By MASON CLARK
I want to give one Pulaski County football legend, perhaps the most accomplished football player/coach in the history of our county, some due recognition. But today, his story, and even his name, is widely forgotten.
His name was Charlie Sumner. Sumner, who graduated in the spring of 1950, had been a do-it-all player for Dublin High School, and was the biggest reason why they were able to win 15 games the last two seasons mentioned.
After his time in the blue uniforms of Dublin High, Sumner took his talents to Williamsburg, where he would play for the William & Mary Indians (later changed to Tribe). From 1950 to 1953, Sumner was a jack-of-all-trades for the Indians and ended up being a standout quarterback.
He led the Southern Conference in total offense two times and was the best player on a team that beat notable teams such as Pennsylvania (Penn, nationally ranked at the time) and N.C. State.
He was selected by the Chicago Bears in the 1954 NFL Draft. He started as a rookie, and led the team with 7 interceptions, which he returned for 162 yards, a staggering average of 23 yards despite playing in just 10 of the 12 games. He was named the Bears Rookie of the Year after the season. He also got to play for legendary coach George Halas. If you’ve ever noticed the “GSH” on the side of the Bears’ jerseys, it is his initials.
After serving in the military for two years, he returned to the Bears in 1958 and again led the team interceptions with 6. He also recovered two fumbles and led the NFL in fumble return yards with 101 of them and a touchdown off one of them.
After four seasons in Chicago, he headed to Minnesota to play for the Vikings. He played there for two years, before he decided to hang up the cleats for a final time.
He finished his NFL career having played in 73 games (keep in mind they only played twelve games a season back then), and intercepted 21 passes for 303 return yards, 8 fumble recoveries for 130 yards and a touchdown. He had a solid career and made his small town proud.
But this turned out to be just the beginning.
Shortly after retiring, he got a call from Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders. Before long, Sumner found himself roaming the sidelines, something he didn’t know much about doing. But that was because he was now a coach.
Davis, who is an infamous character in football history known for his antics, ego, personality, and building what many commonly refer to as the “Badasses” in the Raiders teams he had, offered Sumner a job to coach defensive backs for him, and Sumner took the job.
He stayed there for six seasons, until the end of the 1968 season, when he went to the Pittsburgh Steelers to coach defensive backs there. Sumner had joined a very bad team, going 1-13 that season. He came in the same year that legendary coach Chuck Noll came in, who would go on to lead Pittsburgh to four super bowls.
The first season for Sumner in Pittsburgh was also the first season for superstars “Mean” Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood, as the rookies were at the start of legendary NFL careers. Sumner would stay with the team until after the 1972 season and played a huge role in building the “Steel Curtain” defenses. He helped build perhaps the greatest NFL dynasty ever.
In the spring of 1970, he must have been a happy man when his team selected Mel Blount in the third round of the draft. He would go on to a Hall of Fame career and would be coached by Sumner. Terry Bradshaw was also selected that year in the draft. They improved to 5-9. Then in 1971 they again got up, this time to 6-8, with Jack Ham being drafted by Pittsburgh in 1971. And then in 1972, his last season, Sumner saw a lot.
First, he saw his team make another wise draft choice, choosing future Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris. Sumner helped coach the defense to an elite season and an outstanding 11-3 finish, and for the first time for him, a playoff appearance.
His opponent in his first playoff game, as fate would have it, would come against his former team in the Oakland Raiders. And boy was he in for a day.
That day, in frigid Pittsburgh, the most legendary, infamous, and controversial play in NFL history took place. With seconds remaining, Sumner must have been thinking it was over when his team trailed 7-6, and after having little to no offense that whole afternoon, it sure didn’t look good.
But then the impossible, or “immaculate” reception happened.
