Sandra Humphrey looks down from the mantle, forever young and lovely, captured on the eve of her senior prom, 1965. In the photo, she leans into her date, back from Tennessee State, the football star drawn home by the girl he couldn’t leave behind.
She falls chest high on him. Yet all these years later he is the one sometimes standing in her shadow.
If Claude Humphrey finally makes it to the halls of Canton this year, he said it will be a bittersweet tribute. True, he has thought himself Pro Football Hall of Fame-worthy for decades. But it won’t seem right to get there and not have Sandra beside him. That perfect opportunity has come and gone.
More than a wife of 45 years, more than the constant in his life since middle school — “She was my buddy,” the 69-year-old Humphrey said — Sandra died this past summer after a brief, intense battle with ovarian cancer.
While with the Falcons, Humphrey spent all of the 1975 season recovering from a knee injury that many presumed would finish his brilliance as a quarterback-seeking defensive end. He returned in ’76 as the Falcons’ MVP.
Sandra’s absence is nothing that can be overcome so dramatically. “I’m not over it yet. I’m struggling with it,” he said last week, sitting at his dining table. This condo outside Memphis had been their home for nearly 30 years.
His wife pretty much authored the preamble to each of Humphrey’s previous four unsuccessful Hall of Fame nominations. She was the one who compiled his high points on the field and his good works in the community to pass along to anyone interested while her stoic husband stood at arm’s length from his own career. Sandra was the one-woman public-relations team.
And when the news came back that Claude again fell short of the votes needed for football immortality, she was the one unsettled the most. And how it irked her when the man who used to swat aside 300-pound tackles, bear-like, would accept the result so placidly.
“She would get mad at me because I wouldn’t do anything or say anything about it,” Humphrey said. “I just said, ‘Well, I guess they know what they’re doing.’
“She thought I should be more energetic. She said, ‘You act like you don’t care,’ and I told her I did, I really did. But it seemed like what I’ve done should stand for itself. I shouldn’t have to remind people of what I’ve done.”
Sandra had no choice but to be devoted to the cause. She had been the one witness to Humphrey’s professional ascent, from small-school All American to the Falcons’ first draft pick in 1968 to the Philadelphia Eagles a decade later, after he forced a trade.
The two were married just months before he reported to Atlanta, as soon as Humphrey collected $1,000 for playing in the Senior Bowl. “We lived six months off $1,000,” he said. Their car was a ’53 Ford his father gave them, which started every time, provided they parked it on a hill and could get a little head start before firing it up and engaging the clutch.
When he signed with the Falcons — for $18,000, with a $40,000 signing bonus as Humphrey remembered it — they upgraded.
As the 46-member Hall of Fame selection committee gathers Saturday to vote on the nominees, Humphrey will require 80 percent approval. He has inched progressively closer to that goal each time he was a candidate, first as a nominee at large, then as one recommended by the Hall’s senior committee. This time, he senses a breakthrough is at hand.
“For some reason the atmosphere is different,” Humphrey said. “I wasn’t that enthused about it the last time I went through the senior committee (2009) and, of course, I didn’t make it. This time I’m going to change my attitude about it and see if that doesn’t help me out a little bit.”
Sandra would be pleased. Her husband is talking up his playing days in fine voice now.
“I would stack my career up against anybody they put in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “And I played well against anybody they put in there.
“Now I’m going to speak up for myself. Might not help, but I’ll try to refresh peoples’ memories.”
Should Humphrey make the Hall, he will be the rarest kind of member, the only one arising from the early days of the Falcons when individual accomplishment was cloaked in the shabby disguise of losing. Of his first 10 seasons in Atlanta (1968-77), only two were winning ones. Overall, those Falcons went 53-84-3.
Proof of winning often is required before crossing the velvet ropes and entering the Hall of Fame. Without it, the Falcons first-ever draft pick, linebacker Tommy Nobis, has been denied admission.
Like Nobis, Humphrey was a force on the best part of some mediocre teams, the defense.
