InterMat Rewind: Curley Culp

Mark Palmer

8/7/2013
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

"He had muscles on top of muscles on top of muscles ..."

Curley Culp
"His strategy was just to get his hands on his opponent and destroy him with his strength."

He stood 6' 2", and weighed in at 265 pounds.

He won the heavyweight title by pinning his finals opponent in just 51 seconds.

He was so tough and strong, he reportedly broke the helmets of three of his college football teammates during on-field practice sessions.

... yet, by contrast, he was voted "Boy with the Best Smile" by his college classmates.

All these wide-ranging statements describe the same guy: Curley Culp, 1967 NCAA heavyweight wrestling champ for Arizona State who was also a football standout, first for the Sun Devils, then over a 14-year NFL career that just culminated by being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio on Saturday, Aug. 3.

Let's meet the man who was a superstar on the wrestling mat and on the football field, who despite his imposing physique and impressive strength, was considered to be a true gentleman, even by his opponents.

The man from Yuma

Curley Culp was born March 10, 1946 in Yuma, Arizona, in the far southwest corner of the state, where Arizona, California and Mexico come together. The youngest of thirteen children of Frank and Octavia Culp, Curley was a twin. His parents liked the name Shirley for his twin sister (who was born 15 minutes prior to her brother), and sought a rhyming name for the son, and decided on Curley.

1963 Yuma Union wrestling team
Curley and his family lived on a farm just outside Yuma. In fact, Curley was a member of the Future Farmers of America organization at Yuma High School in the early 1960s, and president of his high school chapter his senior year.

That hands-on farm experience may have had a direct impact on his performance on the football field -- and on the wrestling mat -- for the Yuma High Criminals, as the school's sports teams were called. (The town was the site of a major state prison.)

A 1967 Arizona State football handout produced to honor Curley Culp offered an explanation as to how the standout defensive guard got to be the physical specimen that put fear into the hearts of opposing wrestlers and football offensive players alike.

"Many athletes nowadays gain size and strength through weightlifting. Not Curley. He attained physical strength through physical labor -- namely, helping his dad in Yuma, Ariz. with work on the farm. His father raised pigs and contracted for garbage with many firms in Yuma. Many are the 50-gallon barrels of garbage toted by Curley. He also has pitched watermelons and worked at an ice plant which accounts for his 18 ½" neck and biceps to match."

Culp's strength and size gained from farm work made him a critically important member of the Yuma High School's football team as a defensive lineman.

Al Alvarez, who assisted with football practices at Yuma High while Culp was on the team, also shared a memory of how Yuma's head football coach Frank Thomas (who passed away earlier this year) decided to give Curley Culp a new role -- taking him off defense, and making him a fullback -- in Yuma's 1964 homecoming game against Mesa.

"Coach Thomas said the only way we can beat this team is if we have a fullback that will grind it out," Alvarez said. "He asked Curley if he would play fullback, and Curley said 'Sure coach, why not?' And he did, and we beat them 7-0. Curley Culp gained about 100 yards that game, but it took seven or eight defensive Mesa boys to bring him down every time he ran the ball. The next Monday at practice, Curley Culp called coach over and said 'Coach, I better not play fullback anymore because I won't last the whole season. They beat me up.'"

The mat star with muscles on top of muscles

The football player with that speed, size, strength and determination was equally impressive -- and formidable -- as a wrestler.

"When I first saw him, he was walking across the gymnasium," said Pat Patterson, head wrestling coach at Yuma High at the time. "It was empty, and as I watched him walk across, I knew he was a once-in-a-lifetime heavyweight wrestler."

In a team photo from the 1963 Yuma High yearbook, the wrestling team was shown not in traditional sweatsuits or warm-ups, but in shiny, silky-looking robes, like those worn by prizefighters.

In its recent profile of hometown hero Curley Culp, the Yuma Sun wrote, "Once Culp, a heavyweight, shed his robe, the opposing crowd would voice a collective gasp that resonated throughout the gymnasium."

Football coach Al Alvarez confirmed that description, saying, "When it was his turn to wrestle, he'd take his robe off and everybody stood in awe at his physique and how big he was and how he went about his business."

"He had a body build that was just unbelievable," wrestling coach Patterson added. "He had muscles on top of muscles on top of muscles ..."

Culp -- who, in his NFL prime, stood 6' 2" and tipped the scales at 265 pounds -- was not a ponderous muscleman, either.

