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TSU Football: NFL greats and a family tradition

“I know where you’re going. You’re going to the Super Bowl.”

Claude Humphrey in his Tennessee State jersey. COURTESY OF TSU ATHLETICS

Claude Humphrey in his Tennessee State jersey. COURTESY OF TSU ATHLETICS

With those words, and in a moment for the highlight reels, Dick Vermeil embraces Claude Humphrey at the end of the 1980 NFC Championship, in which the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Dallas Cowboys. That clip was replayed on a big screen at the 2014 NFL Hall of Fame induction ceremonies during which Humphrey wore the gold blazer many thought he deserved 30 years ago.

Humphrey’s induction into the NFL Hall of Fame marked a milestone not only for the NFL but also for his immediate family and the greater Tennessee State University family. Humphrey is the second former TSU football player to make the NFL Hall of Fame in the last five years. Humphrey was inducted in 2014; former Chicago Bear Richard Dent was inducted in 2011.

“I think that one of the things that set my dad apart was that he loved the game. He’s often said that he would’ve played football for free,” said Cheyenne Humphrey-Robinson during her presentation of her father for enshrinement. She was her father’s No. 1 pick for the job; he needed no other recruit.

For Humphrey, love of the game, love of family, and love of alma mater have influenced his football career and his contribution to the greater community after he retired from the game. Humphrey credits the home team—his family, that is—for supporting his efforts for induction. He especially lauds the efforts of his late wife Sandra.

“Sandra was not only a wife and a mother; she was my biggest supporter, [including] so many years of not making the Hall of Fame—being a finalist four times—as hard as she worked and as much as we suffered after each time we didn’t make it.”

“I was with the girls in the summertime when I was off, but during football season, Sandra let me concentrate on football. It was a bittersweet experience for me to not have her there in Canton. That was her day.”

“Putting that gold jacket on my dad’s back made me realize what an extreme sacrifice he made providing some of our wants, but most importantly ensuring our needs were met,” Cheyenne said.  “I am so proud of him, and even prouder to be his daughter.”

Jim Marsalis in his Tennessee State jersey. PHOTO COURTESY TSU ATHLETICS

Jim Marsalis in his Tennessee State jersey. PHOTO COURTESY TSU ATHLETICS

Family pride and team pride have followed many former TSU football players. Altogether, 20 of them have played in Super Bowls – among them, Jim Marsalis, a teammate of Humphrey’s at Tennessee State who was inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2012. Humphrey launched his career as a first-round draft pick in 1968; Marsalis followed in 1969 as a first-rounder.

“We meshed, Jim and I. We complemented each other. [Coach] John Merritt made the calls and kept everything on the defensive side in order. It was a real thrill and the beginning of my relationships with defensive backs, and it grew from there.”

Humphrey and Marsalis played in the 1970 Pro Bowl; both were named rookie defensive player of the year. Humphrey is the all-time sack leader for the Atlanta Falcons; he finished his career at Philadelphia. Marsalis, a Kansas City Chief who finished his career at New Orleans, is known as the master of the “bump and run” defense strategy, which the NFL has since seriously curtailed.

“I was very quick,” said Marsalis. “The bump and run worked very well for me. Now you have to defend that way within the five-yard limit.”

“I went ahead of Jim in the NFL, and when I’d come back [to TSU to visit], we would talk about the NFL,” said Humphrey. “I told him, ‘You’re playing on a level that you’ll be a great player,’ and I wasn’t wrong. He got in and right away he excelled.”

Equipment management: Cheyenne, Claude, Claudia and Sandra Humphrey PHOTO COURTESY HUMPHREY FAMILY

Equipment management: Cheyenne, Claude, Claudia and Sandra Humphrey. PHOTO COURTESY HUMPHREY FAMILY

“It surprised me that it took 30 years to put Claude in the NFL Hall of Fame. I think he should’ve gone in earlier because they had to double-team him,” said Marsalis. Cheyenne echoed that assessment in her enshrinement introduction: “His philosophy was to get to the quarterback, but he knew some teams would double-team and even triple-team him, so he was going to punish them,” Cheyenne said.

