When Curley Culp’s high school wrestling team walked into the gym, the athletes didn’t wear typical sweatsuits over their singlets.
They wore bright, shiny robes, befitting heavyweight boxing champions.
And when Culp, a heavyweight, shed his robe, the opposing crowd would voice a collective gasp that resonated throughout the gymnasium.
“He had a body build that was just unbelievable,” said Pat Patterson, Culp’s high school wrestling coach at Yuma (Ariz.) High School. “He had muscles on top of muscles on top of muscles …”
Culp used that strength, his size, quickness and intensity to win Arizona high school wrestling titles in 1963 and 1964 and the 1967 NCAA heavyweight championship at Arizona State. He took those same attributes to the NFL, where Culp played an integral role on the Chiefs’ Super Bowl IV championship team and became pro football’s prototype nose tackle for Bum Phillips’ “Luv Ya Blue” Houston Oilers of the 1970s.
And Saturday night, Culp will take his place at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Culp will become the seventh member of the Super Bowl champion Chiefs inducted into the hall, alongside linebackers Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier, tackle Buck Buchanan, cornerback Emmitt Thomas, quarterback Len Dawson and kicker Jan Stenerud, in addition to coach Hank Stram and club founder Lamar Hunt.
Culp, 67, will join 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.
Culp, a 6-foot-2, 265-pounder, anchored the middle of the Stram’s innovative Triple Stack defense, a four-man front that put Culp next to Buchanan and in front of Lanier. Culp’s domination of Minnesota center Mick Tingelhoff enabled the Chiefs, who were 13-point underdogs, to shackle the NFL’s highest-scoring team in a 23-7 upset.
“I was surrounded by good people; what can you say?” said Culp, who was inducted into the Chiefs’ Hall of Fame in 2008. “When you’re on a team with great athletes all around, you kind of fit in. I tried to work hard at my craft and tried to improve as much as I could.
“I was young in my career, and it was exciting to be involved with that group. They had an opportunity to play in Super Bowl I, they had a lot of experience from that, and we built on that.”
Curley Culp was the youngest of 13 children and grew up in Yuma, an agricultural community near the Colorado River in southwestern Arizona, close to the Mexico and California borders. He was named Curley because his birth followed that of his twin sister, Shirley, and his family wanted rhyming names.
Curley made a name for himself as an athlete, starring first in in football and then wrestling.
“When I first saw him, he was walking across the gymnasium,” Patterson remembered. “It was empty, and as I watched him walk across, I knew he was once in a lifetime heavyweight wrestler. On top of that, he was a straight-A student. He had intelligence, plus he had the athletic ability.
“I’ve never seen a man that big who could move as quickly as he could.”
Though Yuma was in a remote location, college recruiters came after Culp, including UCLA, which offered him a football scholarship. But Arizona State football coach Frank Kush promised the opportunity to wrestle and play football, and that sealed the deal.
“I think I liked wrestling even more than football,” Culp said. “It’s more of a team sport in football. Wrestling is a team sport, but you don’t have any help … it’s just between you and the guy you’re competing against.
“Some of the skills that are necessary to compete are transferable from wrestling to football. The agility, the hand to hand-to-hand combat, the quickness … one helped the other quite well.”
At Arizona State, Culp achieved the rare distinction of earning All-America honors in both football and wrestling, not to mention being elected as Homecoming King and “Male Student With the Best Smile” during his senior year.
“We already called him the King before he was homecoming king,” said former Arizona State and NFL wide receiver J.D. Hill. “He had the biggest forearms, he was low to the ground … we’d go to the wrestling matches to watch him … it seemed like he never lost a match.”
Culp went 84-11-1 as a wrestler, was a three-time Western Athletic Conference champion and dominated the 1967 NCAA Tournament by pinning three of four opponents en route to winning the Sun Devils’ first wrestling championship. His 42 career pins are still second in school history.
Culp played nose guard for a Sun Devils football team that held opponents to just 79.8 yards per game, still one of only three times in school history opponents averaged less than 100 yards per game. Kush, who built Arizona State into a national power and also coached in the NFL, was succinct in his recollection of Culp.
“He had to be one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever seen,” Kush said.
The Denver Broncos took Culp in the second round of the 1968 AFL Draft, but believing he was too small to play the defensive line, unsuccessfully tried him at guard before dealing him to the Chiefs during training camp for a fourth-round draft pick.
Culp became the final piece in one of the NFL’s all-time great defenses.