"I've never seen a man that big who could move as quickly as he could," said Patterson.
Culp managed to win back-to-back heavyweight titles at the Arizona high school state tournament in 1963 and 1964.

In high school, the total package

By any measure, Curley Culp was the total package in high school: A successful two-sport athlete who also excelled in the classroom, too. As Patterson put it, "He was a straight-A student. He had intelligence, plus he had the athletic ability."

Beyond the gridiron and the wrestling mat, Culp was a highly-accomplished high school student. In addition to being involved with Future Farmers of America (elected chapter president as a senior), Culp was a three-year member of the school's Letterman's Club, a member of the National Honor Society, an Academic Honor Roll honoree, a Who's Who Among Student Leaders in High Schools of America honoree, American Legion Student of the Year, and a delegate to Arizona Boys' State in 1964, according to his bio at his official website.

"He was a great person," Alvarez said. "Everybody liked him ... He wasn't a person that you thought was the greatest or anything; he was just a regular guy. But we knew, and everyone else knew, he was the best in whatever he was at. In football he was the best in the line."

It's easy to imagine that a high school student with these attributes would attract the attention of colleges far beyond isolated Yuma, Arizona. Curley Culp was heavily recruited by a number of colleges, but chose Arizona State because they said he could continue to participate in both football and wrestling.

There may have been additional factors as well.

A recruiting trip to remember

Fellow Sun Devil matman Tony Russo shared the story about Culp's recruitment trip to ASU in the 2012 book "Wrestling With The Devil" which he wrote with his daughter Tonya Russo Hamilton.

"The 1964 season was approaching an end," wrote Russo. "Our final dual meet was to be against our archrivals, the University of Arizona Wildcats, and (ASU head wrestling coach Ted) Bredehoft had a new recruit on campus, Curley Culp ... Bredehoft had given me the task of making sure Curley fell in love with Arizona State."

"Curley may have been large, but he had a softness about him; his rounded face and little boy's smile could light up a room, and Coach wanted badly to sign him. Bredehoft turned up his enchanting powers to full-tilt. He'd decided that the dual against the University of Arizona was going to be an outside show ..."

"He set the mats up right near the end of Palm Walk, making sure that the Sun Devil wrestlers' chairs would be in the shade of some nearby trees. The Wildcats' chairs were positioned along the side of the mat with no trace of shade; they were getting full rays ... At three-thirty in the afternoon, with no wind and the mat surface lying directly on the concrete, it was hot."
"The Wildcats' coach was out of his mind. He couldn't believe the antics Bredehoft was pulling. His guys were overheating, the mat was scalding hot, and as far as he was concerned, Bredehoft was cheating."

"'Shady Brady' quipped the opposing spectators more than once during the competition. I still had Curley at my side, and he was thoroughly enjoying himself amidst the mass humanity of the crowd," Russo wrote in his memoir.

In a last-minute decision, ASU coach Bredehoft moved Russo up a weight class.
"My nerves were ratcheting up; I knew the guy was tough. He was the prior year's conference champion, not to mention ten pounds heavier than me, and I had an audience to impress. Curley needed to see his mentor beat this Wildcat ..."

"When my arm was raised, I saw Curley stand up and cheer."

"Needless to say, Curley was hooked. He signed with the Devils in both football and wrestling, beginning a highly successful dual career," wrote Russo.

You're a Sun Devil now

After graduating from Yuma High in 1964, Curley Culp headed to Tempe, Arizona to become a Sun Devil, wrestling for head coach Ted Bredehoft.

Bredehoft came to Arizona State in 1962, having coached at University of Washington since 1958. Prior to launching his coaching career, Bredehoft wrestled at Cornell College of Iowa in the early 1950s. Bredehoft competed at the 1952 NCAA championships, where he lost to eventual 115-pound champ Hugh Peery of Pittsburgh, a member of the Peery family mat dynasty that also included brother Ed Peery and father Rex Peery, each three-time NCAA champs.

Culp wrestled what was then called the unlimited weight class. (Back then, there was no upper limit for the big men of college wrestling; in fact, there were a handful of NCAA heavyweight champs who tipped the scales at over 300 pounds.) During his career at Arizona State, Culp compiled an overall record of 84-9-4. He won three WAC (Western Athletic Conference) titles and was a two-time NCAA qualifier. As a sophomore at the 1966 NCAA Wrestling Championships at Iowa State, Culp defeated his first opponent, Carel Stith of the University of Nebraska ... but got knocked out of title contention by Iowa State's Steve Shippos. By the rules in place at the time, Culp did not compete in the consolation bracket, and, therefore, did not place. (The heavyweight champ crowned at the 1966 NCAAs was University of Michigan's Dave Porter.)

