Charlie Powell, NFL player and heavyweight contender, dies at 82

Charlie Powell, who signed with the 49ers when he was 19 and played seven seasons in the NFL between stints as a pro baseball player and a heavyweight prizefighter, has died at the age of 82.

U-T San Diego reports that Powell died on Monday and had been suffering from dementia for years.

Powell’s list of athletic accomplishments reads like it must be fiction: He was such a good multi-sport athlete in high school that he had contract offers to play baseball with the St. Louis Browns and basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters, he had football scholarship offers from Notre Dame and UCLA, and he was a champion in both the 100-yard dash and the shot put. At first he went the baseball route, but after becoming bored in the minors, he decided to become the NFL’s youngest player.

“I didn’t like baseball as much as I thought I would,” said Powell. “But because I was already a professional, I could sign with an NFL team without going to college.”

That turned out to be a wise move. Powell was so ferocious a pass rusher for the 49ers that he was once, before sacks were officially counted in the NFL, credited with sacking Hall of Fame Lions quarterback Bobby Layne so many times in one game that Powell alone backed the Lions up a total of 67 yards. Powell would play five seasons for the 49ers and two more for the Raiders.

But football wasn’t even Powell’s best sport. That would be boxing. Early in his NFL career Powell boxed in the offseason, and after he retired from football he focused on fighting exclusively, rising to the point where he was once ranked as the No. 4 heavyweight in the world. His notable opponents included the unbeaten Cassius Clay in 1963 and the former champion Floyd Patterson in 1964.

In a 1998 column, Jim Murray wrote that Powell compared favorably to the greatest all-around athletes in American history, noting that “Jim Thorpe and Jackie Robinson never had to tee it up with heavyweight champions of the world. And Michael Jordan couldn’t hit the curveball, either.” There was nothing in sports that Charlie Powell couldn’t do.

9 responses to “Charlie Powell, NFL player and heavyweight contender, dies at 82

  1. Wow what an impressive career and story he had. It can never hurt to experiment with multiple sports especially at a young age, sometimes you stumble upon one that you didn’t realize you would be great at, and sometimes the sport you initially love the most can change to another. I hope some budding sports stars of the future find inspiration from his life of accomplishments and strive to be the next multi-sport star athlete. There’s not very many of them around because it’s really, really hard to do. I think this is one of those rare times that a double-really fits pretty well.

  2. There are not many former players that I hasven’t heard of due to my being schooled by the late Steve Sabol’s This is the NFL and everything I could get my hands on in the mid-late 80’s. Charlie Powell is one of them, though.

    His name escapes record books because before 1982 the sack, coined by the late Deacon Jones, wasn’t an official stat so players like Powell, Doug Atkins fell away from the eyes of fans and record books alike while numbers like 12, 312 are still remembered even though it has been surpassed. Playing on perpetually bad teams didn’t help. He actually fought Muhammad Ali (back when he was Cassius Clay). Look up the story when Jim Brown, a supreme athlete in his own right, tried to spar with Ali while considering a boxing career after he retired. Let’s say that Jim Brown never again thought he could be a boxer. Rest in peace, Charlie.

  3. While it certainly is no reflection on Powell’s talents, I saw the fight with Clay in Pittsburgh. He didn’t last long, but Clay was so fast, I had a hard time just following his hands. However, I personally find it somewhat surprising to compare anyone to Thorpe or J. Robinson.

  4. This guy would be a fantastic candidate for an NFL Films profile. Or a NFL Network ‘A Football Life’.

  5. Too bad the NFL does such a lousy job of remembering their past players. If they did even half as good of a job as Major League Baseball does, it would be wonderful.
    This guy has been forgotten to history and only is being recognized now because he died. That’s a shame.
    In fact, it galls me to realize that many people think the NFL started in 1967 with the first Super Bowl.
    Even that nitwit Goodell got it wrong the last time the Steelers won the Super Bowl, stating they had won more championships than anyone.
    No they haven’t — the Packers, Bears, and Giants all have won more championships than the Steelers.
    If it weren’t for NFL Films and the work that Ed and Steve Sabol did, hardly anyone would know about players from the 20’s, 30’s 40’s and 50’s. That’s really an injustice as they were just as important as the baseball players from those eras.
    Rest in peace, Charlie. You were a helluva athlete and you deserve to be recognized as such.

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