Star quarterback Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass. He fired down the middle of the field while getting clobbered by relentless Raider defenders. He threw to John Fuqua, but he was speared by a Raider defensive back. But against all odds, the ball bounced of one of or both Fuqua and the Raider defender (that remains hotly debated to this day). But Franco Harris somehow caught the ball just off the surface at Three Rivers Stadium (also hotly debated) and took it to the end zone to give the Steelers the improbable and unbelievable win.
A man who grew up in our little town of Dublin and played on Soldiers Field was now coaching in the NFL and was right in front of the game’s most famous play when it took place.
I can only imagine what Sumner was thinking on that chilly afternoon.
In 1973, he got his first shot as a defensive coordinator, returning to the Oakland Raiders where he got his first shot as a defensive coordinator. Much like his time in Pittsburgh, he was joining a bad team. This team was the New England Patriots. But just a few years after his arrival, he had built the Patriots into a top ten defense and played a huge role in taking them from a doormat to an 11-3 record. His final three years there, his teams went a combined 31-13 and went to the playoffs twice. While that must have been cool to build the Patriots, I can’t help but to think he also had some “late night thoughts” as he watched the Pittsburgh Steelers rack up four Super Bowl rings in six years.
Sumner would then depart from New England to return to the Golden State to coach the Raiders again, this time getting the gig as defensive coordinator. In his second year as defensive coordinator, the Raiders jumped from 18th in total defense to tenth and made the playoffs at 11-5. They beat the Houston Oilers, Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers, and for the second time with the “silver and black,” Sumner found himself coaching on the sport’s biggest stage. He hoped that this time, however, he would find himself holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy. If that were to happen, his team would have to take down the Philadelphia Eagles.
His defense harassed Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski. The Raiders’ offense did plenty enough, and the silver and black conquered the NFL again, beating the Eagles in the New Orleans Superdome, 27-10. Sumner had won his first Super Bowl ring and had reached the game’s biggest stage. Sumner had done it. He had gone from the small town of Dublin to a Super Bowl champion.
A rough 1981 season came, but the Raiders got back into the thick of things with an 8-1 strike-shortened season in 1982. Sumner’s defense did okay, but they fell to the New York Jets in the divisional round.
But 1983 was “the year” for the silver and black. They went 12-4, and easily made the playoffs. They beat the Steelers and the Seahawks, and they headed to the Super Bowl again. Their opponent was the mighty Washington Redskins. The ‘Skins were 14-2, had set an NFL record for points in a single season, and were thought to be unstoppable. Sumner and his guys thought otherwise.
With Sumner’s defensive mind, the Raiders shocked the football world. They dominated the Redskins’ record-setting offense, holding them to a mere nine points. It is widely considered one of the greatest defensive performances in Super Bowl history, and paired with Marcus Allen’s heroics, the Raiders won another Super Bowl, 38-9. Sumner now had multiple Super Bowl rings. Only a remote few can say that.
After another year as the DC in Oakland, he got his first head coaching opportunity. It was not the NFL, but it was professional football. The year was 1985, and the U.S.F.L. was up and running, and gaining popularity.
Sumner was called upon to try to get the Oakland Invaders to compete. Competing was not something the Invaders had done all that well, as they went 9-9 in 1983 and 7-11 in 1984. The franchise trusted Sumner to change that.
He did. The Invaders looked like a totally different team, going 13-4-1. In the playoffs, they took down the Tampa Bay Bandits and then the Memphis Showboats, and suddenly, Sumner had his squad playing for all the marbles in the USFL championship game, against the favored juggernaut, the Philadelphia Stars.
The Invaders left it all on the field, but they came up just short, 28-24, and Sumner was just short of his third ring.
Shortly after this, Sumner decided to end his coaching career, and ended up in the beautiful scenery of Maui, Hawai’i. Here, he enjoyed his retirement.
Charlie passed away in Maui on April 6th, 2015, at the age of 84 years old. Though his career as a football player began back in the mid-40’s and ended about 30 years ago, that doesn’t change his outstanding career accomplishments. Time has impacted his legacy, as many don’t know who he is. Hopefully this changes that.