Charley Trippi, one of the most accomplished superstars in the history of American sports, turned 100-years-old on Tuesday and was honored by his Georgia and Athens friends with a hundred-candle cake at his home, which is a little more than three miles from Sanford Stadium where he earned fame as a multi-talented football player.
Trippi has reaped high honor and gushing praise every day of his life from the time he could not afford football cleats in his hometown of Pittston, Pa. until today, where he is homebound and unable to get about after having raked leaves and cut his own grass well past his 98th birthday.
This is a man whom the legendary Jim Thorpe said was the “greatest football player I have ever seen.” Harry Gilmer, the great Alabama quarterback, once noted that Trippi could play every position on the team and that he likely was the greatest player who ever lived.
Trippi’s story is as compelling as there has ever been in the history of football. The son of immigrant Sicilians, his father was a coal miner. The enterprising Trippi, via a Coca-Cola connection, had his own delivery route and made more money as a high school teenager with his Coca-Cola route than his coal-mining father.
That came about because a former Georgia football letterman, Harold Ketron, had risen through the Coke ranks to become the bottler in Wilkes Barre, Pa., eight miles from Pittston. Ketron discovered Trippi and advised him that he would make sure that Trippi would receive a scholarship to the University of Georgia.
It is a story that has been oft-repeated in that Trippi’s family could not afford for him to buy football cleats but he punted so expertly in his street shoes that his coach Paul Shebby, got his young protégé a pair of football shoes. One day in punt formation, the snapper sailed a snap over Trippi’s head. He chased down the ball and weaved his way to a touchdown which brought about a head-turning dash, which meant that Trippi became a backfield star forever from—Pittston to LaSalle Prep to UGA to the Chicago Cardinals of the National Football League.
Along the way, he was a prep star, All-American at Georgia, and All-Pro for the Cardinals. He led Georgia to the national championship in 1946 and the Cardinals to the NFL title in 1947. He played in the old College All-Star game, owing to the war years, a record five times (four as a collegian and once as a pro). He batted .344 in a partial season with the AA Atlanta Crackers in 1947 and could have become the first two-way professional athlete, but chose to stick with football. In addition to excelling against minor league players that one season, he competed against big leaguers in his military years.
I once asked him if he thought he could have made it as a major league player, he grinned and said, “Based on my experience against them in the military, yes,” he said. Why did he not attempt to do what Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders later did? “I never considered that,” he explained. “I don’t think that would have been fair to either team.” Above all else, Charley Trippi was a team player.
He could have turned pro following the Oil Bowl game in 1945, but out of loyalty to his coach, Wallace Butts, Trippi returned to campus for his final year of eligibility. In addition, he had an entrenched desire to earn a college degree which was very important to his parents who were grateful for his realizing the American dream of achieving an education.
In high school, he was, at 160 pounds, considered undersized, but after weight gain and a stunning prep season at LaSalle, every school, including Notre Dame and Ohio State gave him a dedicated rush for his commitment. His old-school father, remembering what Harold Ketron had done for the family, reminded his son that he had given Ketron his word and that he should keep his word by enrolling in Athens. The son agreed and never considered another collegiate offer.
His pro career, in which Trippi is the only member of the NFL Hall of Fame to have accumulated 1,000 yards as a runner, passer and receiver, brought about his election to this prestigious organization in 1968.
Before that, in 1959, Trippi was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame. He became a generous supporter of the University of Georgia chapter and played in the chapter’s annual golf outing and never missed the annual chapter dinner.
Since 1960 when I first met him, Charley has always been a generous friend, never letting me pick up a check when we went out for a meal. I have interviewed him countless times with two poignant comments remaining indelible in my memory.
- One, after more than 20 years of playing football including ten years in the NFL, he had this response to why there were fewer concussions in his era: “It’s simple, we led with our shoulder, not our head.”
- When I invited him, an athlete who would have scratched your very eyes out to achieve victory on the playing fields, to go quail hunting, he declined, saying: “I could never shoot anything as harmless as a little bird.”
In his later years, whenever I would stop by to see him, he was
either cutting his grass with a rusting, old mower or raking leaves. He never became sedentary and was the classic example of what moderation can do for one’s longevity. He never ate excessively and seldom ordered more than one drink at dinner. He never jogged or lifted weights—but his waistline never bulged.
An incident in his life that had resounding implications, is, perhaps, the least known episode in his life. In a game against San Francisco in 1954, an era when face guards were in their infancy, the 49ers John Henry Johnson blindsided Trippi as he was walking back to the huddle, slamming a forearm in Trippi’s face that caused extensive damage and a long hospitalization.
As he was recuperating, a certain emissary showed up in Trippi’s hospital room. This message was clear. John Henry Johnson could be taken care of—for good. Trippi said no.
When I asked him about that, Charley though initially embittered by the cheapest of cheap shots said, “Can you imagine what that would have done to the game football?” Johnson, knowing what might have been, later told an interviewer that he owed his life to Charley Trippi.
There are countless vignettes in Trippi’s life and career that would make for an interesting book. While he recognized his enormous name value, no book has ever been written. My Trippi file is filled with notes and material that reflect that even with his superstar status, he had an undercurrent of poignant modesty.
His sophomore year, Georgia won the national championship and included a victory over UCLA in the Rose Bowl—Trippi, gaining 113 yards on 24 carries can completing 5 of 10 passes for 83 yards, and being named the most valuable player. The Bulldogs, however, only scored one touchdown a one-yard plunge by Frank Sinkwich, who won the Heisman trophy that year. Sinkwich was hobbling about on two sprained ankles at the Rose Bowl, but Butts let him score the only TD of the game.
“I thought that was appropriate,” Trippi told me. “After all, it was Frank who led us to the Rose Bowl.”
Trippi was not his old Heisman self on his milestone birthday with a few close friends on hand, including Georgia head coach, Kirby Smart and Lenn Chandler, President of the Georgia Hall of Fame Chapter, the nation’s largest. Trippi can barely hear, he can no longer go outside and rake leaves, but he was able to huff and putt and blow out the 100 candles on his birthday cake.
Those who know him would expect nothing less from one of the greatest players in college football history. Some say, the greatest.