Doug Atkins, intimidating Hall of Fame pass rusher, dies at 85

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Watch NFL Films footage from the 1950s and 1960s, and one of the first thing that jumps out at you is how much smaller the linemen were in those days. Unless, that is, you watch footage of Doug Atkins.

Atkins, who died today at the age of 85, was an enormous physical specimen who easily could have played with the giant linemen of the 21st Century. At 6-foot-8 and 280 pounds, Atkins was perhaps the most physically intimidating player of his era.

“Doug had a way of making people apprehensive,” Warren Ariail, who was the Saints’ trainer during Atkins’ time with the team in the late 1960s, once recalled. “He was so big and so strong and when he wanted to do something he did it. Johnny Unitas told me one time Doug was the only player he was afraid of. Dick Butkus said the same thing. Now if you can imagine Dick Butkus being afraid of someone, you get an idea of how Doug affected people.”

It was not just his size but also his speed and power that made Atkins an intimidating force on the football field, particularly for quarterbacks who had the misfortune of playing against him. Playing at a time before sacks were an official statistic, Atkins estimated he had as many as 25 sacks in his best season. The official NFL record is 22.5.

Atkins was born and raised in Tennessee and originally attended the University of Tennessee on a basketball scholarship, but the great Volunteers football coach Bob Neyland convinced him to join the football team. That was a wise move for both player and coach: Atkins helped Tennessee win the national championship in 1951, and Atkins became the Browns’ first-round draft pick in 1953.

Atkins spent two years in Cleveland before he was traded to Chicago, where he became a star for the Monsters of the Midway. He was a Pro Bowler eight times for the Bears and helped them win the NFL championship in 1954 and 1963. In 1967 he was traded to the Saints, and although he was 37 years old before he got to New Orleans, he played well enough in his three seasons there that the Saints retired his No. 81 jersey.

Atkins also had his jersey retired by the University of Tennessee, and he’s a member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

20 responses to “Doug Atkins, intimidating Hall of Fame pass rusher, dies at 85

  1. Straight beast. Granted I’m a Bears fan and he played a long time ago but I’m shocked how many people today have never heard of him. Think of a guy today 7’1 and 360 running a 4.4 and that would equal how physically superior Atkins was to anyone else on the field in those days.

    I remember seeing a video of him and he’s basically palming a six pack. He was also quite a good ol boy and can be really thankful social media wasn’t around back then. A true Bears great who was one of a kind in many ways.

  2. That’s back in the days when the Bears were a fierce defense. Ed O’Bradovich and Dick Butkus. Doug Buffone. Richie Pettibone. George Allen was defensive coordinator of the 63 bears championship team. Not a great offense but vicious on defense

  3. R.I.P Mr. Atkins. You absolutely destroyed my Lions for years. Regardless, I still cannot believe Butkis was afraid of anyone.

  4. can’t remember, but didn’t he break Unitas’s nose in that classic game in 1960…still occasionally see that picture of Unitas about to take the snap, his white jersey completely bloodied in the front…football was great back then…

  5. R.I.P Doug it is sad to see the old timers pass away that was when football was real!!!
    ***********************************************
    Couldn’t agree more. Started watching Doug in 1963 at the tender age of 13. You can do the math…he was, without question, one of the best and I will miss him.

  6. That’s back in the days when the Bears were a fierce defense. Ed O’Bradovich and Dick Butkus. Doug Buffone. Richie Pettibone. George Allen was defensive coordinator of the 63 bears championship team. Not a great offense but vicious on defense.
    ************************************************
    This was “back in the day” when the old man ran things — his daughter and the rest of that McKaskey clan hasn’t a clue! Too bad.

  7. The Bears did NOT win the championship in ’54 or any year in the ’50s. Cleveland won in ’54. Come on!

  8. RIP Doug Atkins. I remember quite well having his football card when I was a kid. A larger than life figure back then.

  9. Doug was a great player. His antics off the field would make some of today’s players cringe. I

    f Goodell was commissioner Doug wouldn’t have seen his 3rd season. Men like that can’t exist in the same league. I’m glad I got to see him play.

  10. Love articles like this. Never heard of this guy and I’ve actively followed football for 47 years. Having 25 sacks in 14 games doesn’t event take into account they didn’t throw the ball 50 times a game back then so he had less chances for them. Beast of a man. RIP.

    That said, hilarious that Cleveland traded him.
    Typical.

  11. A top 5 DE and a Top 10 Bear all time.

    Top DEs all time:
    1 Reggie White
    2 Bruce Smith
    3 Deacon Jones
    4 Gino Marchetti
    5 Doug Atkins
    6 JJ Watt
    7 Howie Long
    8 Dan Hampton
    9 Selmon
    10 Strahan
    Top 10 Bears all time:
    1 Walter Payton
    2 Sid Luckman
    3 Dick Butkus
    4 Bronko Nagurski
    5 Urlacher
    6 Atkins
    7 Sayers
    8 Grange
    9 Dan Hampton
    10Bull Dog Turner

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