By Budd Bailey, Buffalo Sports Page Columnist
There haven’t been many – if any – better all-around athletes to come out of Western New York than Chuck Crist. He was the most valuable player in four different sports as a senior at Salamanca High School. Crist played basketball at Penn State, and then signed with the New York Giants of the NFL and played pro ball for seven seasons. After retirement, he won the club championship in golf at Holiday Valley six times.
That’s why he’s one of the new inductees of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. He had the chance to review his athletic career during a news conference on Wednesday at the KeyBank Center. Portions of this interview have been slightly edited for clarity.
Buffalo Sports Page: I looked over your glittering athletic resume and I wondered, was there something that you couldn’t do? Were you a bad swimmer, just to give people like me a little hope?
Chuck Crist: I couldn’t float. When I was a Penn State, you had to learn how to swim. I knew how to swim. I was a lifeguard in my high school days. We had all the football players in the same class. They took us up on the three-meter board. We’d jump in, close our eyes, and hold our breath. I looked around, and there were 20 football players and two basketball players, and none of us could float.
The only thing I really wasn’t good at was ice skating.
BSP: You obviously played a lot of different sports as a kid, and loved it.
Crist: Small town. It’s the only neighborhood thing – east side, west side, north side, south side. We all had enough athletes so that in the summertime we played baseball. In the fall we played football. In the winter, we played basketball. In the spring it was track and some more baseball. We had a bunch of good kids that didn’t have a whole lot to do. The best thing about growing up was that my mom and dad lived in a house that was my grandfather’s at one time. We had an old barn. So my dad painted a basketball court on the wood. The only bad thing about it was that we lost more basketballs to the nails coming out of the wall. We got to play in the winter time, even though it was cold and the ball wouldn’t bounce very well.
We had a lot of good mentors, some good men who spent time with us in any sport. That was the key.
BSP: Do you look at the high school kids of today who specialize in one sport, and think they are missing something?
Crist: I don’t believe in it at all. I understand it from a viewpoint of parents. My niece has a 14-year old son who is 6-2, 180 pounds. He’s a quarterback down South. Clemson has already talked to him. That was the nice thing about small town life. My oldest grandson is playing golf in college. When he was growing up, he played baseball, lacrosse. He was fast, so he ran track. He played golf.
My son’s oldest is practicing for the state meet in the pentathlon. He got it early. He said, I want to do it all. I may not be good at some things, but I want to be part of a team. He was quarterback on the football team, and the leading scorer on the basketball team. Now he’s going to states in track.
BSP: If he had gone to a place like, say, Lancaster, there would be enough bodies for all the teams. But in small town America, you need kids like that to fill out the rosters.
Crist: Right, and you have to have an understanding with the coaches if you are going to do all those sports. When I was in high school, we only played 13 games in the spring. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we played baseball. On Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, we ran track. They made sure my schedule was free in the afternoons from 1:30 to 3 so that I could practice, and then I’d go play different sports.
BSP: Being good at sports in Salamanca is one thing. Was there a moment where you said to yourself, “I’m not just good in my little town. I can play with practically anybody”?
Crist: I always felt I could do that. Again, fortunately, I had mentors and coaches that knew what the hell they were doing. In basketball, for example, I only played half the season my freshman year because I wasn’t old enough. I was only 13, and you had to be 14 to play. I was a sub for the first game, and I started the rest of the season.
It may sound a little egotistical. When I was a freshman in high school, I was only 5 feet tall. I always had to compete in the big man’s world. Therefore I had to do some different things to compete with the bigger guys. I taught myself how to bat left-handed, because I was pretty quick. I’d slap it and run to first base. I had a lot of confidence in myself.
When I was an eighth-grader, I was 4-foot-10. Three kids from that class went to D-1 schools – Boston College, Villanova and Penn State. I was asked as a freshman what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said I wanted to be a professional athlete. As a sophomore, I grew a little bit, and I was asked what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to be a professional athlete. By my senior year, I was maybe 6 feet tall, 160 pounds. When I came back after my freshman year in college, they asked me the question again. Now I was 6-2 and 220, and they stopped laughing. It grew as I grew, and I always had the support of my family and friends.
BSP: I’d bet you carried that confidence to Penn State, a big-time college program and a long way from Salamanca.
Crist: My only disappointing story from Penn State was that a friend of mine, a football coach named John Bock, used to play basketball together all the time at a local high school. They had a senior there named Barry Parkhill. Barry played with us all the time. We went to the coach and said, “You’ve got to recruit him.” The coach said he was kind of a tweener, a local kid so there’d be too much pressure on him. So Barry goes to Virginia and he’s an ACC Player of the Year (1972) and a three-time all-ACC player.
