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JIM MURRAY

Powell Was Always in Contention

March 19, 1998|JIM MURRAY

He not only "coulda been a contendah," he was. No. 4 in the Ring magazine rankings and, at one time, next in line for a shot at the heavyweight title.

Ted Williams, no less, once upbraided him and told him that he could have been a great major league hitter if he only had the patience and learned to lay off ball fours.

He was a two-way football player for the San Francisco 49ers, an all-pro end and he once sacked the great Bobby Layne for minus 67 yards in a title game.

He ran the 100-yard dash in 9.9 seconds, he put the shot in high school 57 feet 9 1/4 inches for a record that stood for 48 years before being broken by an inch. He anchored the relay team and played basketball at an all-conference level but there was no money in that game in the '40s, so he dropped it.

And Charlie Powell looked the part. Wide shoulders, no waist to speak of, powerful tapering body, he looked sculpted, not born. If Michelangelo made a prizefighter, this would be it.

When the conversation veers around to all-around athletes, it gets to Charlie Powell in a hurry. There's Jim Thorpe, Jackie Robinson, and, well, how about Charlie Powell?

He was the youngest player in NFL history, age 19. He went directly from high school to the 49ers.

"When I joined the 49ers," he was recalling the other day, "I was scared. They had Leo Nomellini, Bob St. Clair, who used to eat raw meat, and Joe "the Jet" Perry and Hugh McElhenny and all those greats. When they came into camp, I thought they'd eat me, but when I went up against Leo the Lion, a few times I thought 'Hey! I can handle this!' "

And, so he could. There is the famous story of the Dodgers' vice president, Fresco Thompson, interviewing a prospect one day and the young athlete didn't know whether he should opt for baseball or pro football. Fresco didn't hesitate. "What do you want, kid--a career or a limp?" he sneered.

Well, in Charlie's case, the options were stretched. To include prizefighting. Fresco might have been moved to ask "What do you want, kid--a career or a coffin?"

The trouble was, in those days, television had not yet put in the coaxial cable and its idea of entertainment was "The Ed Sullivan Show." Super Bowls hadn't been invented. Charlie Powell got $12,000 for starring with the 49ers. A year, not every play.

He never went to college, even though he had 45 scholarship offers from institutions as diverse as Notre Dame and San Diego State. He signed instead with the old St. Louis Browns baseball team (now the Baltimore Orioles) for the (then) princely sum of $5,500.

He hit the most massive home runs ever seen in the minor leagues--at least since Luke Easter--and he hit one in Stockton one day that residents think ended up in Sacramento.

But while he hit them far enough, he didn't hit them often enough. The pitchers took advantage of his impatience. "I see Ted Williams now and again," he grins. "He still gets after me. "

Williams never hit a non-strike in his life. Charlie never hit any other kind.

If you can imagine a guy getting ready for a career in pro football by spending his nights in the ring--or, if you can picture a guy getting ready for nights in the ring playing the Chicago Bears in the afternoon, you have a fix on Charlie's life.

He took on the Cuban giant, Nino Valdes, at a time when nobody in the game wanted any part of him, including the then champion, Floyd Patterson. Charlie knocked him out of the ring.

But he had less luck when he fought Muhammad Ali (he was Cassius Clay at the time) in '63 and Floyd Patterson in '64. They both knocked him out. Patterson was ex-champ by then, Ali was to become champion the following year.

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.

"My father told me nobody makes you do anything. You cause your own trouble. I didn't get in no trouble. Hell, I was too busy!"

Charlie, married for 43 years, is working for the NFL alumni group these days.

They didn't make the game he couldn't play. "Shoot, I played against Jim Brown, Marion Motley. Now, there was a fellow you tackled with caution! In the ring, I fought the best. "

Charlie has no ringing in the head, no cauliflower in the ears. He doesn't even have the limp. He does have one regret. Missed a tackle? Dropped a pass? No. "I was two fights away from a fight with Rocky Marciano for the title. And I lost to Charley Norkus."

It's not that he coulda been a contendah. He coulda been champeen.

As for all-around, just remember 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.

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