As a second grader in 1955, my dad took me to my first UGA football game, he was a Bulldog fan and the driving force in making me a Georgia Bulldog fan. He was also a fan of Southern Football (I remember him being bitter for years because Johnny Majors of Tennessee didn’t win the Heisman), but make no bones about it, UGA was his team of choice. And Charley Trippi was his favorite player. My dad was Trippi’s biggest fan. I would wager he told me Charley Trippi was the greatest football player ever as many times as there are grains of sand on the beaches of Georgia’s Cumberland Island.
As I watched UGA’s Jimmy Orr star that Saturday afternoon in Sanford Stadium, my dad would acknowledge, “Orr is a sho-nuff good-un son, but not as good as Charley Trippi”. I never saw Trippi play, but because of my dad’s insistence that Trippi was the greatest, from those early years of my life I seldom passed up an opportunity to read about Mr. Trippi, and that is true to this very day.I won’t elaborate on Charley Trippi’s boyhood life before UGA, except to say that he was born in 1922 in Pennsylvania, that his father didn’t approve of sports and warned his son about injury from playing sports thus not being able to do his share in meeting family needs, that despite his father’s wishes young Charley excelled in sports (while fulfilling his family obligations), and that former UGA great Harold Ketron successfully recruited him to come South to UGA to get his education and play his collegiate football despite scholarship offers from Notre Dame and others.
To understand Trippi’s greatness, one must think of a complete football player in all phases of the game. I submit to you this question: how many football players can you name that excelled in running the football, and passing the football, and receiving the football, and blocking for a teammate, and punting the football, and intercepting the football, and returning punts, and returning kickoffs, and tackling an opposing ball carrier? I’m with my dad on this one, because Charley Trippi could do it all, both in College, on the Service All-Star teams, and in the Pros. He was the total football player, a 60 minute man, seldom leaving the field, and where ever he lined up, he was the best player on the field.
So just how good was Charley Trippi? Keep in mind Trippi only played UGA varsity football for two and a half seasons (1942, last half of 1945, and 1946). He played for the Third Air Force All-Star team in 1943, 1944, and the first half of 1945. Just some of his college accomplishments:
–led the UGA Freshman team to an undefeated season in 1941….
–was MVP of the 1943 Rose Bowl and inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame….
–was a two time All-American, and a two time All-SEC all-star player….
–led UGA to two National Championships and two SEC Championships….
–led UGA to three Bowl wins (Rose, Oil, and Sugar) and was the star player in each….
–was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame….
–was inducted into UGA’s prestigious Circle of Honor….
–was one of only four Georgia football players to have his jersey retired….
–was inducted into the Georgia-Florida Hall of Fame….
–won the Maxwell Award (College Football Player of the Year)….
–was included in ESPN’s Top 20 All-Time Greatest College Football Players ….
–was named on the All-Decade Sugar Bowl Team (1945-1954)….
–was MVP of Blue-Gray All-Star Game….
–set Sugar Bowl record for longest TD pass (67 yards to Dan Edwards)….
–averaged 7.38 yards every time he touched the football in 1946….
–set the SEC and UGA records of total offense yards and most passing yards in a game vs Ga Tech in 1945….
–led SEC in scoring, was SEC MVP, and was SEC POY in 1946….
–still holds the UGA record for most yards per rush in a career (6.42 yards per carry)…
–led UGA to three varsity victories over Ga Tech by a combined score of 102-7 (with the 1941 Freshman Game, Trippi’s career record vs Ga Tech is 4-0)…
–led UGA to three varsity victories over Florida by a combined score of 142-14…
–returned from the military at mid-season in 1945 to lead UGA to 3 victories over Florida, Auburn, and Ga Tech by a combined score of 102-0…
Trippi finished second in the 1946 Heisman Trophy voting. Like my dad, I’m convinced Trippi deserved to win that Heisman Trophy in 1946. Trippi was the best player in the nation. But, first off, remember this was at the conclusion of WWII, sentiment was heavy towards the military, and the northern media folks were in love with Army, Navy, and of course their old favorite, Notre Dame. The first team All-American backfield in 1946 was Glenn Davis (Army), Doc Blanchard (Army), Johnny Lujack (Notre Dame), and Trippi. Second, Frank Sinkwich had won the Heisman Trophy four years earlier in 1942. There was no way the voters were going to select a second player from a Southern school so soon after 1942, and especially a second recipient from UGA, and go against their favorites, especially the sentimental military favorite Army . The publicity of back to back Army Heisman Trophy recipients was too much for the voters to go any other way. Trippi finishing second in the Heisman Trophy voting was a small miracle considering the circumstances.