That championship season

As a junior, Culp was a perfect 19-0 ... with fourteen of those wins by pin. As the 1967 WAC champ, Culp qualified for the 1967 NCAA championships, hosted by Kent State University in northeast Ohio. According to Jay Hammond's "History of Collegiate Wrestling," a record 345 wrestlers from 91 schools showed up, shattering the previous record of 253. (Recent NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships had 330 wrestlers.) At the 1967 NCAAs, the unlimited bracket had 22 wrestlers. Culp was seeded second, behind 1966 NCAA champ Dave Porter of Michigan.

Curley Culp with his coach Ted Bredehoft
To help him prepare for the 1967 NCAAs, coach Bredehoft sought the help of Russ Winer, former Oklahoma State heavyweight who won the Big 8 conference title in 1965, and was a finalist at the 1965 NCAAs.

"Bredehoft called me to give the 'kid' a workout going into NCAAs," said Winer. "I used to bait heavyweights with a single leg and then sprawl and get the takedown. Culp reached in and took my leg at the knee and lifted me to shoulder height, then gently returned me to the mat."

"In another scramble I caught his thigh in a hi-c and turned the corner to see two legs," said the former Cowboy big man. "I had caught ahold of his bicep and thought it was a leg."

In the first round of the 1967 NCAAs, Culp drew a bye. In the second round, he faced off against Frank Paquin of Lehigh, a 1965 Ohio high school state champ at heavyweight for North Canton High School, not far from Kent State ... or the Pro Football Hall of Fame in nearby Canton.

In a recent interview with Mike Popovich of the Canton Repository, Paquin admitted he had never heard of Curley Culp before the 1967 NCAAs. This may seem strange today, but, realize, nearly 50 years ago, eastern schools such as Lehigh usually didn't schedule Arizona State and other "out west" programs. It was also an era before Facebook, Twitter, wrestling forums and websites such as InterMat made it possible for potential wrestling rivals to connect online and watch each other in online videos.

Paquin first met Culp at the weigh-in. As Popovich wrote, "It was an eye-opening experience for Paquin and Penn State's Mike Reid, who went on to star in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals."

"It would not be an exaggeration to say we were both astounded," Paquin told the Canton Repository. "His arms were literally the size of legs, and believe me, they were all muscle."

Culp put those muscles to work on the mat in his match with Paquin.

"I have to say that I never experienced human strength to the level of Curley Culp," Paquin said. "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."

Unlike many of Culp's other opponents, Paquin managed to go the distance with the Sun Devil strongman. Culp got a 15-5 decision over his Lehigh rival.

Frank Paquin
"It's probably the most points I had ever had scored on me," Paquin told the Canton paper. "Over the years, when folks would say I should be pleased that Curley did not pin me, I would tell them that he was very fresh at the time of the tournament. He threw me so hard that I bounced high enough to turn over before I came back down on the mat."

That said, Paquin described a wrestler who was anything but an abysmal brute.

"After the match, we did have a short chat, and I found Curley to be a real gentleman," said Paquin. "He was a fine person who may have known it was his year."

Quarterfinals and beyond

After defeating Paquin, Culp advanced to the quarterfinals, where he pinned Michigan State's Jeff Richardson -- the No. 7 seed, and 1967 Big Ten runner-up -- at 1:50 of their match.

At the same time Culp pinned the Spartan, on the other side of the bracket, defending NCAA heavyweight champ Dave Porter of Michigan suffered a stunning 5-4 upset loss to NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) heavyweight champ Dominic "Nick" Carollo of Colorado's Adams State, the No. 8 seed, in the quarterfinals.

In the semifinals, Culp faced off against another football star-wrestler, Granville Liggins of the University of Oklahoma. The second-seeded Culp pinned the No. 3 seeded Sooner at 3:46 to advance to the finals.

Also advancing to the heavyweight finals was Carollo, who got a 5-3 win over No. 5 Tom Beeson of Western State in Colorado.

