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.