Witness Post: Curley Culp
The Kansas City Chiefs held a ceremony at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri, the first week of December, 2013. It was a celebration to honor one of their own: the Hall of Fame lineman Curley Culp. The man with “muscles on top of muscles” was an All-Pro football player for those Hank Stramm teams, but his fame in other circles was vast, long before that Super Bowl era.
My Dad first raved about Culp in the mid-1960’s as a collegiate wrestler. Up close and personal, he was a mountain of a man, yet fast and agile, like a middle weight. Not many famous football players have also been collegiate wrestlers. The list of Hall of Famer’s who both played football and wrestled includes Warren Sapp and Jonathan Ogden, so Culp is in an elite cohort. Culp was an NCAA champion at heavyweight, or Unlimited, as they called it. And what a champion he was!
Dad was a former heavyweight wrestler at the University of North Carolina, winning the Southern Conference championship three times.
When kids arrived, and after pinched discs and torn muscles, Dad settled for being a spectator. Starting in the late 1950’s, he would drive from our home outside of Philly to watch matches at Penn, Lehigh, Penn State, Temple or other regional wrestling powers, like F&M or Lock Haven. When we moved to Baltimore, my brother, Ned, and I started wrestling in the Maryland Junior League. We loved to travel with our Mom & Dad to watch high school and college wrestling in the Mid-Atlantic states. Colleges like Bucknell, East Stroudsburg, and Delaware were all within our radius. Our favorite teams to root for were Navy, Maryland, Lehigh and the Ivy’s.
We made our March Madness road trips to the EIWA (Eastern Intercollegiate Wrestling Assoc.) tournaments in garden spots such as Philly (Penn), western PA (Pittsburgh) and Landcaster (Franklin & Marshall).
Our Dad spared us from the longer trips to places like Ithaca, NY (Cornell) or Albany, taking those trips as his personal vacation.
The NCAA’s were usually held in the Mid-West, as I recall, and we resorted to watching the televised rounds (only the finals) on TV. [One year (1972) the Nationals came to Cole Fieldhouse at Maryland, which was a special treat.]
Having cheered for some outstanding wrestlers in the East over the years, Ned and I were positive that many of the Easterns’ champions we watched would prove to be the best in the NCAA’s. Who could beat them?
With a few notable exceptions, the Nationals were a tougher set of competitors altogether. Our ‘sure winners,’ whom we had raved about at Easterns, often lost in the early rounds of the NCAAs and did not make into the top eight (All American status).
From the 1960 – 1980’s most of the NCAA winners were from other conferences, with the EIWA teams finishing in the lower tiers. Teams from states like Michigan, Iowa, and Oklahoma, where both state schools were wrestling powerhouses, seemed to dominate the podium and the final team standings. Only occasionally, by surprise, Lehigh or Penn State or Cornell would muscle into the top ten.
There are exceptions, of course. For two years in a row (1972-1973) Clarion University finessed its way into the top ten. With only 4 wrestlers, Bob Bubb’s Golden Eagles finished 4th and 6th in the NCAA’s. The Clarion All Americans those years were Gary Barton, Don Rohn, Bill Simpson and the incomparable, Wade Schalles.
In March, 1967, Dad decided to fly to the NCAA’s, which were being held in an obscure Ohio college called Kent State. This tournament was just three years before the shooting of 13 students by the National Guard. As the songs lamented, “four dead in Ohio.” After that time everyone knew of Kent State. 1967 though was a different time …
Dad fly to Akron, rented a Barracuda (totally cool, but he hated the rear window – it was “too slanty”), and spent the four days and three nights immersed in wrestling. Since there was zero coverage of college wrestling in our local Sunpapers, my brother and I resorted to watching the finals of the NCAA’s that year on the television. The winners we picked were all EIWA champs.
Wrestling tournaments usually start with the light weights which are full of daring takedowns, dramatic near falls, and miraculous escapes. The middle weights are known for their strength and power, as they slow things down a bit and show off their muscular physiques and brute-force abilities. By the time the matches have progressed to the heavyweights, the pace is slow like molasses and the tonnage makes for shoving, plodding boredom.
Dad called most of the obese unlimited wrestlers “glandular” cases, and sometimes he was right. The crowd soon starts to yawn and ennui sets in. It is not much fun to watch two enormous fat guys, neither of whom can take the other guy down (nor does either really try), and who can’t hold their opponent down, only to dissolve into a 1 to 1 draw, headed for overtime. The crowd stands up, stretches, takes time out for a bathroom break, or better yet, takes a nap.
Heavyweights are the Rodney Dangerfield of wrestlers. However, some years, like 1967, are different.
Mark Parker, a writer for InterMat, shared some remembrances of Culp in August this year. Below are some excerpts of his writing.
Born in a spit of land along the southwestern borders of Arizona, California and Mexico, Culp is from Yuma, Arizona. He was a twin to his sister, Shirley, and the youngest of 13 children. Curley was good in school and grew up as a perennial honor roll student and a devoted Future Farmer of America, which meshed well in this agriculture part of the state. As a teenager, he was a gentle hulk of a man. His high school wrestling coach, Pat Patterson, spotted him in the gym one day and said, “He had muscles on top of muscles on top of muscles… I knew he was a once-in-a-lifetime heavyweight wrestler.” The hometown paper, the Yuma Sun, stated that when Culp shed his warm-up robe for matches, “the opposing crowd would voice a collective gasp that resonated throughout the gymnasium.”