Carollo, who brought a 16-3-1 record to the NCAAs, had wrestled part of the season at 191 pounds. As Keith Jackson, one of the sportscasters on the ABC-TV "Wide World of Sports" broadcast of the 1967 NCAA finals, pointed out as he introduced the two wrestlers, Carollo weighed in at 205 pounds, while Culp tipped the scales at 260 pounds.

Watching online video of that black-and-white ABC broadcast of the heavyweight finals, it's hard not to notice the substantial size difference between the two men that went beyond weight. Culp appeared to be significantly taller and bulkier than his Adams State rival.

The match was over almost before it began. The two men shook hands, crossed over, then Culp went in almost immediately and used a lateral drop to bring Carollo to his back. The Adams State wrestler desperately tried to bridge off the mat, but Culp's size and strength were too much; Carollo was pinned at 51 seconds of the bout.

With that fast fall, Culp became the first Arizona State wrestler to win an NCAA title, and the first from a school in the southwest.

In addition to winning the 1967 NCAA heavyweight title, Culp was presented with the Gorriaran Award, for scoring the most falls in the least amount of time at the tournament.

A couple weeks after the NCAAs, Culp was invited to participate in the first-ever East-West All-Star event, sponsored by the NWCA (National Wrestling Coaches Association), and hosted by Oklahoma State. Much like today's annual All-Star Classic, the idea was to feature the top two wrestlers in each weight class; however, in the early years, the event was conducted more like a dual meet, with wrestlers put in east-west teams based (sometimes loosely) on the location of their schools.

The concluding match of the 1967 East-West All-Stars featured a battle of heavyweight champs ... with the recently-crowned titlewinner Curley Culp being pinned by 1966 NCAA champ Dave Porter of Michigan at 3:36.

One year later, at the 1968 East-West All-Stars, the two met again on the mat, again at Gallagher Hall at Oklahoma State. This time, the 1967 NCAA champ Culp avenged his previous loss to Porter with a 5-3 decision over the Wolverine who won the '66 and '68 heavyweight titles.

Culp also pursued a dream of wrestling at the Olympics, by entering the 1968 US Olympic Trials at Iowa State. Russ Winer shared an amusing story about his time in Ames for the Trials:

"He, Buzz Hayes and I roomed together at the O-Trials in Ames," said the former Oklahoma State heavyweight. "He went out to get ice, so I hid by the corner and jumped out to scare him, making him drop the ice. He said, 'Don't ever do that again, Russ, or I'll throw you off this balcony.' I didn't."

Culp's dream of making the US Olympic freestyle team was denied by Larry Kristoff, who had wrestled heavyweight for Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, and heavyweight champ at the first-ever Midlands in 1963.

Some suggested he try for the U.S. Greco-Roman squad, but Culp said no ... deciding it was time to focus on continuing his football career by entering the pro football draft.

Arizona State gridiron great

Curley Culp appeared on the front cover of Arizona State Sun Devils' football program in 1967 as an All-American candidate
Even before hanging up his singlet and embarking on an NFL career, Curley Culp was a true two-sports star at Arizona State, excelling at both wrestling and football. In fact, he was one of the few athletes to earn All-American honors in more than one sport, being named a football All-American by both The Sporting News and Time magazine.

As with wrestling, Culp was well-regarded on the football field for his incredible strength ... and physical toughness. The story goes that he was so strong, he broke the helmets of three Sun Devil teammates during football practice.

Some of his football rivals weighed in, in comments printed in the 1967 ASU football program tribute to Culp.

"Culp is really strong," said Dave Middendorf, Washington State offensive guard. "I have never played against a linebacker or middle guard who is as strong in the upper body. He just tosses you off and goes about his business."

"You could take all the defensive linemen we faced last year and you wouldn't find a better one than Culp," according to West Texas State center Phil Hampton. "His strength and speed made him almost impossible to block."

Hampton's teammate, quarterback Hank Washington, said, "Every time I dropped back to pass, Culp would be there to greet me. He stayed on me all night long and hit like a tank. He would have to be the best defensive player I saw all season."

Wyoming offensive guard Mel Hamilton used Culp as a motivational tool.

Curley Culp, Arizona State's Smile King in 1967, pictured with Smile Queen Diane Housman
"I was impressed with Culp," said Hamilton. "I never was hit so hard. In fact, I'm so impressed with Culp that I've got his picture hanging on the wall, building myself up for next season."