BSP: I’ve heard the story that you didn’t want to switch football positions from quarterback to defensive back when you got to Penn State, and moved over to basketball. How did that come about?
Crist: I never got on to the football field. I only watched two football games while I was there. I was a pretty confident, brash young kid. One of the reasons I chose Penn State was that they were going to give me the opportunity to play both sports, and then make a decision. They wanted me to be a defensive back first thing, and I said, that’s not the agreement. So I got up, shook Joe Paterno’s hand, said “Thank you very much,” and left the team. I came back with the rest of the student body that fall.
The nice thing about it is that they never pressured me. I was a phys ed major, and I had a lot of the coaches as teachers. They joked about it, but they were really good. At the end, two of them were responsible for getting me a tryout in the NFL.
BSP: How did that come about?
Crist: The two football coaches said, even though you haven’t played, you’ve still got a nose for the ball. We still think, maybe (you can play in the pros). If we can get you a tryout, would you take it? I said sure. Coach Bock heard that, and he said to me, there’s some scuttlebutt about you trying to play football. I said, what do I have to lose? He made a phone call. His close friend at Fordham was Wellington Mara, whose son John now owns part of the Giants. John was the basketball manager. He called Wellington, and they flew me to New York. Coach Jim Garrett worked me out, and said, “Not bad. But pretty slow, though. What do you weigh?” I said 225, and Jim said, “OK, we’re good.” We sat in Yankee Stadium and just talked for a while.
In the fourth or fifth week of training camp, I went in to Emlen Tunnell, the defensive backs coach. I said, “I have a job waiting for me. What do you think?” He said, “To be honest with you, you don’t have a chance. But I’ve been around this game for a long time. Some funny things have happened.” Sure enough, they traded two guys, two other guys got hurt, and two more got cut.
First game of the season in my rookie year, all I was planning on doing was running down the field on special teams. Fifth play of the game, Spider Lockhart separates his shoulder, and Jim Garrett says, “You’re in.” I knew I was in trouble, and he said, “Just get deep and don’t let anyone get behind you.” That was a hell of an experience. I don’t think I remember more than one or two plays from that entire game.
BSP: You broke in with the Giants in 1972, so you just missed playing with Fran Tarkenton.
Crist: They traded him to the Vikings for Norm Snead and Bob Grim. When I got to training camp, we were all at the airport in Newark. In comes Norm Snead, and I told him I had been watching him since I was seven years old – which was a dumb statement to make. I said, “Mr. Snead, can I have your autograph?” Then we all got on a bus, and he said to me, “What are you doing on the bus? I said, “I’m one of the new players.” He answered, “And you told me you’ve been watching me since you were seven years old.” Really nice guy.
BSP: I’d bet in that circumstance, you enjoyed every single day that you played in the NFL.
Crist: Yeah, the first year was so quick. When I got released by the Giants, I got picked up by New Orleans. That was a coup for me. I walked in and had the chance to impress the coaches there. Hank Stram was there. I got to play a lot, and I was the defensive MVP one year. It was another world down there.
BSP: You must have the perspective now to look back at the NFL of that era, and see how so much has changed.
Crist: Yes. They talk about the concussions and things. I was knocked out five times in my rookie year. They had those old suspension helmets. I remember coming to the sidelines after a hit. They’d give me the smelling salts and say, “How many fingers?” I’d say two, and they’d say, “Close enough – get in there.”
It was a tremendous experience. I was a huge AFL fan, growing up and following the Bills. Cleveland was good too. We used to see them on TV a lot. All the kids after the game, we’d get together and play. One guy would be Jim Brown, and I was always Dr. Frank Ryan (the Browns quarterback).
BSP: After you left football, what did you do with your life?
Crist: I wound up raising my children. My wife was in the real estate business and was very supportive. My son was 8 and my daughter was 5. Summertime, she’d tell me to take the kids up to the golf course. We’d swim a lot, play some golf. It was a nice lifestyle. I was in the insurance business for a couple of years. But it wasn’t me. I went into teaching and coaching, and that was my niche. I had a chance to teach my kids. They went to college on golf scholarships. Then I had the opportunity to be an assistant coach in football and basketball at Alfred. It was a great experience. I love being around kids, and the games.
BSP: Finally, what’s it mean to you to be selected for the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame, and to be remembered with Kelly and Perreault and those types of athletes?
Crist: I said to my grandson when we over by the trophy (with all of the inductees on it), “Take a look at those names.” He said, “Wow, and you’re going to be included in a couple of months.” It’s a terrific honor for me and my family. My son was just inducted into the Cattaraugus County Hall of Fame.
It’s been a whirlwind. I actually went in a restaurant Tuesday night. Somebody had the read the article (about Wednesday’s announcement), and the whole place stood up and applauded. It’s quite an experience. I’m humbled.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)