Falcons’ greatest moment, No. 9: ‘Claude gets call’

Claude Humphrey
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Rankin Smith (right) and coach Norb Hecker (left) join Claude Humphrey in listening to the news of his signing with the Falcons over the radio. (AJC File)
Claude Humphrey

Rankin Smith (right) and coach Norb Hecker (left) join Claude Humphrey in listening to the news of his signing with the Falcons over the radio. (AJC File)

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is counting down the Top 10 moments in Atlanta Falcons history during the franchise’s 50th anniversary season. No. 9 takes us to August of 2014 as Falcons legend Claude Humphrey earned his long overdue induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Date: Aug. 2, 2014

Claude gets the call: Claude Humphrey spent the first 10 years of his 13-year pro football career with the Atlanta Falcons and after 28 years of eligibility he finally entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August of 2014. Humphrey, the No. 3 pick of the 1968 NFL Draft, established his place in the pros early, earning defensive rookie of the year. What was most impressive about the viscous pass rusher, however, was the knee injury he overcame in 1975 that sidelined him for the entire season and his play once he returned. Many thought the setback could be career ending, but Humphrey returned to post a career-best 15 sacks in 1976 and would lead the infamous ‘Gritz Blitz’ Falcons defense in 1977.

Claude Humphrey wore the number 87 because it was the same number worn by Willie Davis of the Green Bay Packers. Davis is one of Humphrey's idols. (AJC File)

Claude Humphrey wore the number 87 because it was the same number worn by Willie Davis of the Green Bay Packers. Davis is one of Humphrey’s idols. (AJC File)

Claude on coming back from his injury: “People projected that [1975] was the end of my football career. That I wouldn’t play anymore. That I couldn’t. I had torn both cartilages in my knee and it was over for me. My football career was down the drain.”

The immediate and lasting impact: Humphrey is not only one of the best players to ever suit up for the Atlanta Falcons, but his career transformed the way the game is played to this day. He ended his career with the Eagles (1979-1981) and retired with 126.5 career sacks in 171 career games played and included five All-Pro seasons. Humphrey’s knack for disrupting opposing offenses helped pave the way for some of the NFL’s top pass rushers like Reggie White, Bruce Smith and fellow 2014 inductee Michael Strahan.

The Gritz Blitz: The infamous “Grits Blitz” defense designed to terrorized quarterbacks drove the Falcons 1977 season. Atlanta would rush up to nine defenders on a given play and the result was a defense that gave up the fewest points in NFL history (129 in 14 games, 9.2 PPG). The following year the League changed its rules to better serve the offense and Humphrey and the Falcons success was a key factor.

Arthur Blank on Humphrey’s legacy: “Throughout his 10-year career in Atlanta, Claude Humphrey was considered one of the most dominant pass rushers of his time and holds the club’s all-time sacks record with 94.5. Claude was what many offensive coaches called a ‘game-wrecker’ based on his ability to disrupt enemy offenses. He was voted to the Pro Bowl six times during his NFL career and his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame – in my opinion – is long overdue.’’

What the AJC wrote: The rain stopped and as the sun was slowing setting on historic Fawcett Stadium, Claude Humphrey’s wait of more than three decades to be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame was over.

Humphrey’s bust was unveiled, and he proceeded to gave an emotional and rousing speech Saturday.

Humphrey, perhaps the greatest player ever to wear the Falcons’ red and black, joined Deion Sanders as the only player drafted by the franchise to be enshrined.

Humphrey retired after the 1981 season. After the mandatory five-year wait for consideration, 27 more years passed before Humphrey was able to have his bust made.

Claude Humphrey's Hall of Fame bust.

Claude Humphrey’s Hall of Fame bust.

It was a long wait for Humphrey, who was a finalist in 2003, 2005 and 2006. He fell short in 2009 as a senior candidate, before being presented again by the senior’s committee in February.

Humphrey is the first player who played most of his career with the Falcons to be enshrined. He was put into the Falcons’ Ring of Honor with a banner in the Georgia Dome on Nov. 28, 2012.

Humphrey was presented Saturday by his daughter, Cheyenne Humphrey-Robinson, who became the third daughter to serve as a presenter.

“He loved the game, ” Humphrey-Robinson said. “He loved what he did.”

She talked about him coming home with bloodied hands and knuckles from playing the game so violently.

Humphrey, 6-foot-4 and 252 pounds, was drafted with the third overall pick out of Tennessee State by the Falcons in the 1968 draft. He went on to become a six-time Pro Bowler and was named first-team All-Pro five times.

“I didn’t want that job (of blocking him), ” former Denver running back Floyd Little said. “Claude was a beast. He was a great, great defensive end.”

The Falcons managed but three winning seasons in his 11-year career with the team. He was a key member of the “Grits Blitz, ” the Falcons’ defense that still holds the record for fewest points allowed in a 14-game season, with 129.

He spoke glowingly of former Falcons coaches Marion Campbell and Jerry Glanville.

“One of the finest men ever to walk on this earth, ” Humphrey said of Campbell.

He credited Glanville with creating the “Grits Blitz” defense.

Humphrey temporarily retired after four games in the 1978 season. Some contend that he quit on the Falcons. The notion that he walked out on his team may have hurt his Hall of Fame candidacy and contributed to the long wait.

“I just left, ” Humphrey said. “I was following my mind.”

He gave a shoutout to his roommate, Kenny Reaves — “He taught me what it was like to be a pro football player” — and to his buddy, tight end Jim Mitchell. He also talked about his battles in practice with offensive tackle George Kunz.

Humphrey was traded to Philadelphia for two fourth-round picks in 1979. He went on to play three more seasons for the Eagles.

In 1980, at age 36, Humphrey amassed 14.5 sacks and helped the Eagles reach the Super Bowl.

“He played defensive left end for us, ” said Dick Vermeil, the Eagles’ coach at the time. “We would rest him and play him in nickel situations as a pass rusher. But he was more than just a pass rusher. He prided himself on making a tackle as much as making a sack.”

Other members of the Hall of Fame class included cornerback Aeneas Williams (Arizona Cardinals/St. Louis Rams), defensive end Michael Strahan (New York Giants), wide receiver Andre Reed (Buffalo Bills/Washington Redskins), offensive tackle Walter Reed (Seattle Seahawks) and linebacker Derrick Brooks (Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

Catch a new Top 10 play in Falcons history every week through the end of the season.

No. 10: Too Legit to Quit; First playoff win on the road


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