Bear Bryant said Charley Trippi was the greatest football player he ever saw play the game. So did Frank Broyles, as did Harry Gilmer, and so did dozens and dozens of others including the legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson. Bobby Dodd also said Trippi was the greatest ever, but Dodd always took it a step further by saying Trippi should have won the Heisman Trophy on his defensive play alone. Bear Bryant was also heavy on the praise of Trippi’s defense. I get the feeling Wally Butts felt the same about Trippi’s defensive play. While Butts praised Trippi’s offensive play, it was his defense that Butts praised most. Butts said he never saw Trippi miss a tackle in his career, not only in a game, but also in the numerous practices Trippi participated in over the years. Butts added that was remarkable in itself. Former Georgia All-American and coach Bill Hartman echoed Butts thoughts on Trippi’s defensive play. And the legendary Squab Jones, who probably saw more UGA football players up close and in action than anybody else, said Herschel was the greatest running back he ever saw, but Trippi was the greatest all-around player he ever saw.
Not only did Trippi lead UGA to three post-season classics, but Trippi was also the star in those three Bowl games (all victories). He was the MVP of the Rose Bowl victory over UCLA, and later inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame. He passed for a TD (47 yards to John Donaldson) and returned a punt for a TD vs Tulsa in the Oil Bowl (many say his 68 yard punt return for a TD was the greatest in SEC history, rivaled only by the Billy Cannon punt return vs Ole Miss in the 1950s–there are some who studied the film and conclude Trippi ran nearly 200 yards on that TD return–he zigged and he zagged, he ran to the east, he ran to the west, he ran to the north, and he ran to the south, causing Tulsa player after player to miss him, and then he finally ran over the final tackler for the TD). He played every play in the 1947 Sugar Bowl victory over North Carolina and their great player Choo Choo Justice. It was his record setting TD pass to Dan Edwards that won the game. And, just to reflect upon his versatility, the first five plays of the 1947 Sugar Bowl saw him run the ball, pass the ball, punt, and make a tackle.
In what I personally think was Trippi’s finest 60 minutes, in 1945 it was Trippi 45, Ga Tech 0. Trippi touched the football 42 times that day, and accounted for 517 total yards, an average of 12.3 yards per touch. Trippi set SEC and UGA records that day for total offense yards and passing yards.
By the way, Charley Trippi was also a great baseball player too. To this day, Trippi holds the UGA single season baseball record for highest batting average at .464, which still stands as fourth best in SEC history. After earning All-American honors as a shortstop at UGA, he played one year for the Atlanta Crackers where he played in 106 games batting .334. He had the opportunity to play MLB (some say for the Boston Red Sox, others say he was destined to be the New York Yankees replacement for Joe DiMaggio), but Trippi opted for Pro Football.
Trippi inked the first six digit contract in the NFL. He (the #1 draft choice) signed with the Chicago Cardinals, and he didn’t disappoint. Trippi led the Cardinals to an NFL Championship in his rookie season. He was the MVP of the 1947 Championship game, recording 206 total yards including a 44 yard rushing TD and a 76 yard punt return for a TD. Trippi was the most versatile and most exciting player in the NFL in his day. He was inducted in the Chicago Cardinals Hall of Fame, inducted into the Cardinals Ring of Honor, and more importantly was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. To this day, he is the only NFL Hall of Famer to rush for over 1,000 yards, pass for over 1,000 yards, and receive for over 1,000 yards in his professional career. He was named to the 1940s NFL All-Decade Team as a halfback. He was the Cardinals left halfback for 4 seasons (1947 thru 1950), the Cardinals QB for two years (1951-1952), moved back to the Cardinals offensive halfback in 1953, then moved to the Cardinals defense in 1954 and 1955. He played in two NFL Pro Bowls (1952 and 1953), and was named to the NFL All-Pro team three times (1947, 1948, and 1952). Note that he earned these honors while playing both halfback positions and at QB (three different positions). How good was he as a Pro? The legendary Jim Thorpe said Trippi was the greatest football player he ever saw. Another question: How many college draftees can you name that were featured on the game program full cover of their first professional game? Yep, Charley Trippi is one for sure! He simply carried his collegiate greatness straight into the NFL. Although it was an exhibition game prior to the season start, the word is Trippi’s first two touches as a Pro were 70+ yards and 60+ yards rushes.
