ATLANTA—If you think today’s hybrid National Football League (NFL) players are something special, check out Charley Trippi.
He could do pretty much anything with a football.
Run with it. Throw it. Punt it. Catch it. Stop others from catching it.
When the opposing team kicked off or punted, he could return it, too.
Trippi had a simple explanation for his dazzling array of skills.
“In those days, the more things a player did, the more pay he could demand,” Trippi said, according to his bio on the Pro Football Hall of Fame web site. “I could run, kick, pass and catch, and that made me a valuable property.”
On Tuesday, Trippi celebrated perhaps the crowning achievement of a remarkable life.
He turned 100 years old.
Georgia football coach Kirby Smart was among those who stopped by Trippi’s Athens home to deliver a cake topped by 100 candles.
Trippi managed to blown them all out.
“Was I impressed to see him blow out all the candles?” Smart said afterward. “Being such a great second-effort athlete, he wouldn’t stop until he blew them all out. I was really overwhelmed.”
Longtime friend Loran Smith, best known for his work on Georgia’s football broadcast team, ordered the cake and made sure it had the proper number of candles.
“We counted ‘em,” Smith said.
Trippi, wearing a jacket with the Pro Football Hall of Fame logo, seemed pleased with himself after getting them all extinguished. His wife, Peggy, along with a daughter and a grandson, cheered him on.
“When it was time to huff and puff, he knew what we wanted,” Smith said, chuckling. “…He wasn’t gonna quit until he got ‘em all out.”
Trippi’s centenary fell on a year when both his college and pro teams are having hugely successful seasons.
The Georgia Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 most of the year and are among four schools headed to the College Football Playoff. The Arizona Cardinals are 10-3 and, despite a loss Monday night, are projected as one of the leading contenders to reach the Super Bowl.
Trippi played for Georgia in the 1940s, his college career interrupted by a stint in the military during World War II.
He led the Bulldogs to a Rose Bowl victory, finished as runner-up to Glenn Davis for the 1946 Heisman Trophy, and was a No. 1 overall draft pick by the Cardinals, who then called Chicago home.
“If you know anything about his legend at Georgia, you know he was, perhaps, the greatest all-around football player on our campus,” Smart said. “Many historians and observers have said that and from reading about him, I understand why.”
In Trippi’s rookie season with the Cardinals, the team won what remains its only undisputed NFL crown with a “Dream Backfield” that also included Elmer Angsman, Paul Christman and Pat Harder.
The 1947 title game was played at Chicago’s Comiskey Park, where the Cardinals hosted the Philadelphia Eagles on a baseball-turned-football field coated with a thin sheet of ice on a bitterly cold day.
Unable to get much traction is his cleats, Trippi switched to a pair of sneakers. He led Chicago to a 28-21 victory, scoring a pair of touchdowns on a 44-yard run and a 75-yard punt return.
“The only time I played an NFL game in tennis shoes was in Chicago for our championship team,” Trippi told me in a 2014 interview. “We got better footing in tennis shoes. You couldn’t stand up in cleats.”
When the Cardinals made their first Super Bowl appearance in 2009, Trippi was thrilled by their success and pulling hard for another championship.
“Well, I never lost hope,” he quipped before the big game, “but I was a little apprehensive there for a long time.”
Alas, the Pittsburgh Steelers knocked off the Cardinals 27-23, so that Trippi-led championship remains the franchise’s most recent.
He played nine seasons with the Cardinals, lining up pretty much anywhere he was needed.
Trippi started out as a halfback, switched to quarterback for two seasons and closed out his career playing mostly defensive back. He also was the punter, in addition to excelling as a kickoff and punt returner.
In 1968, Trippi was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He remains the only member to post 1,000 yards rushing and receiving and passing.
There’s more. He was responsible for 53 regular-season touchdowns over his career: 23 rushing, 16 passing, 11 receiving, two on punt returns, and one with an interception return.
And lest we forget, Trippi averaged 40.3 yards as a punter, had four career picks, and recovered 13 fumbles.
On Tuesday, he achieved another rare distinction: Trippi joined Clarence “Ace” Parker as the only members of the Hall of Fame to live to 100.
Parker died on November 6, 2013, at the age of 101.
Coming from a brutal sport where far too many have died far too young, Trippi and Parker truly beat the odds.
Smith gives the credit for Trippi’s longevity to a lifelong commitment to moderation.
In everything he did.
“I never, ever saw him order more than two drinks,” Smith said. “He didn’t jog. He didn’t lift weights. But he didn’t do anything to excess. We live in a world of excuses, or overindulgence, drinking and eating too much. He will eat a dessert like the rest of us, but he’s not having two. He’s not having an extra helping of anything, except for greens maybe. That’s just the way he managed his life.”
The son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, Trippi has been a vibrant figure for most of his 100 years, whether it was attending autograph shows or doing yard work at his home. But the advancing years have finally caught up with him.
According to Smith, Trippi is largely deaf and can’t really communicate with anyone except his family. He does have a favorite chair where he watches television, but his longtime friend isn’t sure if he’s aware of the great seasons his two favorite teams are having.
Trippi was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1959. Nine years later, during a brief speech marking his entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he thanked those who helped him along the way, including his high school, college and NFL coaches.
“I’m glad I played football,” Trippi said in Canton on that glorious day more than five decades ago.
We’re glad you did, too.
Image courtesy of AP