HOUSTON, Texas – Growing up in the searing heat of the desert surrounding Yuma, Ariz., a young asthmatic boy spent plenty of time helping out around the family home before finding an escape into a world that eventually led him to immortality.
That “escape” proved to be athletics and when all was said and done Curley Culp stands alone. An NCAA wrestling champion while at Arizona State, Culp was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013 following a standout career with the Kansas City Chiefs, who he helped to a win in Super Bowl IV, and two other teams before his retirement after the 1977 season.
Culp is believed to be the only person ever to attain those three lofty triumphs.
“Life is a journey … and I’ve had a great journey,” said Culp, who will turn 76 years old next March.
Culp’s journey to athletic stardom began late, but took little time to yield championship results.
He did not begin playing football until a freshman at Yuma High School and did not find his way to a wrestling mat until a year later at the urging of the school’s wrestling coach.
“I was walking in the hallway one day at school and the wrestling coach told me that if I would come out for wrestling he would make me a state champion,” Culp said, “ … he was true to his word.”
Success in the mat sport took little time as Culp won a state championship in his first season competing in the sport and added two more state titles over his final two seasons at the school.
“I was so much bigger than everyone on the team and I really had no one to work out with,” recalled Culp. “We would normally work out against someone in the weight class below us, so I spent a lot of time wrestling against our 191-pounder. He had better talent than me, but I had the size.
“It gave me the opportunity to learn the craft,” Culp said.
“It didn’t take long for Curley to develop a reputation across the state,” said Tom Daniel, who coached Culp in the mat sport at YHS. “He was like the Pied Piper as large contingents of young wrestlers would fill the gyms around the state to watch the things Curley could do.
“I guess you could say he had a cult following,” added Daniel, who coached Yuma to a pair of state championships in his 30 years as coach at the school.
During the hot months of fall in southwest Arizona Culp also shined on the football field. After playing on the junior varsity as a freshman for the Criminals, Culp moved up to the varsity team for each of his final three seasons. Playing along the defensive line he started his first game during his sophomore season and became a fixture at that position.
The Yuma High School nickname is in honor of the famed Arizona Territorial Prison that sits just outside of the community.
Injuries to some of his teammates in his final season gave Culp the chance to run the ball, despite weighing nearly 270 pounds, as he recalls. In the school’s homecoming game in 1963 he ran for more than 100 yards.
ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVIL
Excelling in both sports Culp had plenty of opportunities to compete at the collegiate level. But in the end he chose Arizona State. He had a chance to compete in wrestling at UCLA, but was told he would have to make the team before being awarded a scholarship.
“I needed the scholarship,” said Culp, in explaining his decision to stay in his home state and compete for the Sun Devils.
He was also drawn to the fact that the Tempe campus was just a few hours from his home in Yuma.
“I was close to my parents and I enjoyed the fact that I could go home on the weekends and get some of momma’s home cooking,” Culp said.
He was recruited to Arizona State by Jack Stovall and offered a scholarship to play football with the Sun Devils, who also provided him the opportunity to continue wrestling.
“It worked out beautifully,” Culp said.
He credits former ASU football coach Frank Kush for plenty of his athletic success.
“I really enjoyed both sports,” Culp said. “Playing for (Kush) was a great experience. He gave a lot of the athletes the opportunity to get their degrees and to also play pro football. He did a lot of good for ASU.
“(Kush) was a great guy,” added Culp, who was inducted into ASU’s Ring of Honor in 2011 “He was hard-nosed, but the main thing is he got results.”
Culp capped his football career at Arizona State by being chosen as an all-America by Sporting News and Time magazine.
“Curley Culp was one of the better athletes I ever coached,” said Kush. “He was the most mentally prepared athlete around, but what really set him apart was the fact that he was highly intelligent … and when you combine athletic ability and the level of intelligence that he possessed, no wonder he became one of the greats to ever play the game of football.
“He always absorbed what we as coaches we’re trying to teach,” Kush added, “and with (Culp) it was a case of the more coaching he got, and the way he applied those teachings, he simply got better and better.”
The success Culp enjoyed as a wrestler in high school was never slowed once coming to the collegiate level. He won four Western Athletic Conference championships (1965-68) while Arizona State was a member of that conference. The Sun Devils would not join the Pac 8 until the 1979-80 season.
Culp’s crowning achievement on the mat would come in 1967 when he swept through the NCAA tournament in Kent, Ohio to capture the NCAA heavyweight crown and become ASU’s first-ever national wrestling champion.
“It was a great experience,” said Culp,
Culp won his first match of the national tournament with a 15-5 win. He then pinned his next two opponents, including Oklahoma’s Von Liggins in the semifinal round to set the stage for a dramatic finish to the tournament.
