasons in Atlanta, beginning in 1968 and ending in 1977. Only two of those 10 seasons ended with winning records, and not once over the decade did the Falcons finish better than second in their division. 

In 1971, the Falcons went 7-6-1, which represented the franchise's first winning season. Humphrey played in all 14 games and was named to the Pro Bowl. Two years later, the Falcons won a then-team record nine games but still failed to make the postseason. Humphrey's defense ranked sixth in yards allowed and seventh in takeaways.  

Associated Press
Humphrey (No. 87) attacks a run play vs. the Rams in 1977.

Atlanta went 9-7 in 1978, but Humphrey only played four games for the Falcons before being traded to Philadelphia. Overall, his record while in Atlanta was just 53-84-3—good for a winning percentage of 37.9—with zero postseason appearances.

Teammate Greg Brezina, who spent 12 years in Atlanta from 1968 to 1979, told Charles Odum of The Associated Press, via the Delaware County Daily Times, that Humphrey was probably overlooked because of his team's lack of wins. 

“He was a great athlete, said Brezina. One of the best things about him was his winning attitude. He was a team player and, of course, he’s probably one of the best defensive ends that there was out there. It’s just a shame he played so long with a team that didn’t win much. He didn’t get the recognition.”

Humphrey did not go completely unnoticed.

He made six Pro Bowls (tied for the Falcons record), including five straight from 1970 to 1974. He was named a first-team All-Pro by The Associated Press (AP) in both 1972 and 1973 and a second-team choice in 1977. The Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) selected him as a first-team All-Pro in 1971 and 1974 and a second-team All-Pro in 1970 and 1976. Both the AP and NEA named him a second-team All-NFL selection in 1969. 

Humphrey had a number of notable seasons.

After missing the entire 1975 season due to a knee injury, Humphrey came back strong as ever in 1976. He posted a career-high 15.5 sacks, which still stands as the third-best individual sack season in Falcons history.

Claude Humphrey: Career Highlights
Six-time Pro Bowler Falcons all-time leader in sacks (94.5)
Eight-time All-Pro selection 1968 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year
122 Career Sacks 1967 All-American
Played in Super Bowl XV Member of Falcons Ring of Honor

*Played 13 seasons

In 1977, the Falcons put together one of the most underappreciated defensive seasons in NFL history.  

Spearheaded in part by Humphrey, Atlanta's defense finished first in the NFL and first in NFL history in points allowed, giving up just 129 points over 14 games. Now almost 40 years later, the 9.2 points per game allowed by the '77 Falcons still remains the top mark in league history. 

The Grits Blitz defense was statistically dominant. Atlanta allowed 3.7 yards per play, forced 48 turnovers (almost 3.5 per game) and registered 42 sacks. Twenty-six of opposing quarterbacks' 320 pass attempts were intercepted. Opponents were shut out as many times as they scored over 20 points (two), while half (seven) of the games ended with the Falcons allowing less than 10 points. 

Humphrey earned second-team All-Pro honors from the AP in '77.

Yet Atlanta could only muster a 7-7 season thanks to an offense that was almost as inept (12.8 points per game) as the defense was suffocating. 

By 1978, Humphrey could take no more of the losing. 

 

A Change of Scenery, A Change of Fortune 

After a 1-3 start looked destined to doom another season in Atlanta, Humphrey walked away from the game and temporarily retired. He was later traded to Philadelphia, where he returned to the game and then spent the 1979, 1980 and 1981 seasons with the Eagles. 

While the Falcons eventually made the postseason in 1978, the Eagles were a top team for all three years Humphrey played in Philadelphia. 

In 1979, Philadelphia won 11 games and advanced to the divisional round of the NFC playoffs. A year later, the Eagles—in part due to Humphrey's 14.5 sacks—won 12 games and a division title, Humphrey's first of his career. Philadelphia also gave Humphrey his first Super Bowl appearance, but the Eagles lost 27-10 to the Los Angeles Raiders.

A final season in the NFL saw Humphrey's Eagles win 10 games, but the New York Giants bounced Philadelphia from the postseason in the Wild Card Round. 

In both 1980 and 1981, the Eagles finished first in scoring defense. 

Overall, Humphrey tallied 27.5 sacks—some coming in a situational pass-rusher role—and won 33 games with three postseason appearances while in Philadelphia. 

 

So Close to the Hall

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Humphrey retired from the game in 1981, but he needed to wait a full 22 years to get his first real crack at enshrinement into the Hall of Fame. While he was named a finalist in 2003, Humphrey did not receive the 80 percent voting requirement for induction. 

Attempts in 2005 and 2006 as a finalist also came up short, and his first try as a senior candidate—provided to a qualified player who has been out of the league for at least 25 years—did not yield an invitation to Canton, Ohio. 

Humphrey admitted some level of trepidation about getting in this time around. 

“The waiting is the hardest part of all,” Humphrey said, via John Glennon of The Tennessean. “The Hall of Fame is a very trying experience, and you just have to wait and see what happens. But it’s always a difficult time.”

Richard Dent, who also went to Tennessee State before producing a Hall of Fame career with the Chicago Bears, vouched for Humphrey's candidacy. 

“His day is way overdue, Dent said, via Glennon. He’s one of those guys that at the end of the day, there are people in the Hall of Fame that haven’t done what he’s done. Eventually, a star, you gotta bring him home at some point.”

Humphrey joined punter Ray Guy as senior candidates for 2014. He learned a day before Super Bowl XLVIII that he had finally breached the 80 percent vote needed for induction. Joining him in the 2014 class is receiver Andre Reed, linebacker Derrick Brooks, tackle Walter Jones, defensive end Michael Strahan, cornerback Aeneas Williams and Guy.

Now 70 years old, Humphrey plans to share the day with his daughter, who is delivering the introductory speech Saturday, and his lone grandson. 

“It’s a legacy for my only grandson, Humphrey said, via Odum. He gets a chance to learn a little something about his granddad. It’s something I don’t have to tell him. Other people can tell him. He won’t think I’m telling him a lie.”

Humphrey's Hall of Fame story is one of perseverance. Once a standout for a new but floundering franchise, Humphrey overcame his team's shortcomings to rightfully earn his status as one of his era's best pass-rushing defensive ends. 

His 33-year wait for a call from the Pro Football Hall of Fame stands as a fitting end to this football story.

 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

Follow @zachkruse2

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