“Claude used to tell me, ‘Jim, don’t worry about the run; you just play fast.’ So I tell kids now, ‘You don’t have to go to Notre Dame or Alabama to get drafted. You always play – you never know who’s in the stands who will send film to somebody who’ll send it to somebody else and you’ll catch their eye,’” said Marsalis. “When you come out of that dugout and hit the field, you play for it.” Marsalis, who became a banker after retiring from the NFL, coaches at Christian Brothers High School in Memphis and coached at Middle Georgia College, among other places.

For the past four years, Jalen Marsalis has played with the same focus his grandfather encourages in young players.  The wide receiver from Brentwood High is wearing a Northern Arizona University jersey this year, carrying his grandfather’s advice with him. “My grandfather said, ‘You have to work when everyone else isn’t to be great,’” said Jalen. Likewise, Humphrey acknowledges his grandson, Archie Robinson Jr., as part of the team that shares the everyday and extraordinary experiences of the Humphrey family.

He told the Associated Press that his induction was “a legacy for my only grandson. He gets a chance to learn a little something about his granddad. It’s something I don’t have to tell him. Other people can tell him. He won’t think I’m telling him a lie.”

Oakland Raiders Fred Biletnikoff (25) in action…and Kansas City Chiefs Jim Marsalis (40) during 4th quarter at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Oakland, CA, 12/12/1970. PHOTO BY GEORGE LONG, COURTESY SPORTS ILLUSTRATED/GETTY IMAGES

Jalen’s father, Romannie Marsalis, played wide receiver for Tennessee State. Romannie continues to play competitive flag football and has been part of a three-time national co-ed championship team. He coached the Brentwood Blaze youth football league from 1993-2004, including coaching Jalen for eight years.

“Our No. 1 rule was always ‘Play hard no matter what.’ It doesn’t matter if you win or lose,” said Romannie, “and Jalen was always a great team player. He understood at an early age that more was expected of him and no one was bigger than the team. He never shied away from competition, and he spent time learning the details of the game. He will be a great coach one day.”

Cheyenne Humphrey remembers being a part of her father’s off-season regimen, although the practice had more to do with family bonding than keeping the man, arguably an NFL quarterback’s most formidable foe, ready to establish sack records.

“My dad would bench press us. He would lie down on the floor and we would lie across him in his hands. He would do push-ups with my sister and me,” Cheyenne said. Later, when Humphrey left Atlanta with middle daughter Claudia, a 17-year-old attending college there, he decided to bring her “home” to Tennessee State, with adequate money to survive a semester and the inspiration he received in Hale Stadium, where, as Marsalis said, being a Tiger football player meant “we’re a team; we’re a family.”

Claudia agrees that the Humphrey family sisters—Cheyenne, Cherokee and she—were like players holding different positions on a team: “We’re all individuals. Dad raised us based on our strengths and weaknesses. He’s taught us lessons, but he hasn’t been an enabler. He doesn’t say a lot, but when he does, there’s always a lesson behind it. When he’s compelled to share his opinion, I listen.”

Claude Humphrey was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014. PHOTO COURTESY TSU ATHLETICS

“It’s such a tremendous thing to have raised three daughters [who] have respect for themselves; Sandra made sure of that,” Humphrey said. Similarly, Marsalis tries to instill in his family and players that even with hard work on the field and other endeavors, “sometimes we fumble, but we have to pick up and keep going.”

Another lesson passed down from Marsalis to Marsalis is “education first.”

“My parents always stressed the importance of getting an education,” Romannie said. “They taught me to use football and not let football use me. I knew I would be a pro at something other than football, so I made sure I didn’t squander a free education.”

“My plan has always been to play college football, and I think NAU gives me a great opportunity to do that – and, academically NAU offers my major, environmental engineering,” Jalen said. “The values of education and football instilled in me definitely affected my decision to go to NAU.”

Humphrey said, “Every day I look at my girls. All of them are different and have all my attributes [in combination]. I’m so proud of how they get out there with the right attitude about their jobs and everything they do.”

Similarly, Humphrey recalls the training he received from John Merritt and his other coaches at Tennessee State. He said, “The kind of coaching [we] received was a combination of attitude, athleticism and the ability to grasp information.” Further, he said TSU afforded “a family structure.”

“When Jim and I were at TSU, the faculty and students were behind us. They made sure that not only were we students, but they also made sure they gave us the love we needed so we could go out and do what we did.”