Trippi’s career NFL stats were 9,788 total yards; he scored or passed for 53 total TDs; he rushed for 3,506 yards (5.1 yards per carry); he passed for 2,547 yards (12.4 yards per completion); he recorded 1,321 yards receiving (10.2 yards per reception); he averaged 13.7 yards per punt return on 63 punts; he averaged 23.4 yards per interception return; he averaged 22.1 yards per kick-off return; and he averaged 40.3 yards per punt. He led the NFL in total yards on multiple occasions. When he retired from the NFL, Trippi held 15 Cardinal individual football records. In 1950, just four years and only halfway through his NFL playing career, the Associated Press published their list of the greatest Pro players ever, and named Trippi as the eighth best football player to ever play in the NFL.
He was great in college, and great in the NFL, and he was great in his football play for the Third Air Force while in the military. The military teams named their All-Star team, and you guessed it, Trippi was atop the list on that team too. Trippi was also inducted into the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame. He has the unique distinction of playing in Chicago’s College All-Star Game five times (twice while attending UGA, twice while in the Military, and once as a member of the NFL Champion Cardinals–the rules for playing in All-Star games were different back then, and further relaxed due to the war). And he was a two time MVP in that game, in 1945 and in 1948!!
Charley Trippi has been inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame; has been honored numerous times at football games, has witnessed Charley Trippi Day, has a football stadium named in his honor, has an annual UGA football award named after him, and even had a Kentucky Derby entrant named after him. Trippi was in demand after his playing career, coaching 5 years for the NFL Cardinals, and coaching 5 years for Wally Butts at UGA. He even served as UGA’s head baseball coach for two years. And he rounded up a few of his football teammates at UGA after the 1946 season and traveled throughout Georgia playing local basketball teams (for a little spending money). The man was a natural athlete. I’ve talked to many football folks over the years about Charley Trippi. All had the highest praise for him. One in particular was a business associate many years ago who was a Florida Gator football player during the Trippi days. He was to the point, and let me know Sinkwich and Trippi were the two greatest players he played against. Then he would continue to tell me that Trippi was the greatest. He told me he tackled Sinkwich, and that Sinkwich was one more tough dude, a load to bring down, but he added that he never laid a hand on Trippi in a game, as he was so elusive.
Now I know my dad was spot on correct, because I now also believe Charley Trippi was the greatest. My dad died in 1978. He never saw Herschel Walker play, but that doesn’t change what he told me for years and years. Charlie Trippi was the greatest complete football player to ever play the game. Herschel was the best running back to play collegiate football; I’ll debate that with anybody. But for you dad, Charley Trippi was a living football legend some three and a half decades before Herschel began his legendary collegiate career.
I have met Mr. Trippi several times, and even accepted an invitation from him to visit his entertainment rooms downstairs in his house. I was in awe. There were two rooms with just the right touch of sacred Trippi memorabilia (both UGA and Chicago Cardinals). It made the hair stand up on my arms. I noticed a large photo of him and the other members of the Chicago Cardinals’ Dream backfield. You could tell that particular photo meant a lot to Charley Trippi. I got up the nerve to ask him, which was nearest and dearest to him, the Cardinals experience or the UGA experience? Mr. Trippi didn’t hesitate, and quickly responded, “I wouldn’t give anything for my time with the Cardinals, but far and away I owe everything to UGA. The University of Georgia will always be my first love.”
I must say you’ll never find a nicer more humble man than Charlie Trippi. Although from north of the Mason-Dixon Line, Mr. Trippi is a true Southern Gentleman, and a Football Legend, and of course, a DGD of the highest order. Charley Trippi set the standard for all DGDs of today. Following my dad’s lead over a half century ago, I have become Charley Trippi’s biggest fan. And, in his presence, you’ll never hear how great his football accomplishments are unless those words come from you or others. Every time I’ve heard praise for him come up in a conversation with him, he would always say, “oh, I don’t know about that,” and move the conversation on to another subject. After his first wife died in the early 1970s, Mr. Trippi remarried. After over two years of dating him, his soon-to-be second wife finally found out he was a member of the NFL Hall of Fame, and she discovered that fact from someone other than Charley.
Charley Trippi is a special man!!
Editor’s note: Trippi is the oldest living NFL number one draft pick, he was drafted on April 8, 1945.