ATHENS – It was a hot and steamy day in August when I called Charley Trippi’s house. I was concerned. My objective was to reach out to the man many believe to be the greatest athlete to have ever worn a Georgia football uniform – bar none — and ask him for an interview. But Charley Trippi is 95 years old.
Not many people live to be 95 years old. Only about 1.5 percent of the male population in the U.S., according to the latest Federal study, in fact. So I wasn’t sure how I might find Mr. Trippi when I set out to provide an update to his fascinating story.
Trippi’s lovely wife, Peggy, answered the phone. They live on Riverhill Court in the Beechwood section of Athens in the same house that Trippi built with his NFL money in 1960. Peggy Trippi informed me that her husband couldn’t come to the phone at the moment.
He was outside raking the yard.
“He still does most of the yard work,” Peggy said. “He does whatever he can.”
So, yes, Charley Trippi is special. Then again, everybody in the Bulldog Nation already knew that. Those who have been around long enough to have seen him in action or to have heard about him insist he’s the greatest athlete ever to wear the Red and Black. That includes a certain Heisman Trophy winner who wore the number 34 in the 1980s.
Of course, times were different when Trippi played for the Bulldogs. Very different.
For instance, though he played halfback and quarterback at UGA, he wore the number 62 for the Bulldogs.
“I had no option,” Trippi explained. “They just threw a jersey at me and it happened to be number 62. I don’t know what they thought but I was just glad to get anything.”
Coca-Cola to Canton
Trippi came from humble beginnings. He hails from Pittston, Penn., where his father was a miner, like everybody else who lived in that region.
They also played some great football up in that area, and Trippi distinguished himself as an exceptional player early on in high school. But he weighed only 160 pounds and wasn’t greatly pursued by the Northeast powers of the day in recruiting.
But there was one man in particular who took great interest in Trippi and would change his life forever. He was “a Coca-Cola man” and a UGA alumnus by the name of Harold “War Eagle” Ketron.
“Mr. Ketron took an interest in me and kind of edged me toward Georgia,” Trippi said. “He got me a job delivering Coca-Cola. Had my own truck and route and everything. He made life quite comfortable for me.”
That relationship – perfectly legal in those days — led to Trippi sign with the Georgia Bulldogs. He spent a fall playing prep ball at Lasalle, then left for UGA having never met the man who would be his coach, Wally Butts.
“It was a great opportunity,” Trippi said. “I told my dad when I left I wouldn’t come back. It took me two days on a bus to get down there. I came here to play ball, but I liked it so much I never left.”
From 1941 until now, Athens has been Trippi’s home. And for that, the Georgia Bulldogs are very grateful.
At Georgia, he would join forces with the great Frank Sinkwich, who won the Heisman Trophy and led the Bulldogs to their first national championship in 1942. Sinkwich played fullback and Trippi halfback on that team, which went 11-1 and defeated UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
Trippi calls that trip to California and that bowl experience his fondest memory of his time at UGA.
UGA 1942 national champions
“That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Trippi said. “It took us three days on a train to get there. … When we came back the train station was loaded with people waiting for us to arrive. They appreciated what we did.”
Like most of his day, Trippi’s college career was interrupted by World War II. He returned to Georgia in the middle of the 1945 season, then piloted Butts’ new-fangled T formation offense to an undefeated 1946 season and win over North Carolina in Sugar Bowl.
The Bulldogs trailed the Tar Heels and star player Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice 10-0 at halftime of that game. That’s when Trippi asked the coaches to leave the locker room and delivered a fiery speech in which he told his teammates, “anybody who doesn’t think we’re going to win just take off your damned uniform and leave.”
Trippi was actually drafted by the NFL in 1945 when he was still at Georgia as his age made him eligible. He went No. 1 to the Chicago Cardinals, but before joining them in 1947, he agreed to play pro baseball for Atlanta Crackers. He hit .343 while playing 106 games before packed houses. That led to multiple contract offers from Major League Baseball teams, including the Red Sox and Yankees.
But Trippi chose to stick with football, and the Cardinals made it worth his while. He signed an unprecedented four-year contract worth $100,000 with a $25,000 signing bonus. He became part of the Cardinals “Million Dollar Backfield” and led his team to the 1947 NFL championship.
After a stellar but physically punishing NFL career, Trippi retired in 1955. His 6,053 career yards of total offense was the most in NFL history at the time. He’d go on to work for a while as an assistant coach for the Cardinals and would enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968.
All the while, Trippi never left Athens. It always remained his home base, and that’s where he met Peggy. She is his second wife. Virginia, his first wife and mother of his three children, died in 1971 after a long illness. Trippi dated Peggy six years before getting married in 1978. They’ll celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in February.
“I lived on the other side of town from where I worked at my parents’ five-and-dime store, and he owned a liquor store in Beechwood that was right in between,” Peggy says with a laugh. “That’s how we met. He was just a regular guy. He’d been through a lot with his wife’s illness and all and he just wanted to have some fun.”
They’ve made quite a life for themselves there in Beechwood, which at the time was considered the outskirts of Athens.
“As the years went by, people kept building out here,” Trippi said, sitting in his favorite chair in his brightly-lit living room. “They got closer and closer. But I was one of the few for a while.”
First and foremost a Bulldog
Trippi flourished as an Athens businessman, with numerous successful retail and real estate ventures. He and Peggy raised six children, three each from their previous marriages.
And they stay very busy. Trippi is also a member of the College Football Halls of Fame, and he makes a point to attend whatever events he can. He also still takes in Georgia games regularly. When the Bulldogs played Samford at Sanford Stadium in Week 1 of this season, UGA proclaimed it “Charley Trippi Day.” A video feature was shown on the jumbotron and Trippi received a standing ovation when he and Peggy were introduced as they stood on the field.
Through it all, Trippi says he has been first and foremost a Bulldog. And he’d like to see his team win another national championship. There’s only been one other since Trippi’s team tracked that one down way out in California in ’42.
Is he surprised by that?
“Yes,” Trippi said without hesitation. “Back then they didn’t emphasize football as much as they do nowadays. It’s gotten to be big time money-wise. It costs a lot of money to have a football program nowadays.”
But, Trippi emphasized, you still have to have the best players. And that’s where he believes Kirby Smart is doing his best work as Georgia’s latest football coach.
“Kirby’s a good coach, but whatever Kirby does it all relates back to the personnel,” Trippi said. “You can be the best coach in the world but if you don’t have the personnel to execute, you’re ordinary.”
There certainly was nothing ordinary about Charles Louis Trippi, the only man in the Pro Football Hall of Fame to have at least 1,000 yards rushing, passing and receiving.
Few will argue that he and Walker are the best two players to have ever played for the Bulldogs.
Trippi saw Walker play. What’s he think?
“Ah, that’s a matter of opinion,” he said. “Herschel was a great football player. It’s fortunate for Georgia we both came here.”
No argument there.