Depending on how long you’ve been watching football, you may not recognize the name of one member of the 2013 Pro Football Hall of Fame Class, but you should. The name is Curley Culp, a defensive tackle who played from 1968-1981 and is best known for his years with the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Oilers.
Culp’s career was about as unsexy as it gets, and statistics don’t tell his story, which is probably why it took so long for him to get the recognition he deserved. It took over two decades for Culp to get his bust enshrined in Canton, but that doesn’t mean his accomplishments are less worthy of your attention.
It all started when the Denver Broncos drafted Culp in the second round in 1968, but they wanted him to play offensive guard, while he wanted to play defense. He was traded to the Chiefs for a third-round pick before he ever took a snap for the Broncos, and head coach Hank Stram put Culp’s 6’1” 265-pound frame at defensive tackle.
Culp’s career would take off at defensive tackle thanks to his tremendous strength. Even before starting his pro football career, his strength was legendary. According to one of his former high school coaches, Culp used to help his dad take care of the pigs and would routinely lift things that normally required two men.
His brute strength made him a dominant wrestler in college, and he nearly became an Olympian instead of a professional football player. In 1967 at Arizona State University, he was the NCAA heavyweight wrestling champion and won the Gorriaran Award, which is presented to the wrestler who pins the most opponents in the least amount of time.
Hall of Fame center Jim Otto said, via CantonRep.com, "Curley Culp was perhaps the strongest man I ever lined up against."
Culp’s strength helped him to revolutionize the nose tackle position in the NFL and contributed to the rise of the 3-4 defense. It all started when Stram put Culp over center Mick Tingelhoff (how cool of a name is that?) in Super Bowl IV, a tactic that helped the Chiefs shut down the Minnesota Vikings’ vaunted rushing attack on their way to victory.
At the time, centers were much smaller, and Culp became a huge mismatch. However, he didn’t become a full-time 3-4 nose tackle until he was traded to the Oilers in 1974 when the Chiefs feared losing him to the upstart World Football League.
In Houston, Culp was the gas that made legendary coach Bum Phillips’ 3-4 defense go. Culp made it to four straight Pro Bowls from 1975-1979 under Phillips and was named first-team All-Pro in 1975 by the Associated Press, the Pro Football Writers of America, the Newspaper Enterprise Association, the United Press International and Pro Football Weekly.
He also piled up sacks just before the statistic became official. Some unverified estimates floating around the web claim he had 68 career sacks, which would be a shocking number for a nose tackle.
According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he had 11.5 unofficial sacks in 1975 when he was voted NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Newspaper Enterprise Association. To put that in perspective, New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork has just 16 sacks in his entire career.
Culp was somewhat of an accidental legend because he could have been an Olympic wrestler or an offensive guard in Denver. He also could have stayed in Kansas City’s 4-3 defense and never had a Hall of Fame football career. On playing as a 3-4 defensive tackle, he said, via CantonRep.com:
It was very demanding physically. Very demanding. I wasn’t really pleased about it initially, but I said this is what it is. I’m going to just get used to it, work and do the best I could. It all worked out.
Not only did every twist and turn of his life lead him to being a 3-4 defensive tackle, he wasn’t even excited about it initially. Clearly it was his destiny to be a great nose tackle, and it all worked out, even though it took a couple of decades for him to be recognized in the Hall of Fame.