More than just physically impressive, Culp also had a passion for sports. He worked hard at this craft, focusing on his speed, agility and upper body. On the wrestling mat he was a two-time Arizona state wrestling champion in high school. And those awards do not count his success on the gridiron. He started as a fullback, but asked the coach to switch him to line, “because I won’t last the whole season.” Apparently, it took seven or eight defensive players to tackle him, and after Culp’s first 100 yard game, he felt too beat up.
A two sport athlete, Culp chose Arizona State so that he could continue both football and wrestling. His wrestling coach, Ted Bredehoft, was experienced at the NCAA level. He attended Cornell College, a small Iowan school, and made it to the NCAA’s, losing to Hugh Peery, from Pittsburgh. Hugh Peery went on to be a three-time champion. Peery’s father, Rex, and brother, Ed, were also three-time NCAA champs for that storied family. Bredehoft was the coach at University of Washington before moving to ASU.
Under Bredehoft’s coaching, Culp learned how to handle all sorts of big men on the mat. He worked hard in practices and the work started to pay off. In his sophomore year he qualified for Nationals and lost to Iowa State’s Steve Shippos, after defeating Carel Stith of Nebraska. That year Michigan’s Dave Porter was the champion.
In his junior year, Culp’s record was 19-0, with 14 wins by fall. According to Jay Hammond’s in his book, History of Collegiate Wrestling, a record 345 wrestlers from 91 colleges and universities showed up to compete in the 1967 championships at Kent State. There were 22 competitors in the Unlimited weight class. Culp was seeded second. Top seed went to defending champ, Dave Porter. In the early rounds Curley had a bye before he faced Frank (Butch) Paquin of Lehigh.
Ned, Dad, Mom and I all saw Paquin place third at Easterns that year and I had my money on Paquin or Mike Reid of Penn State to take the NCAA title. They were both terrific wrestlers. Paquin, an Ohio high school champion, was really fast and strong, though light for a heavyweight. Reid was a powerful physical specimen. [Also a two sport athlete, Reid went on from PSU to star for the Cincinnati Bengals.] Paquin and Reid saw Culp for the first time at weigh-in. Butch Paquin remarked to an Ohio reporter, “It would not be an exaggeration to say we were both astounded. His arms were literally the size of legs, and believe me, they were all muscle.” Paquin was confident in his ability, but later confessed, “I never experienced human strength to the level of Curley Culp. It wasn’t that he was a great technical wrestler. His strategy was just to get his hands on his opponent and destroy him with his strength.” Culp won 15-5. Welcome to the NCAA’s.
In the quarter-finals Culp took down and pinned Michigan State’s Jeff Richardson in 1:50. At the same time as the Culp-Richardson match, Porter was wrestling on another mat in the arena. Porter was facing the eighth seeded, Nick Carollo of Adams State. In a stunning upset, Carollo beat Porter by decision 5-4. In the semi-finals Culp faced another football-star, named Granville Liggins, from Oklahoma. Culp again won by fall, pinning Liggins in 3:46. Carollo advanced to the finals with a 5-3 win over fifth seed, Tom Beeson of Western Colorado.
Going into the finals, Carollo had a record of 16-3-1 to Culps 22-0. As Ned and I watched the match on ABC, it was hard not to notice the size difference between these two wrestlers. Carollo weighed in at 205#, while Culp tipped the scales at 260#.
It was over nearly before the announcers were ready. Culp quickly grabbed an underhook on one side and Carollo’s other arm. In no time Culp threw him, using a lateral drop. Bridging fiercely and violently, Carollo desperately tried to get off his back and to his belly. Culp was too big and too strong. In short order, Carollo’s shoulders were flat on the mat and the match was over. Time of fall 0:51.
A hometown hero in Tempe, Culp was the first wrestler from ASU to win the NCAA’s number one spot. A number of Sun Devils have followed in Culp’s footsteps and took the title; especially noteworthy is Anthony Robles, who was a two time All American and Outstanding Wrestler in the 2011 NCAA’s.
Curley Culp’s overall career record at ASU was 84-9-4. He won three WAC titles and was twice NCAA qualifier, winning the championship once. To add to Culp’s 1967 accolades, he had the most pins in the shortest aggregate time, and was awarded the Gorriaran Award for his performance in the NCAA tournament.
In some sweet revenge, there was a wrestling match similar to an All-Star Classic. Called the East-West All-Star, in 1968 the Unlimited class featured Culp versus Dave Porter. [Culp had lost to Porter by fall in 3:36 in the 1967 East-West match-up.] This time Culp won with a 5-3 decision. Porter won the NCAA finals in 1966 and 1968, making him a two time champion. 1967, however, belonged to Culp, who skipped 1968 to prevent any injury before the NFL draft.
This story is meant to chronicle Curley Culp’s wrestling story. His football story is even more impressive. His gridiron tales are worthy of their own time and space. Fortunately, many of the stories are well recorded on Culp’s own website, www.curleyculp.com and on the NFL Hall of Fame website, http://www.profootballhof.com/. Enjoy those recollections as well.
Thanks, Curley, for being one of the best grapplers and tacklers in both sports.