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Ashway: Atkins was pro football's first giant
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Forsyth County News

Doug Atkins played football in a manner bordering on the mythological.

The great defensive end, and member of both the pro and college football halls of fame, passed away on December 30. He was 85.

Recalling Atkins was unavoidable Friday night. Thanks to years of painstaking work by NFL Films, the NFL Network showed the complete replay of Super Bowl I for the first time since it was played 49 years ago. Packer guard Jerry Kramer recalled how his team was surprised by the Chief’s size.

Sure enough, dwarfing everyone on the field was defensive tackle Buck Buchanan. All 6-feet-7 and 269 pounds of him. Buchanan entered the AFL in 1963.

Atkins entered the NFL in 1953. He stood 6-feet-8 and weighed between 265 and 285 pounds, pro football’s first true giant.

But no gentle giant. 

“Doug had a way of making people apprehensive,” Warren Ariail told the Associated Press. Ariail was the Saints trainer in ’68 and ’69. Atkins played his final three seasons for the Saints (’67-’69), but played so well that they retired his jersey.

“He was so big and so strong, and when he wanted to do something, he did it,” Ariail continued. “Johnny Unitas told me one time Doug was the only player he was afraid of. Dick Butkus said the same thing. Now, if you can imagine Dick Butkus being afraid of someone, you get an idea of how Doug affected people.”

“No question, he was the strongest man in the world,” Bears teammate Richie Petitbon told Don Pierson of the Chicago Tribune. “When he wanted to play, nobody could block him.”

In 1963, Atkins played right defensive end on a Bears team that set an NFL record for fewest points allowed. They beat the Giants, 14-10, for the NFL championship, with both touchdowns set up by long interception returns.

“In that year,” Petitbon continued, “I think he knocked out eight quarterbacks.  I mean, they left the field, babe.”

George Allen, the architect of that defense, gave Atkins the freedom that season to simply wreak havoc.  Allen always called Atkins the first great pass rusher. “I was doing what I did best, teeing off on the quarterback,” Atkins told Football Digest.

Fran Tarkenton faced Atkins every year as a quarterback for the Vikings and Giants. According to Matt Schudel of the Washington Post, Tarkenton said of Atkins, “He is the strongest man in football, and also the biggest. When he rushes the passer with those oak-tree arms of his way up in the air, he’s 12-feet tall. And if he gets to you, the whole world starts spinning!”

Sacks didn’t become an official statistic until 1982, well after Atkins retired. Michael Strahan holds the single-season record with 22.5. Atkins estimated that he had as many as 25 in some seasons. And that was when the seasons were only 12 or 14 games long, and teams threw maybe 20 passes per game.

A native of Humbolt, Tennessee, Atkins arrived at the University of Tennessee on a basketball scholarship. It didn’t take General Robert Neyland long to realize his potential as a football player.

Good call, General. Atkins made All-SEC in ’51 and ’52, All-America in ’52, and led Tennessee to a three year record of 29-4-1.The Vols won the national championship in ’51. Atkins was so good that he was named the SEC Player of the Quarter Century for 1950-1974. He was the only player elected unanimously to that team.

Oh, yes. He also won the SEC high jump championship one year.

Drafted by the Browns in ’53, reports vary widely on his signing bonus. We do know that it included two cheeseburgers and eight beers.

After helping the Browns win the ’54 NFL title, Atkins was traded to the Bears. He replaced Ed Sprinkle, all 6-foot-1, 206 pounds of him. A bit of an upgrade that owner/coach George Halas always called one of the best trades he ever made.

Atkins made his reputation with the Bears, from ’55 through ’66. “We used to hope that somebody would hold him,” fullback Rick Casares said, according to Pierson.  “The next play you would see guys flying around like King Kong had gotten a hold of them.  Awesome!

“I’ve seen him grab a tackle by the shoulder pads and just flip him over like a doll, then come in on a back that weighed 225 pounds without breaking stride and hit him in the chest, knock him on his back, reach over, grab the quarterback by the shoulder pads, and throw him down with one arm!”

“He was just a vicious pass rusher,” teammate Mike Ditka told the associated press. “He played the game hard.  He played the game the way you were supposed to play it.”

“He looked like Michelangelo’s David physically, that’s what he looked like,” opposing center Bill Curry recalled for the Associated Press.  “Just huge. He was perfectly proportioned. He was symmetrical, but he was just so much bigger and stronger than any of the rest of us.”

For the most memorable description of Atkins, we go back to NFL Films. In a piece from 1983, narrator John Facenda (“the voice of God”) used his rich baritone to paint a vivid picture of Atkins: “Doug Atkins was like a storm blowing over a Kansas farmhouse. He came from all directions. All you could do was tie down what you could and hope he didn’t take the roof.”