Curley Culp, whose strength, agility and speed helped anchor the great defenses of the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Oilers in the 1960s and 1970s and led to his election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died Saturday at a hospital in Pearland. , Texas, south of Houston. He was 75.
His wife, Collette Culp, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Culp was a powerful force as a defensive tackle. Culp, a former college wrestler who stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 265 pounds, wielded the opponent’s offensive lineman, especially centers, and was known for wrapping quarterbacks in his huge arms. In his 14-year career, he had 68½ sacks.
When Culp was traded as a rookie to the Chiefs of the Denver Broncos in 1968, he joined a defensive unit stacked with four other future Hall of Famers: Buck Buchanan, a 6-foot-7 tackle; linebackers Bobby Bell and Willie Lanier, and cornerback Emmitt Thomas.
“It was almost unfair to have Culp and Buchanan and Lanier and all those guys,” Joe Namath, the Jets quarterback at the time, told The Kansas City Star in 2013. “How did they find all those guys in Kansas City?”
In 1970, the Chiefs faced the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV, who were 13 points ahead. Hank Stram, the Chiefs coach, put Culp on the line to face off against Viking center Mick Tingelhoff (who died in September at age 81). Culp overpowered Tingelhoff, allowing Buchanan, Bell and Lanier to stop the Vikings’ running charge and put pressure on quarterback Joe Kapp.
The Chiefs won 23-7, the American Football League team’s second straight win over a highly favored NFL rival, following the Jets’ victory over the Baltimore Colts.
“I don’t think it was easy,” Culp said after the game. “It was determination on our part.”
Culp spent six full seasons with the Chiefs, was selected to play in two Pro Bowls, and had a whopping nine sacks in 1973, well before becoming an official NFL stat in 1982.
Before the 1974 season, Culp signed a contract to play the following year for the Southern California Sun of the upstart World Football League, which attacked the NFL for star players. Six games into the season — with the Chiefs record at 2-4 — Stram Culp and a No. 1 draft pick for the Houston Oilers (now the Tennessee Titans) traded for John Matuszak, a 6-foot-8 defensive tackle.
“They were trying to help the defense in Kansas City knowing I would be lost next season, and two, they just wanted to punch me in the face,” Culp told The Star. “You look around the competition. Not many people have signed to the World who are still on their original teams.” Lanier later said the Chiefs had made a bad decision.
“After we traded Curley,” he told The Houston Chronicle in 2013, “we just started breaking up.”
Culp finished the season with the Oilers but never made the jump to the sun, after the team failed to make him guaranteed payments. He signed a four-year deal with Houston and the WFL folded during the 1975 season.
Culp was just as successful in Houston as he was in Kansas City. Under Coach Bum Phillips, the Chiefs played a 3-4 defense, with three linemen and four linebackers. While the nose tackle – located between two defensive points and opposite the center – Culp revolutionized the position and had his best season in 1975, with 11½ sacks. He was named Defensive Player of the Year by the Newspaper Enterprise Association. And he was picked for four more Pro Bowls.
Culp remained an integral part of the Oilers’ defense through the 1978 and ’79 seasons, both of which led to appearances in American Football Conference championship games, each of which ended in loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Oilers foreclosed on him during the 1980 season, and he signed with the Detroit Lions, playing with them throughout the 1981 season before retiring.
One of his Oilers teammates, Elvin Bethea, another Hall of Famer, described Culp in action. “Curley had those fat, nasty forearms that were hard as rocks,” he told The Chronicle. “He would use those forearms to hit the centers on the side of the head. He would throw them off balance and their ears would ring.”
He added: “The rules were different then.”
Curley Culp was born on March 10, 1946 in Yuma, Ariz. His father, William, ran a pig farm and his mother, Octavia (Whaley) Culp, was a housewife. His parents named him Curley because it rhymed with Shirley, his twin sister, who was born first.
Curley worked on the farm, and during the summer he and some of his brothers traveled to California ranches to make some extra money to load watermelons into trucks.
Culp wrestled and played football in high school. At Arizona State University, he won the NCAA heavyweight title in 1967, pinning his opponent in the final in 51 seconds. He was an All-American in both sports.
“I think I liked wrestling even more than football,” he told The Star, adding that “some of the skills needed to compete are transferable from wrestling to football. The agility, the man-to-man battles, the speed.”
The Broncos selected Culp in the second round of the 1968 NFL draft. (He graduated from the state of Arizona in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree in business and insurance.) But Denver’s attempt to convert him from defensive tackle to offensive guard backfired, and the team traded him to Kansas City during training camp.
After his NFL career, Culp ran a chemical and pest control company, then owned a taxi and limousine service. He received a master’s degree in health and human performance from the University of Houston in 1990.
Culp married Collette Bloom in 1978. Beside her, he leaves behind his sons Chad and Christopher; seven grandchildren; his sister, Shirley Culp McFarlin; and his brother William Jr.
By the time Culp was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in 2013, he had been retired for 32 years. Bell, Lanier, Buchanan and Thomas had already been inducted, as had Stram and two other Kansas City teammates, quarterback Len Dawson and place-kicker Jan Stenerud.
“You know, this is an opportunity that has been in my dreams for a long time and is now living in reality,” Culp said in his introductory speech. “I cannot express how wonderful this is for me and my family, who have long hoped with me that this day would come.”