Pro Football Hall of Famer Curley Culp revolutionized the nose tackle position.
Curley Culp always tried to control his emotions during a football game.
He thought it was best to think clearly, play soundly and be consistent. Attention to detail was a priority for someone initially thought too small to play defense in the pros.
Actions spoke louder than words when it came to Culp, who spent 14 seasons creating havoc for opposing offensive linemen. He is credited with revolutionizing the nose tackle position and considered one of the strongest men to ever play the game. In 1970, he helped the Kansas City Chiefs become the second American Football League team to win the Super Bowl.
Culp’s impact up front is recognized with his enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2013.
“Curley was a dominating force,” Chiefs Chairman and CEO Clark Hunt said.
Culp racked up sacks before sacks became an official statistic. He recorded 11 1/2 sacks for the Houston Oilers in 1975 when the Newspaper Enterprise Association voted him NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
A five-time Pro Bowl selection, Culp was a difference maker for the Chiefs and Oilers. He closed out his Hall of Fame career with the Detroit Lions.
Centers took a beating when they squared off against Culp. Hall of Fame quarterback Len Dawson remembers former Chiefs center Jack Rudnay saying that every center should face Culp to know what it’s like to face the best.
“Curley was a tremendous athlete,” Dawson said. “He had such strength and quickness.”
Culp excelled as a two-sport athlete at Arizona State University. The Yuma, Ariz., native was an All-American defensive lineman and won a national championship as a heavyweight wrestler. His title victory over Adams State’s Nick Carollo at Kent State in 1967 came by pin in 51 seconds.
“I had a whizzer and a leg trip,” Culp said. “The whizzer, you lock up the shoulder, do a leg trip, overarm him and take him to the mat.
“It’s pretty neat. Guys knew it was coming. They just couldn’t stop it.”
Culp won the Gorrian Award for most pins in the least amount of time at the national championships. He put himself in contention for a United States Olympic team spot and wrestled Larry Kristoff for a berth to the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City.
The outcome helped shape the rest of Culp’s athletic career.
“The process was I had to win two out of three matches in order to pick whether I wanted to go freestyle or Greco,” Culp said. “... The powers that be wanted me to do Greco-Roman, and I wanted to do freestyle because I liked the leg trip. Don’t take my leg trip away from me.
Page 2 of 4 - “I had a match with Larry, and it didn’t work out just right. I decided to go ahead and try professional football.”
Culp became just the fourth Arizona State football All-American. He was a versatile player who played on the offensive line at times.
The Denver Broncos tried to move Culp to the offensive line full time after they chose him in the second round of the 1968 AFL Draft. The late Chiefs head coach and Hall of Famer Hank Stram may have done the same thing before meeting Culp at Arizona State’s football banquet.
“To look at him, he was also just about a perfect guard — except that he didn’t want to be. He wanted to play defense,” Stram wrote in his book “They’re Playing My Game.”
“Denver drafted him as their top pick, just as I would have if I hadn’t talked to him about it by sheer accident.”
Stram acquired Culp from the Broncos for a third-round draft pick before the 1968 season. It proved to be one of the best trades he made.
Culp became a starting tackle on the Chiefs’ defensive line in his second season. He was a young player in Stram’s triple stack defense which featured future Hall of Famers Buck Buchanan, Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier.
It was a special environment for Culp.
“As a nucleus we had a good coach in Tom Pratt,” Culp said of the Chiefs’ defensive line coach. “Tom Pratt was the type of coach who kind of let us do our thing.
“I had good direction for Buck Buchanan and good tutelage from Bobby Bell.
Kansas City’s defense was a force during Culp’s second season. It held five opponents to fewer than 10 points and allowed 12.6 a game.
The Chiefs went 11-3, beat the defending champion New York Jets in the first round of the playoffs and shut down Oakland in the AFL championship game. Super Bowl IV was no match. Kansas City beat Minnesota 23-7 to give the AFL its second straight Super Bowl victory.
Stram’s decision to play Culp and Buchanan nose to nose with Mick Tingelhoff, the Vikings’ undersized center, paid off. They dominated Tingelhoff, while Bell, Lanier and others helped shut down Minnesota’s running game.
Culp’s value as a nose tackle was evident after the Vikings were held to two first downs and 67 yards rushing.
“Mick Tingelhoff, their All-Pro Center, was used to having a linebacker playing several yards off of him,” Stram wrote in “They’re Playing My Game.” “That was the fashion in the NFL — a smart, relatively light center going against a linebacker.
“It was perfect for a mismatch. We wouldn’t give him a linebacker playing him loose. We would give Tingelhoff Curley Culp to play with, head-on in an odd line. That would put either Curley, at 280 pounds, nose to nose with Tingelhoff, 237 pounds, or Buck Buchanan, 290. So their guards would have to worry about blocking the linebacker; their center would be busy.”
Page 3 of 4 - Culp spent over six seasons in Kansas City. He helped lead the Chiefs to three playoff appearances and earned two Pro Bowl berths. He never missed a start from 1969-72 and sat out just one game in 1973 due to a knee injury. He still became Kansas City’s unofficial sack leader in 1973 when he recorded nine.
The Chiefs thought they were going to lose Culp after he chose to join the rival World Football League by 1975. Kansas City traded him to the Oilers midway through the 1974 season for defensive tackle John Matuszak.
Culp never played a game in the upstart WFL. His NFL career continued to flourish in Houston.
The Oilers fully utilized a 3-4 defense after Bum Phillips was hired as head coach in 1975. By drawing double and sometimes triple teams, Culp helped free up players such as future Hall of Fame defensive end Elvin Bethea.
“At first I was not really excited about it because it’s a lot different playing defensive middle guard over the center all the time,” Culp said. “At defensive left tackle you have some options. ... When you’re playing the nose, you get double teamed from the left guard, right guard and sometimes the fullback.
“It was very demanding physically. Very demanding. I wasn’t really pleased about it initially, but I said this is what it is. I’m going to just get used to it, work and do the best I could. It all worked out.”
Culp’s best was too much for opposing centers. He was bigger, stronger and overpowering.
“There was nobody like Curley,” Phillips told the Houston Chronicle after Culp’s election. “Nobody could handle him.
“He was bigger than the centers. They weighed about 220 because they just blocked middle linebackers at the time.”
Culp, Bethea, and Houston linebackers Robert Brazile and Gregg Bingham led one of the league’s best defenses in the late 1970s. The Oilers made the playoffs for the first time as an NFL franchise in 1978 and appeared in two AFC championship games against Pittsburgh.
The “Luv Ya Blue” Era was at its peak during Culp’s final years in Houston. Fans painted the Oilers’ logo on their faces. Many waved pom-poms. The “Luv Ya Blue” song became their rallying cry.
“There’s nothing like a ‘Luv Ya Blue’ crowd,” Culp said.
Culp’s best years came in Houston. He was named to four straight Pro Bowls, earned All-Pro honors in 1975 and was a four-time second team All-Pro selection.
Approaching the end of his career, Culp was signed by Detroit in 1980. He played in just five games with the Lions over two seasons before ankle and Achilles injuries forced his retirement.
Hall of Fame center Jim Otto will never forget him.