NASHVILLE, TN — One of the greatest defensive players in college football history and quite possibly Tennessee State’s finest passed last Friday. Claude Humphrey, who died at 77, helped the Tigers win two national Black college championships, and then became an all-time NFL great with the Atlanta Falcons and Philadelphia Eagles. Humphrey died in his hometown of Memphis. His daughter informed the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but gave no cause for his death.
After being the cornerstone of those TSU championship teams, Humphrey was drafted number three by the Falcones in 1968. He played 11 years for them, earning six Pro Bowl selections, but the Falcons were often awful during his time with them. He moved to the Eagles. in 1979 and played on their 1980 Super Bowl winning team. Because sacks were not an official stat during his career, no one knows for sure how many Humphrey had. But he was credited with 130 over 13 seasons (he missed 1975 due to a knee injury).
Tributes to Humphrey came from many places. “The entire Pro Football Hall of Fame family mourns the passing of Claude Humphrey,” Hall of Fame President Jim Porter said. “Known as a hard worker and a reliable teammate, Humphrey was always willing to help the team out wherever needed and knew success was achieved collectively. His humble spirit guided him on and off the field.”
The Falcons honored Humphrey in 2008 by placing him in their Ring of Honor. He also is a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. “We are saddened by the passing of Claude Humphrey and send our prayers out for his family and friends in this difficult time,” Falcons owner Arthur Blank said in a statement. “Claude made an indelible impression on so many from Memphis to the Falcons and across the NFL with his leadership and tenacious approach on the field. His Falcons legacy was cemented as a forever memory with induction into our Ring of Honor and he will be greatly missed.”
The Tigers were 35-3-1 during his tenure from 1965-67. He was the NFL defensive Rookie of the Year in 1968, and a first-team All-Pro selection five times. He had double-figure sack totals in nine seasons, plus two interceptions, one fumble recovery for a touchdown and two safeties. The 1977 Atlanta Falcons team that featured Humphrey surrendered only 129 points in 14 games. Unfortunately they had a below average offense and only finished 7-7.
“He was a great athlete,” said longtime Falcons linebacker Greg Brezina, who joined the team the same year as Humphrey. “One of the best things about him was his winning attitude. He was a team player and, of course, he’s probably one of the best defensive ends that there was out there. It’s just a shame he played so long with a team that didn’t win much. He didn’t get the recognition.”
Humphrey was a finalist for the Hall of Fame in 2003, 2005 and 2006, but he failed to get in each time. He finally was elected as a senior candidate in February 2014. “I’m not glad that it took so long,” he said before the induction ceremony, “but I’m glad I got in when I can smell the flowers.”
At press time funeral arrangements had not yet been set.