During his time in Tempe, Curley Culp could definitely be considered "Big Man On Campus" -- and not just because of his imposing physique. Thumb through copies of the Arizona State Sahuaro yearbooks of the mid-1960s and you'll see dozens of pages devoted to Culp, featuring countless photos as a wrestler, football player, and, out of uniform. He was 1967 Homecoming King ... voted "Boy With The Best Smile" ... Student-Athlete of the Year in both 1967 and 1968 ... and selected as Who's Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges for 1967-68.

Going pro

In 1968, Culp entered the NFL draft, just one semester shy of graduating. (He would graduate with a bachelor's degree in 1970.) Culp was a second-round pick, grabbed by the Denver Broncos as the 32nd selection overall. However, the team had plans to switch him to offense ... but, instead, decided during training camp to trade him to the Kansas City Chiefs, where, as his Pro Football Hall of Fame biography states, "Fit in perfectly with Chiefs' dominating defense."

In his second season in the NFL, Culp was definitely a difference-maker for the Chiefs at Super Bowl IV in New Orleans in January 1970. As the starting left defensive tackle vs. the Minnesota Vikings, Culp registered three tackles, and one assisted tackle to help his team -- who were 13-point underdogs -- to get a 23-7 upset win over the NFL's highest-scoring team.

During the 1974 season, Culp was traded by Kansas City to the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans), helping lead that team to its first winning season in eight years in 1975.

In 1980, Culp found himself changing teams again, this time, heading north to the Detroit Lions, where he played for one season before retiring from football in 1981.

All in all, Curley Culp compiled a very impressive pro football career that spanned fourteen seasons and 179 games. Among the highlights: Named NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1975. First- or second-team All-AFC five times. Six Pro Bowls. Super Bowl IV.

Hall of Famer

In February 2013, Curley Culp, 67, learned that he would be welcomed into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. On Saturday, Aug. 3, the former defensive tackle for the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Oilers and Detroit Lions was welcomed into the hall at Canton, along with Green Bay outside linebacker Dave Robinson, Baltimore offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, Dallas guard Larry Allen, Minnesota wide receiver Cris Carter, Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp and coach Bill Parcells in the Hall of Fame's Class of 2013.

At the induction ceremony Saturday night at Fawcett Stadium in Canton, Curley Culp was introduced by one of his two sons, Chad, 30.

Curley Culp giving his HOF induction speech
In his induction speech, the elder Culp acknowledged his own parents, saying, "Two of the most important people in my life, my parents, are not here to celebrate with me. They supported me when I had the opportunity to leave home for the big city in Tempe, Arizona. I will always remember, love and appreciate all that they did for me."

In addition, the former Sun Devil thanked a pair of NFL owners: Bud Adams of the Houston Oilers, and Lamar Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs. "These are the men that made my professional playing days happen. Lamar Hunt wrote me a hand-written letter that I have to this day. Good owners make great players."

Culp wrapped up his speech with this message: "In life, as in sports, we should play hard and clean. Hopefully our stories, preserved forever in the Hall of Fame will remind others what hard work and team work can produce."

The Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement is arguably the ultimate honor for Culp. However, he has been welcomed into a number of other halls of fame, including the Arizona State University Sports Hall of Fame, the Arizona High School Hall of Fame, the National High School Sports Hall of Fame, the Arizona Wrestling Hall of Fame, and the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame ... along with the Kansas City Chiefs Ring of Honor, and the Arizona State Ring of Honor.

Beyond halls of fame inductions, Curley Culp was named the No. 3 athlete in Sports Illustrated magazine's "50 Greatest Sports Figures" of Arizona list in 1999, and ranked sixth in The Arizona Republic's "Athletes of the Century" list that same year.

To see Curley Culp make short work of his opponent in the heavyweight finals of the 1967 NCAAs, check out this video on YouTube from the original ABC-TV broadcast.

For more than 100 photos of Culp as a wrestler and football star -- along with his opponents and others in his life -- visit the "1967 Curley Culp" photo album at the NCAA Heavyweight Champs Yahoo group.

And, check out his new, official website, www.curleyculp.com.

Comments

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gypsygypsy (1) about 1 year ago
gypsygypsy (1) about 1 year ago
rick smith (1) about 1 year ago
curley was great in the frank kush football era. we used to chant "kill curley kill" all in fun of the football game & season,. a great competitor, but he was just so much better than the rest, it would be an understatement to say head & shoulders above----in both sports, rumor has it he used to wear a cape while in HS as he came out to wrestle; but no first hand knowledge.

rick smith
class of 68
st johns Arizona