02/04/2011 2:52PM

NFL great Sam Huff just as eager to talk horses as football


Sam Huff, better known as the greatest player to wear number 70 in NFL history, was properly dazzled the first time he laid eyes on Cowboys Stadium, site of the Super Bowl on Sunday. The scope was immense, the vistas vast, and once he got over the towering scale of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders as presented on the acreage of the stadium video screen, he came back down to earth with an observation that would come natural to any man whose name is synonymous with the Thoroughbred industry of West Virginia:

“You could run a horse race longer than the Belmont on the track going around the football field!” Huff said.

Huff, 76, is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame as well as radio analyst for the Washington Redskins. In joyous conspiracy with his horse-wise partner, Carol Holden, Huff is also proprietor of Sporting Life Stable in Middleburg, Va., the home of their small string of Thoroughbreds.

“We’re a pretty small outfit right now,” Holden said Friday from their offices at Middleburg Broadcasting. “We have one horse with Ian Wilkes at Tampa Bay, a mare ready to ship for foaling, and a just-turned 2-year-old who later in the year will go to Graham Motion.”

As jazzed as Huff might be over watching the Packers and the Steelers throw down in Super Bowl XLV, he is every bit as excited about the 2011 running later this year of the 25th annual West Virginia Breeders Classic, founded by Holden and Huff, a West Virginia native, in 1987.

“Can you believe it’s been 25 years?,” Huff said. ”We’re pretty proud of that. And Charles Town has done it right, this racino concept. Racing would have been out of business without the casino.”

Even so, there are examples of racetrack-casino operations in which the attitude toward the horse side of the ledger eventually grows ambivalent.

“We try stay on top of that with the Charles Town management,” Huff said. “When you try to do something like that, move things forward in racing and keep the sport going, you’ve got to have your governor involved, you’ve got to have your racing commission involved, and you’ve got to be personally involved.”

But enough about horse racing. It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and if you are not thinking football you must be either under heavy sedation or hidden somewhere in the NBA witness protection program, forbidden access to any rival sporting events.

Huff says Sunday’s game is a toss-up, and not just on paper. The fact that it will be played in the great indoors of Cowboys Stadium is a serious leveler.

“If the game was in Pittsburgh, they’d be 14-point favorites,” Huff said.

The first Super Bowl was still five years down the road when Huff and his New York Giants journeyed to Green Bay to play the Packers for the NFL Championship, on Dec. 31, 1961. As the Giants’ All-Pro middle linebacker, Huff was the leader of the NFL’s toughest defense. But that mattered little on the frozen tundra of Green Bay’s New City Stadium.

“It was 20 degrees below zero, and don’t let anybody tell you it wasn’t,” Huff recalled, as 50 years disappeared and it was only yesterday. “We’re playing against Bart Starr, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke, Max Magee, and all those guys. They couldn’t wait for us to come out on the field.

“For one thing, you couldn’t see,” Huff went on. “You couldn’t see through the steam you were breathing. I’ve never been so cold in my life. I couldn’t wait to get that game over, and they beat the hell out of us.”

For the record, it was 37-0 Packers, and not a cheerleader in sight.

“We took a quick shower and hustled onto the bus to catch a plane and get out of town,” Huff said. “I told that bus driver to hurry up and close the damn door. I was afraid the Packers would come after us to finish the job.”

While Huff’s memories of playing against the Steelers do not rise to championship game levels, that does not mean they didn’t leave an impression.

“They had a fellow by the name of Ernie Stautner,” Huff said. “He could have been the heavyweight champion of the world.”

For a defensive lineman, Stautner was a smallish 6-1 and 230 pounds. This did not seem to matter.

“He beat everybody up,” Huff said. “His first move was to hit you right in the mouth. Every time I watched him play I wanted him on my team.”

The results of a recent Harris poll indicated that of the respondents, 31 percent named pro football as their favorite sport compared with 1 percent who named horse racing. Huff is hardly surprised.

“Where is the Jerry Jones of horse racing?” Huff said, citing the Cowboys owner and host of this Super Bowl. “Who is racing’s Pete Rozelle? Why wouldn’t you want to sell tickets to come watch the Kentucky Derby at Cowboys Stadium? But nobody seems to think that way in horse racing. If it’s not ‘coming out of the gate,’ they’re not interested.

“Even so,” Huff added, “I think the Kentucky Derby is the greatest sporting event there is. Football may be America’s game, but horse racing is international, and thousands upon thousands of people come from all over the world just to see the Derby. That‘s got to count for something.”