Charlie Powell sacked Detroit Lions quarterback Bobby Layne 10 times in one NFL game and fought Muhammad Ali and Floyd Patterson near their time as heavyweight boxing champions.
After leaving San Diego High School as the most decorated athlete ever to play in the city, Powell rejected a tryout invitation from the Harlem Globetrotters and football scholarship offers from Notre Dame and the University of California, Los Angeles, then walked away after one minor league baseball season upon realizing his sporting riches would be elsewhere.
Powell, 82, of Altadena, Calif., died Monday in San Diego, two days after being hospitalized for dehydration while attending a family reunion with his wife of 60 years, Erma.
“You talk to anyone who saw him, and they’ll tell you he was one of the best athletes they’d ever seen,” his brother Art Powell, a former NFL receiver-defensive back, said Tuesday from his home in Orange County, Calif.
Born April 4, 1932, in Texas, Charlie Powell debuted as a San Francisco 49ers defensive end in 1952 — the youngest NFL player in history at that point — and played with the team through 1957 before closing his career as an Oakland Raider in 1960-61.
“While everyone else went to their other off-season jobs, Charlie would box,” Art Powell said.
In one of his bouts, at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, veteran promoter and matchmaker Don Chargin recalls seeing legendary quarterback Y.A. Tittle in Powell’s corner.
“First time I heard of him, they told me to come to (Los Angeles’ famed) Main Street Gym one day to see this guy, and I’ll never forget it … he hadn’t fought as a pro yet, but was holding his own against a rated heavyweight,” Chargin said. “Such a great athlete … you couldn’t believe how good he looked.”
Powell made his pro debut as a boxer in 1953, and by March 4, 1959, he knocked out second-ranked heavyweight challenger Nino Valdes in Miami.
Trained by ex-middleweight champion William “Gorilla” Jones and managed by successful L.A. businessman Suey Welch, Powell rose as high as No. 4 in the Ring magazine heavyweight rankings.
“He was a serious fighter, and if the people handled him right, he might’ve been a champion,” Art Powell said. “In boxing, it’s about knowing the fights to make — and not make. You shouldn’t pick your opponent until you get to the place you want. And you need good sparring partners. I always felt they cut him short on those things.”
Said Chargin: “Instead of going easy on him, he fought too many tough guys early on. … But I could see why they’d get oversold on him.”
Powell finished 25-11-3 with 17 knockouts. He suffered a third-round knockout loss to Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, on Jan. 24, 1963, in Pittsburgh — two fights before Clay beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. On Dec. 12, 1964, Powell was stopped by Floyd Patterson in Puerto Rico, two fights after Patterson lost his belt to Liston.
Beyond difficult weight cuts, Powell later told the Los Angeles Times’ Earl Gustkey in a 2000 interview that alternating sports compromised his boxing career.
“A lot of people told me I was making a mistake playing in the NFL, and they were right in the sense you don’t need the same muscles in boxing you use in football,” Powell said. “I believe I could have been champion if I’d stuck to it. … I had a lot of hand injuries too, and that slowed me down.”
Years later, working in the automotive business and with an NFL alumni group, Powell reflected in an interview with Times sports columnist Jim Murray on his run as a 12-time varsity lettermen in high school (football, basketball, baseball and track) and his unique boxing-NFL work that trumped later failed boxing efforts by NFL players Ed “Too Tall” Jones and Mark Gastineau.
“When the conversation veers around to all-around athletes, it gets to Charlie Powell in a hurry,” Murray wrote in 1998. “There’s Jim Thorpe, Jackie Robinson, and, well, how about Charlie Powell?
“ … Charlie needed two careers. He shakes his head when he contemplates the salaries commanded by today’s athletes. ‘What bothers me is, they can’t take care of themselves,’ he frowns. ‘They throw it all away.’”
Art Powell said his brother suffered from dementia that probably was a result of both careers but didn’t join the recent class-action lawsuits against the NFL.
“He was losing his short-term memory, but the long-term stuff … he had that,” Art Powell said.
Besides his wife and his brother, Powell’s survivors include brothers Jerry and Ellsworth.