“From the moment he walked into our complex, he made us better …” Thomas said. “He and Buck Buchanan, Lanier, (strong safety) Jim Kearney, made us very strong up the middle. He was an ornery guy, very, very intelligent, could make adjustments and was very quick and strong.
The Chiefs finished the regular season 12-2 in 1968, tied with Oakland for the AFL West title, but lost to the Raiders 41-6 in the playoffs. A year later, the Chiefs avenged that loss with a 17-7 win at Oakland in the final AFL championship game as Culp made six tackles with a sack, sending Kansas City to Super Bowl IV.
“My second year of pro ball, going to the Super Bowl, that was kind of neat,” Culp said. “It was awesome. Super Bowl IV was the last year of the AFL, and we felt we could compete. We were underdogs … we knew they were going to try to run the ball against us, and we could stop them and force Joe Kapp to throw the ball. It worked out.”
In the Triple Stack, Culp would slide from his tackle position over the nose of the center, and inside linebackers Lanier and Jim Lynch slid over the guards. That gave Culp a mismatch with the undersized Tingelhoff, and before the Vikings could make an adjustment, Culp blew up the center and freed Buchanan, Lanier, Lynch or Bell to shut down the run or pressure Kapp into mistakes.
“Because of Curley’s unique skills, his strength and speed, most offensive centers by themselves, couldn’t deal with that,” Lanier said. “He made it easier for me to do what I was asked to do.”
With Culp in the middle, the Chiefs allowed Joe Namath’s Jets, Daryle Lamonica’s Raiders and the Vikings a total of 20 points in the three 1969 playoff games.
“It was almost unfair to have Culp and Buchanan and Lanier and all those guys,” Namath said. “How did they find all of those guys in Kansas City?”
Culp would go to the Pro Bowl following the 1971 season, and though sacks were not an official statistic, he led the Chiefs with nine quarterback takedowns in 1973. But in 1974, with his contract to expire at the end of the season, Culp signed a future contract with the Southern California Sun of the ill-fated World Football League.
Stram took Culp’s actions as an act of disloyalty and traded him to Houston.
“I tried very aggressively to try to get something in place with Hank,” Culp said. “I explained to him that I was going to look at some other options, and I guess he thought I was just talking in the wind, and we couldn’t get anything accomplished.
“He went on a vacation, and I had an opportunity to sign with the Southern California team (for 1975), and I was playing out the ’74 season with the hopes and expectations I would be with the Sun. But the team dissolved, and things worked out with Houston.”
The trade turned out to be the worst deal not only in Chiefs history, but perhaps the most one-sided in NFL history. The Chiefs sent Culp and their first-round draft pick in 1975 for troubled defensive tackle John Matuszak, who would appear in 22 games during 1974-75. The Oilers used the sixth overall pick for linebacker Robert Brazile, who became a seven-time Pro Bowler and backbone of the Oilers’ defense for 10 years.
“It hurt us when Curley went to Houston,” Thomas said. “It really took a piece of our defense …That was a big blow for us, but it was business for him and the organization. He went to the Oilers and made them better.”
Most NFL teams played the standard 4-3 in the 1970s, but Houston’s Bum Phillips wanted to take a page from the college game and play the 3-4. Culp was the perfect fit and one of the first true 3-4 nose tackles in the modern NFL.
“During my time, there were a few others like Ruben Carter, who played nose tackle in the NFL,” said Culp, of his being credited with pioneering the position. “The main reason they say that about me is because I was locked down in the Super Bowl over Mick Tingelhoff…”
With Culp in the middle of Houston’s defense, the Oilers became a force in the AFC. The Oilers, a laughable 1-13 in the 1973, improved to 7-7 in 1974, and 10-4 in 1975 when Culp had 11 1/2 sacks and was voted NFL defensive player of the year. The Oilers reached the AFC championship game in 1978 and 1979 but lost both times to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Culp retired after spending 1980-81 with Detroit, and he operates a Town Car service in Austin, Texas. He has warm memories of both his time in Kansas City and Houston.
“The fans in Kansas City … there’s nothing like it,” Culp said. “They were right on top of you in Municipal Stadium and in Arrowhead. They were quite special, second to none. I went on to Houston, and they had great fans in the Astrodome. Both are football towns. Kansas City is more of a football town than Houston, but Houston was pretty special with Earl Campbell and Robert Brazile and Elvin Bethea.”
Culp and his wife, Collette, have two sons, Christopher, 33, and Chad, 30, who will introduce him in the ceremonies at Fawcett Stadium.
“It’s a momentous occasion in my life,” Culp said. “I’ve tried to stay grounded as much as possible and enjoy the journey.”