Ever wonder what the face of a native Memphian would look like in the NFL Hall of Fame? Well it resembles the face of Lester High School graduate and Tennessee State University alumnus Claude Humphrey.
Humphrey spent 11 years of his NFL career with the Atlanta Falcons and the last four with the Philadelphia Eagles. And you can bet he will mention all of this in his acceptance speech on Saturday (Aug. 2) during the induction ceremony in Canton, Ohio.
“I met people who helped me along the way and that’s what my speech is about,” Humphrey said with a smile on his face.
On Tuesday (July 30), while preparing for his departure, Humphrey started his day by stopping in to see his barber, 82-year-old Terry Bryant, who was excited to have the NFL legend grace his shop.
“I’ve been getting my hair cut here for years,” Humphrey said.
After his big chop and a few news interviews, he went to lunch at Outback Steakhouse on Union. His order: Clam Chowder as a starter, a burger and fries, and iced tea.
The 6’5” retired NFL player says he is ready and excited, but it’s just not the same without his wife Sandra, who will not be in Canton to witness the induction ceremony.
“My wife of 50 years passed away last year. She was my biggest supporter and she’s not here,” Humphrey said. “That’s hard. She loved to socialize and this would’ve been right up her alley.”
But he still has his three children, Claudia, Cheyenne and Cherokee, and his 12-year-old grandson, Archie Robinson Jr., who will all meet him in Canton.
“I’ve been eligible for the Hall of Fame four times,” he said. “In four times, I was a finalist but I was unable to get the 80 percent vote that I needed to be nominated. Each time that we didn’t make it we’d get together and cry. It seems strange that the year she passed is the year I get elected to the Hall of Fame. So it’s going to be a bittersweet experience.”
Humphrey lived in Oakland, Tenn. with his grandparents until he was six years old. But Memphis raised him. He grew up during the civil rights era when segregation was the status quo. It was not easy for the Humphreys, but it taught him some life-long lessons.
“It taught me that I was a second class citizen,” Humphey said. “That’s what it taught me. It taught me that I had to go to the zoo only on Thursdays. It taught me that the only way to get ahead was to do menial work.”
He said there were no professional jobs available for black people during that time. “There were a lot of lessons that I learned living in Memphis. But the most important thing is that I had the love of a family. I think that got me through more than anything else.”
The 70-year-old football legend didn’t have big dreams of playing in the NFL until he saw first-hand the excitement surrounding it.
“I was in college,” he recalled. “Before that time I never really knew anything about the NFL or even thought about the NFL. I was at Tennessee State University. I had a good season…and every practice we had teams of pro scouts wanting to look at us. That’s when I decided I wanted to play football. Plus, the year before, we had 13 guys to go into the NFL. After that I was looking forward to it.”
Humphrey was known as one of the greatest pass rushers in football. He was drafted third in 1968.
“Back then they didn’t do that,” he said referring to draft-night hype. “I was in the dormitory when I got drafted. My roommate and I were talking about what we were going to do if we got drafted. I thought that the Dallas Cowboys were going to draft me.”
The Dallas Cowboys and the Kansas City Chiefs were at every practice, he said. “I thought I would get drafted by one of those teams. I don’t know where the Atlanta Falcons came from. They just popped up out the blue.”
Humphrey has left a lasting impression on so many that feel his accolades are long over due. He lived and played the game of football during an era when it was not as glamorous as it is today.
“When I first went there, there wasn’t a lot going on in Atlanta. It was hard. I didn’t know where to go. We trained in Johnson, Tenn., and once training was over, we went straight to Atlanta and they just dropped us off.”
No one would tell him where to go to find housing, he said. “It wasn’t like it is now. Back then it was hard. I met people who helped me along the way and that’s what my speech is about.”
Humphrey said he met a family called the Harpers. “Hershel Harper was a second baseman for the old Negro Baseball League in Atlanta. He took me under his wing and showed me where to go, what to do, places not to go, and where to seek housing and all that stuff. If it hadn’t been for him, I would’ve been lost.”
Atlanta was a great place to play and transitioning to the Philadelphia Eagles he describes as “great.”
“The fans took me under their wing and accepted me. They were awesome. They were great fans,” said Humphrey, expressing mutual feelings for them as well. “I’d never heard them boo me. They are true sports fanatics. They know the game in and out. They know when you’re messing up.”
Humphrey is among other NFL greats being honored this year and feels just as honored to be in the midst of other phenomenal players.
“I’m excited about all seven of my classmates,” Humphrey explained. “There is not anyone who takes preference over the other. All of us came in the same way. The only thing about Michael (Strahan) and (Derrick) Brooks is this is their first year; they didn’t get a chance to feel the raft of rejection. I’ve got to discard all of those old emotions and come up with a whole new set.”
It’s been said that Humphrey will participate in this year’s Southern Heritage Classic festivities, but nothing is concrete.
“The induction of Claude Humphrey into the NFL Hall of Fame is a great achievement for him,” said Nate Jones, production manager of the Southern Heritage Classic and Tennessee State alumnus. “It's a proud moment for his family, Memphis, Memphis City Schools and Tennessee State University.”
(The Class of 2014 Enshrinement Ceremony will be held on Saturday, Aug. 2 at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Field located at Fawcett Stadium. For more information, please visit, http://www.profootballhof.com/enshrinement/festivalschedule.aspx#sthash.QvsNQkoW.dpuf.)