A devastating pass-rusher — made more effective when he began using his big mitts to batter linemen with the then-legal head slap — Humphrey supplied a good deal of the heat for the Falcons’ “Grits Blitz” defense of 1977 that set an NFL record for fewest points allowed. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, when he couldn’t get to the quarterback, he often batted down passes they way Dikembe Mutombo used to block shots.
“Probably one of the most consistent players I ever played with,” former Falcons cornerback (1966-73) Ken Reaves said.
“All the quarterbacks in the league hated him. And all the tackles and tight ends who had to try to block him were worried about that head slap,” Reaves said.
The sack was not made an official statistic until after Humphrey’s retirement, but upon further review the numbers people determined that he finished as the Falcons’ all-time leader in that category (94.5).
His relationship with Falcons fans grew complicated four games into his 11th season when, weary of the losing, feeling like he was never going to max out his career in Atlanta, he abruptly quit. “One day I was sitting in the locker room and said, you know, this thing isn’t getting any better,” Humphrey remembered. “I put my stuff in the locker and left, it was just that simple.
“I wasn’t mad at anybody because there was nothing I could do as a player but do what I did. They said they weren’t going to trade me. That was obvious.”
He sat out the rest of the season, then, finally, the Falcons were left with few alternatives but to trade him, to Philadelphia after the season.
Ironically, the Falcons rebounded from the 1-3 start that drove Humphrey away in ’78 and went to their first postseason.
And the move certainly suited Humphrey, because even as he was more and more confined to the pass-rusher’s role during his three seasons in Philly, he at least discovered the joy of victory. Even made it to a Super Bowl, losing to Oakland. Humphrey’s most memorable play of Super Bowl XV came after the whistle. When flagged by ref Ben Dreith for roughing the passer, Humphrey picked up the yellow cloth and flung it back at Dreith.
Had he not broken free of the Falcons, Humphrey figures he never would have made it even to the Hall’s waiting room. The pull of that forsaken franchise was just too powerful to escape.
As the years passed, ownership changed and time scabbed over his awkward parting. In 2008, Humphrey was added to the team’s ring of honor.
When his playing days were finished, Humphrey coached briefly (even back with the Falcons for a while). The player who always seemed to find some stray to adopt during training camp also showed Dobermans once he had the free time.
The volume on the life of one Hall of Famer in waiting has been turned down significantly. Atop the orthopedic ailments and aches that a man in his line of work can’t avoid, Humphrey has confronted significant health issues: diabetes; the loss of a kidney to cancer. He is not a part of the large class-action concussion lawsuit against the NFL.
Financially, he was among the real benefactors of the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that pumped up the pension for the league’s vintage players. Admittedly struggling to make ends meet the past ten years or so, Humphrey saw his pension nearly double with the new agreement.
Two of his three daughters currently live with him. Once running with the burliest crowd, Humphrey now refers to his 11-year-old grandson, A.J., as his “wing man.” A big night out is playing checkers or spades with his friends.
The signs — other than the obvious way he fills a room — that Humphrey once played football at an elite level are confined to one end of the condo. Along a stairway wall are photos and plaques, including a couple of Jock Awards that old-school former Falcons coach Norm Van Brocklin used to hand out for especially violent hits. Who wouldn’t be proud to hang a gilded athletic supporter on his wall?
Resting against the fireplace is a huge portrait of Humphrey in throwback Falcons colors back when they weren’t throwback.
Soon there may be a keepsake from the Hall of Fame to add to the collection.
Go ahead and display that one on the mantle, space that has been so pointedly reserved just for Claude and Sandra. They both would have earned it.
CLAUDE HUMPHREY’S PRO RESUME
- First-round pick of Falcons in 1968, third overall
- 1968 Defensive Rookie of the Year
- Fumble recovery and 24-yard return was only touchdown in Falcons’ 1969 victory over Minnesota, breaking the Vikings’ 12-game winning streak
- 1976 Falcons MVP
- Six-time Pro Bowl player, tied for most in Falcons history
- Falcons’ all-time sack leader (94.5)
- Traded to Philadelphia in 1979, played three more seasons
- Credited with 122 career sacks (not an official stat until after he retired)