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Charlie Sumner '55: A True Football Legend


Apr. 27, 2007

Charlie Sumner wearing the #21 ) advances the ball during a game in 1954 where the Tribe faced Virginia Tech.

As Charlie Sumner '55 walked off William and Mary's campus with his degree in physical education, he wasn't sure what he was going to do next. But the Chicago Bears drafted him into professional football -- where he stayed for 40 years. And on April 28, Sumner will be enshrined into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.

The National Football League was a vastly different place back in the 1950s than it is today. Baseball was both America's pastime and its passion. Professional football was not televised nationally and there was no such thing as a Super Bowl. NFL teams only had 33 players on the roster and many of them played "ironman" football, meaning that they played both on offense and on defense.

"I was fortunate that I played all of these things at William and Mary," said Sumner. "I played defense full time there too. Most of the time, I would play for all 60 minutes in my last year. I was a pretty good defensive back."

This ability to play on both sides of the ball helped the young man who started at both quarterback and defensive back for the Tribe to hang onto a spot on an NFL franchise for six seasons.

"The first position that [the Bears] tried me at was at quarterback," remembered Sumner. "But my arm wasn't strong enough to throw the passes for those guys. So they moved me to halfback. I wasn't at that position very long because we had a blitz pick-up drill one practice and I had to pick up linebackers and defensive ends. I got crumpled. I figured that I was gone but they gave me one last chance at defensive back. I started a game and intercepted a couple passes and ran one back for a touchdown."

Sumner was selected as the Bears' top rookie and played as a starter for much of the season. His career in the NFL hit a minor speed bump when he served in the Army for two years. After his time in service, he returned to the gridiron and started at cornerback for in Chicago for two more seasons.

A constant theme in Sumner's journey through the pro ball landscape was change. He seemed to always be riding the crest of innovation. This time, Sumner was selected to play for the new NFL expansion team, the Minnesota Vikings, in 1960. And as all expansion teams have been in recent years, the Vikings were plain awful.

"I could have played a few more years but I got beat up so bad [with the Vikings]," said Sumner. "I was a defensive safety and I led the team in tackles -- you can imagine what was going on up front. I broke both of my arms and I ached all over."

His days playing in the NFL were over. So he returned to Williamsburg to lick his wounds and wait for fate to lead him the next stage of his career.

"I didn't really know what I was going to do. It sounds kind of funny, because people usually have plans, but I really didn't at each step of my career until it happened," said Sumner.
Then he got the call. It was from Al Davis, who was the head coach and general manager of the Oakland Raiders -- a franchise in the new American Football League (AFL). Sumner's reputation as a tough yet cerebral player was well known in the coaching ranks, and apparently someone recommended that Davis hire Sumner as a position coach on the Raiders' defense.

"It was a very fortunate thing," said Sumner. "They had only won one game the year before. We got them going pretty good."

While he was with the Raiders, his team became one of the elite franchises in the AFL, winning the AFL Championship in 1967. With that, Sumner and his squad competed in the second contest between the two rival professional football leagues -- which would eventually be known as the Super Bowl. The Raiders faced the Green Bay Packers, which had won the first AFL-NFL contest the year before, and was coached by the legendary Vince Lombardi. The Raiders lost that game, but they proved they could compete with the NFL.

"We had a bunch of strong people in the AFL who forced the merger [with the NFL]," said Sumner. "There was such a big fight for the good players between the leagues. The AFL forced the merger by signing all of the good NFL quarterbacks -- and when they found out about it they knew they had to do something about it. All of the top NFL quarterbacks were set to sign with the AFL, even Johnny Unitas. The only one who wouldn't was Bart Starr. We had all the rest."

Sumner hung on with the Raiders for a few more seasons, coaching his defense. In 1969, he jumped over to coach for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were a 1-13 team. But after a few years, the Steelers used the draft to build a dynasty of a team, which would go on to win four Super Bowls in six seasons. In 1973, Sumner moved again, this time to the New England Patriots. When he arrived, the Patriots had won just three games the previous season. With Sumner's new approach to defense and the infusion of some new talent, the Patriots made the playoffs twice -- then he made yet another move.

"It seems like you never get to go where there is a good team," laughed Sumner. "The job openings are always where the teams aren't too good."

The Raiders were looking for new guidance on defense, and they called on an old friend to take over.

"Oakland wasn't doing too good at the time and they asked me if I would come," said Sumner. "The first year (1979) that I was back we were just very average, but the next year we played in the Super Bowl. We were the first wild card team to go all the way. We had great offensive players but not too good on defense. We kind of fooled people."

Three years later, the franchise had moved to Southern California and Sumner had his defense humming. The 1983 Los Angeles Raiders are remembered as one of the most ferocious defenses to have ever played in the league. The Raiders went all the way that year too -- and the only team that stood in their way to another title was the Washington Redskins. The 'Skins were an offensive dynamo, setting record after offensive record, some of which would stand for some time. The media looked at the matchup and sensed an easy win for the Redskins, who had won the Super Bowl the season before.

"I was a little worried about the Smurfs [the Redskins' wide receivers]," said Sumner. "I saw some places where my cornerbacks would not get any help, but I had two great corners -- Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes -- and we were talking they said 'you just do whatever you want to, and we'll take care of their wide receivers.' And I said 'OK.' That's what they did and we took care of all of the other things that we wanted to do against them."

The Raiders won Super Bowl XVII by a lopsided mark, 38-9.

Though another championship would usually mean stability, for Sumner it did just the opposite. His trek through the football landscape continued.

"I didn't like it too much because we were in L.A. -- I took a job in the United States Football League (USFL) and became a head coach in that league with the Oakland Invaders," said Sumner.

The USFL was in many ways much like the AFL before it. It was composed of a group of potential football team owners who wanted to be a part of the NFL, but there were no openings. But instead of staking out untouched regions to put their teams like the AFL did, the USFL placed most of their franchises in areas where there was already an established NFL team in place.

Sumner's 1985 Oakland Invaders enjoyed a success similar to the former pro team from the same town. He took his team to the USFL championship game, but was defeated by the Baltimore Stars. Then the USFL folded.

"In the USFL, it was the haves versus the have-nots," said Sumner. "There were some guys that had a lot of money like Donald Trump [owner of the New Jersey Generals]. They were the ones with the billions of dollars and they got the players, but there were other owners who didn't have very much money, and they just had to take what they could get. That was kind of what ruined it.

"The big guys like Trump wanted to force another merger with the NFL, but the NFL was not going to have any part of it. It broke up because half of the teams couldn't keep up with the financial part of it."

Sumner eventually returned to the NFL's Raiders as the defensive coordinator, but retired from professional football in 1989.

During his career, Sumner was on the cusp of nearly every change that altered football's landscape. And thanks to his start at the College, he was able not only to weather the change but thrive. And although he has been to the very top of the mountain of professional sports, none of those times can compare to when he was a regular student in the early '50s at William and Mary.

"In those days when we didn't have the big campus," recalls Sumner, "we were just about 1,500 students. You knew everyone who went to school there. Nobody had cars. It was just a real experience. It was the best time that I have ever spent. I wanted to stay at William and Mary longer."

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