RICK CLEVELAND: Despite accomplishments, Conerly remained humble until the end

RICK CLEVELAND

RICK CLEVELAND

JACKSON

We will hand out the C Spire Conerly Trophy next Tuesday night in what has become a Mississippi football tradition.

As always, there’s no shortage of splendid candidates. This is Mississippi, after all. We grow football players the way we grow cotton and soybeans, musicians and writers. Our guys can play.

This is the state of Payton and Manning, Rice and Favre, the McNairs and the Pooles.

And Conerly. Charlie Conerly, Chunkin’ Charlie. What all 10 candidates – and all the fans – need to know: This trophy honors one of the greatest of all time. Charlie Conerly was a football hero, then a war hero, then a football hero again. He was a modest as he was ruggedly handsome, and he certainly was that.

Permit me to borrow from Mike Lupica, the famous New York sports writer, who wrote about Conerly shortly after his death in 1996:

Charlie Conerly, right, hands off the ball to Frank Gifford during New York Giants' practice in 1959. Conerly's accomplishments made the Giants matter in the city that never sleeps.  (AP Photo)

Charlie Conerly, right, hands off the ball to Frank Gifford during New York Giants’ practice in 1959. Conerly’s accomplishments made the Giants matter in the city that never sleeps. (AP Photo)

“Charlie Conerly was the quarterback of the ’50s. Maybe you had to be around for all that. … But the reason the Giants still matter the way they do around here is because of Conerly and the glamorous Giant teams on which he played, first at the Polo Grounds, then at Yankee Stadium. They are remembered with the same sort of romance as the Brooklyn Dodgers of the ‘50s are remembered. The Giants were the football version of all that.”

Charlie Conerly was the most modest hero I ever met or tried to interview. We played a round of golf a couple years before his death. The idea was to mix business and pleasure, for me to interview him while we enjoyed a gorgeous spring afternoon. The golf was fine. The interview was like pulling teeth.

We were on about hole No. 10 when Charlie finally said, “I guess you’ve probably noticed that I am not comfortable talking about myself. Never have been.”

War hero

Conerly was a most reluctant hero. I wanted to talk to him about the time, when he was a U.S. Marine. leading a platoon and had his rifle shot out of his hands. His fellow Marines told me he reached down, picked it up and continued on as if he had brushed away a fly. When I asked about it, Charlie shrugged, hesitated and finally said, “I was scared. We all were scared, but we had a job to do. I was lucky. I came back alive.”

I wanted to talk to him about that most famous game in NFL history, the one that put pro football on the map. I write of course of the 1958 NFL Championship Game when he dueled the great Johnny Unitas into overtime. Charlie was voted MVP, then Unitas led the comeback and they revoted. Unitas won the award and the Colts won the championship. The big winner was the NFL, which had captured a nation. Conerly didn’t want to talk much about it, even though he played sensationally in the game.

Conerly was an All American at Ole Miss. He was the NFL Rookie of the Year, an NFL MVP, a three-time All-Pro selection. His jersey number, 42, was retired by the Giants.

But to learn all that you’d have to talk to somebody else about him or read it in the history books. He’d never bring it up himself.

Greatest quote I ever got was from somebody else about Charlie. It was from Barney Poole, the Hall of Fame end, who caught so many of Conerly’s passes. We were standing, graveside, on a raw, windy, Delta afternoon at Charlie’s funeral. And I asked good ol’ Barney about catching all those passes from Chunkin’ Charlie.

Said the great Barney Poole, “Charlie’s passes were so easy to catch. Charlie threw passes that melted in your hands like butter.”

Rick Cleveland (rcleveland@msfame.com) is the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.