NEW YORK — Even at a time of joy and celebration, there is sadness. Even when he is laughing and smiling, there are tears.
After 28 years of waiting, Claude Humphrey finally is where he belongs, finally is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But the love of his life wasn’t there with him on Saturday night when he got the news, and she won’t be there with him in July when they unveil his bronze bust in Canton, Ohio.
Sandra Humphrey, Claude’s wife for more than 45 years, passed away in July. She was there to console her husband the four times he was a finalist but didn’t get in. She wasn’t there Saturday when his name finally was called.
“She was my biggest PR person,” the former Philadelphia Eagles defensive end said. “I finally made it and I won’t have her with me to enjoy such a spectacular honor.
“She was my life. She was the one who rubbed me when I came in after those guys were double-teaming me. She stood by me and did the things that made the game simple for me.
“All I had to do was play football. She took care of everything else. It’s a sad experience for me to be going in and not have her by my side.”
Humphrey is one of seven members of the Hall of Fame class of 2014. He is joined by the other senior nominee, punter Ray Guy, and five modern-era players — wide receiver Andre Reed, offensive tackle Walter Jones, defensive end Michael Strahan, defensive back Aeneas Williams and linebacker Derrick Brooks. Brooks and Jones went in in their first year of eligibility.
Former Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who was one of the 15 modern-era finalists, survived the reduction vote of the 46 selectors from 15 to 10, but didn’t make it from 10 to 5.
Humphrey, who was one of the best pass-rushers of his generation, is the first member of the Eagles’ 1980 Super Bowl team to make it to Canton. He had been a modern-era finalist in 2003, 2005 and 2006, and a senior finalist in 2009.
“It’s been a long time,” said the 69-year-old Humphrey, who has battled health issues, including diabetes and cancer, which took one of his kidneys. “Thirty-some-odd years. I appreciated every day that I went out and played in the National Football League. I enjoyed it. It was a great time.”
Humphrey said he never gave up hope that he would someday make the Hall of Fame.
“I always figured there was a place for me here,” he said. “It took a long time and there was a lot of disappointment, getting nominated so many times and getting to the finals and missing.
“But getting in is such a great experience. I’ll tell you what, it’s hard to explain.”
Humphrey isn’t sure who will present him at the July induction ceremony in Canton, but said he is leaning toward his oldest daughter. “She’s going to have to refuse it, then I’m going to have to go looking,” he said.
Humphrey was selected by the Atlanta Falcons with the third overall pick in the 1968 draft. Spent 10 seasons with the Falcons. Established himself as one of the game’s best defensive ends. But the Falcons weren’t very good. They had just two winning seasons during those 10 years and never made the playoffs.
Finally, four games into the ’78 season, Humphrey got tired enough of the losing to quit. Sat out the rest of that season which, ironically enough, saw the Falcons finally make the playoffs.
That offseason, Humphrey got a call from Eagles defensive coordinator Marion Campbell. Campbell, who had coached Humphrey in Atlanta, asked him if he’d be interested in spending the twilight years of his career in Philadelphia. Humphrey jumped at the chance to play for Campbell and Dick Vermeil. Vermeil and Eagles personnel man Carl Peterson traded a pair of fourth-round picks to the Falcons for Humphrey.
Quarterback sacks didn’t become an official NFL stat until ’82. But in his first season with the Eagles in ’79, Humphrey had 10 sacks for a team that won 11 games and made the playoffs. A year later, at the age of 36, he had 14 1/2 sacks as the Eagles made it to the Super Bowl. He retired after the ’81 season.
“It was a tremendous experience,” Humphrey said of his three seasons with the Eagles. “I got a chance to reunite with Marion. I was looking for someplace to be where they had an offense, so I could go out and get some sacks at the end of the game.
“Playing in Atlanta was really hard on me because at the end of the game, all the other team had to do was run out the clock. We were always trailing. To be in Philadelphia and have that be the other way around and just be able to go get the quarterback was a great feeling.
“Plus, the people in Philadelphia were so great. I played against the Minnesota Vikings in Atlanta and I scored the winning touchdown against them. We had a guy that punted and didn’t miss a punt. We had a guy that ran and didn’t fumble. They got game balls, and guess who didn’t get one? I didn’t get one.
“When I got to Philadelphia, the first game we played was against the Vikings. I went out and got three sacks and I was all over the place, man. My picture was on the front page of the Daily News. I sent it home to my mama and said, ‘Look, I’m on the front page of the sports section. That’s never happened to me before. I’m loving this.’ ”
Peterson still remembers negotiating Humphrey’s contract after he was traded to the Eagles.
“We got it done and then Claude tells me that the Falcons always provided a car for him, a new car every year. He said he’d like the same thing he had in Atlanta,” Peterson said. “I told him, ‘Well, we have a deal with a Ford dealership in Philly. What kind of car did they give you in Atlanta?’ He said they gave him a Jaguar. I said, ‘I don’t think we’re going to be able to get you that here.’
“Every time I saw him, he’d say, ‘Boy, you’re not giving me the car I had in Atlanta.’ But believe me, he played well enough for us in those 3 years to earn a dozen Jaguars.”
The truth is, Humphrey should’ve been in the Hall of Fame a long, long time ago. Playing most of his career for a perennial loser like the Falcons hurt him.
Deacon Jones of the Rams’ famed Fearsome Foursome made the Hall of Fame in 1980 in his first year of eligibility. Vermeil was a coach on the Rams’ staff when Jones played there. He said Humphrey was “a bigger, stronger Deacon Jones.”
Said Vermeil: “Claude maybe didn’t have the top-end chase speed, but he had everything else. Everything else.
“His speed, his explosiveness, his power and his temperament. He had those long arms. He had no shortcomings.”
Humphrey was a master of the head slap, which finally was outlawed in 1977. It’s referred to as “the Deacon Jones rule” even though Jones had been retired for 3 years when they outlawed it.
“Well, they might’ve named it after Deacon, but it ended with me,” Humphrey said. “I think they were trying to slow me down, but it didn’t work.”
No, it didn’t.
Humphrey didn’t take plays off. He didn’t pace himself. First play to last, he played at one speed.
“People that played against Claude prepared because they knew they were playing against somebody really special,” Vermeil said. “And they knew it was going to be like that the entire game. Not just once in a while, or not just on third down. It was going to be on every down. He was an every-down player.”
Former Eagles linebacker John Bunting, who played with Humphrey, said, “That guy was a vicious upfield rusher before you really heard about those guys. Deacon Jones certainly was a great upfield rusher. But Claude was a classic upfield, around-the-edge, get-to-the-quarterback, slap-the-ball out player.
“And he primarily did it from the left side, which is a little bit unusual for a guy to be that good of a pass rusher off the left side. He had that Derrick Thomas first step. That quick twitch.”
Peterson, who would later draft Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas when he was the general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs, said Humphrey had the same great edge-rushing ability as Thomas.
“He was a big, strong man,” Peterson said. “Once he got underneath the shoulder (of the offensive tackle), it was over. Like Derrick, he had that great ability to contort his body and drop down so low and get underneath that guy. At that point, the tackle has lost all leverage.”