In the finals he pinned Western State standout Nick Carrolis in less than one minute that set off a wild celebration. The scene of ASU coach Ted Bredehoft leaping into the arms of Culp to soak up the moment in etched in the memory of the ASU legend.
“(Bredehoft) had done a great job of preparing me for the national tournament,” Culp said. “I was in the best shape of my life … I was lean and mean, as they say.”
With Culp’s dominating performance at the national meet he believed he had a chance to earn the outstanding wrestler award at the tournament. Instead, the award went to Iowa State standout Dan Gable. The ASU standout did win the Gregorian Award, given to the wrestler with the most falls in the least amount of time at the national tournament.
He was named to the Olympic team in 1968 and was one of two heavyweights vying for a chance to compete in Mexico City. Larry Kristoff was given the Olympic nod over Culp, who went on to his long career in the National Football League.
Culp believes his strong showing as a junior, helped put him in a position to be drafted the following year.
“I think it put me on the radar of the scouts,” Culp said.
THE ROAD TO CANTON
He was the first player selected by the Denver Broncos in the 1968 National Football League draft. The merger between the NFL and the AFL, of which the Broncos were a part of, would take place the following year, but the merger had been announced four years earlier.
Denver, which did not have a first-round selection that year, was coached by Lou Saban. Saban and the Broncos wanted Culp, who was the 31st overall selection, to play guard on offense.
“They thought my height was not conducive to playing along the defensive line,” explained Culp, who was late in reporting to training camp because of his appearance in the College All-Star game that year in Evanston, Ill.
Despite the late start to his pro career, Culp saw action in the final preseason game that season and graded out high, but was later released and signed with the Chiefs. His position coach while with Denver was Stan Jones.
“Saban and Jones were both great coaches,” Culp said. “(Jones) was really a players’ coach and really helped me become a better player.”
Culp appeared in 179 games during his NFL career and drew 134 starting assignments. A member of the Chiefs for five seasons (1968-74), he was traded to the Houston Oilers during the 1974 season and spent seven seasons (1974-80) in south Texas. He was traded to Detroit in 1980 and retired the following season.
His 13-year NFL career saw him being named to the 1969 AFL All-Star team and being a five time (1971, 1975-78) Pro Bowl selection. An All-Pro choice in 1975, Culp finished his pro football career with 68 sacks, 14 forced fumbles, 13 fumble recoveries and one interception.
In 2013 Culp, who many considered the be the quickest defensive lineman of his time, took his rightful place in Canton, Ohio with nearly 300 other NFL immortals. He became the fifth member of a vaunted Kansas City defense that was a dominating unit during Culp’s career with the team. He was also the seventh player of Kansas City’s Super Bowl winning team to find a home in Canton.
“It is like a gospel revival,” said Culp, who was inducted into the Chiefs Ring of Honor in 2008. “You are recognized among the best who have ever played the game … it is an awesome experience. There was a lot of camaraderie with the other hall of famers and it is something very special knowing that you are (in Canton) for life.”
His induction speech, which was not marked with many tears, as many of his predecessors, simply extolled the importance of family, coaches and teammates in Culp’s road to the hallowed shrine.
“I simply wanted to give thanks to the many, many people who helped me on my journey,” the hall of famer said. “Football is a team sport and there is no way I could have achieved the success I did without the encouragement I received from countless individuals along the way.”
“He’s always been a leader,” Daniel said of Culp. “He would always wake up at 3 a.m. and help his father feed the hogs. Curley got strong not from lifting weights, but from working hard for his family.
“He commanded everyone’s respect,” Daniel added, “and he had this tremendous ability to make others feel important … and he still maintains that ability.”
Daniel, who attended Culp’s induction ceremony in Canton, said Culp was a member of the National Honor Society while in high school, and was also active in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter at YHS.
“He came from a very hard-working family and was a total gentleman,” Daniel said. “You can go through life and find few people who have that sense of presence about them … Curley had that and is a great guy.”
The personable Culp, who returned to ASU to complete his degree just months after Kansas City defeated the favored Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl V, offers some solid advice to young football players who have their own dreams of stardom.
“Follow your dreams,” he said. “You have to persevere and sacrifices have to be made. We can do all things, but we cannot do those things unless we are willing to pay the price. We are all gifted in one way or another and we must pursue and develop those gifts.”
A native of Bismarck, N.D., Ray is a graduate of North Dakota State University where he began studying athletic training and served as a student trainer for several Bison teams including swimming, wrestling and baseball and was a trainer at the 1979 NCAA national track and field championship meet at the University of Illinois. Ray later worked in the sports information office at NDSU. Following his graduation from NDSU he spent five years in the sports information office at Missouri Western State University and one year in the sports information at Georgia Tech. He has nearly 40 years of writing experience as a sports editor at several newspapers and has received numerous awards for his writing over the years. A noted sports historian, Ray is currently an assistant editor at Amateur Wrestling News.