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One-two Punch

Charlie Powell, now 68, left his mark in the ring and on the football field

November 27, 2000|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The list of NFL players who were also outstanding boxers is a short one.

In fact, it includes only one name.

Charlie Powell.

Please, don't even mention Ed "Too Tall" Jones or Mark Gastineau. Neither came close to the heavyweight rankings. Powell was a top-10 heavyweight. Some early in his career thought he might succeed Rocky Marciano as heavyweight champion.

Powell is on another short list: modern-era athletes who bypassed college and went from high school football to the NFL. You have Cookie Gilchrist, Eric Swann--and Charlie Powell.

He's 68 now, the owner of a South-Central business that refurbishes school buses and does machine-shop work for the aerospace industry. He also does plainclothes security work.

He's still trim and fit, still wearing his ring scars over both brows. You get that way when you've had fights with Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay), Floyd Patterson, Roy Harris, Nino Valdes and Mike DeJohn.

Powell was one of the great high school athletes in Southern California history at San Diego High, where he won 12 varsity letters. He ran 100 yards in 9.6 seconds and set a school shotput record.

He went from high school football to the San Francisco 49ers and, at 19, started at defensive end. In his first NFL game, he threw Detroit Lion quarterback Bobby Layne for 67 yards in losses.

Before that, UCLA recruited him. For which sport? Any one he wanted. San Jose State recruited him when NCAA boxing was in flower.

He was a 6-toot-3, 230-pound 18-year-old natural. But boxing was his first sport.

"As a 12-, 13-year-old kid during World War II, I was going to the Oakes Boys' Club on Marcy Avenue, sparring with 17- and 19-year-olds," he said.

"Some of them, I knocked them out."

He grew up following the boxing careers of San Diego neighbors Archie Moore, later a world light-heavyweight champion, and middleweight Charley Burley. He also fought forest fires and operated a brisk shoeshine business in downtown San Diego.

"I was shining shoes on a corner when it was announced the war was over," he said. "All of a sudden sailors started grabbing women off the sidewalks and throwing them into a fountain."

He grew up in a loving family of nine children in San Diego's Logan Heights neighborhood. His father, the late Elvin Powell, was a cement finisher and a maintenance worker at Del Mar racetrack.

"We weren't rich, but we had all the love and attention in the world," he said, mentioning also his late mother, Mae Powell.

"There were times when we had to pour water instead of milk over our Post Toasties, but there were never any dope arrests in my family and no one ever had a child out of wedlock."

Powell met his wife, Irma, at San Diego's Logan Elementary School. They've lived at the same Altadena home for 31 years.

"In my whole life, I've had three telephone numbers," Powell said, "my family home in San Diego, the five years I lived in West L.A. and now."

Powell's seven-season (1952-61) NFL career was jump-started by a couple of the league's players, Glenn Davis (Rams) and Frankie Albert (49ers), who saw Powell play in high school.

"Davis and Albert recommended me to [49er Coach] Buck Shaw, telling him they thought I could go right into the NFL," Powell said.

But he first made the decision to forgo college.

"I was the oldest of nine kids and I felt a responsibility to help my family," he said.

"I was boxing at military service clubs then and sometimes the cooks would sneak me a bag of steaks. When I'd take them home to my parents, that felt great."

First he tried his hand at pro baseball, signing a minor league contract with the St. Louis Browns, who sent him to Stockton.

It was a one-summer career.

"Once the pitchers discovered I could hit the ball a long way, all I saw was junk--everything low and away," he said. "It got very frustrating. Meanwhile, Buck Shaw kept track of me that summer of '52 and he came down to San Diego to see me at my folks' place.

"When he pulled up to the house, I was on the front porch, playing 'Sentimental Journey' on my saxophone. He was impressed.

"I signed for a $2,000 bonus and a $5,500 salary."

He recalled in his first 49er scrimmage that he went up against future hall of famer Leo Nomellini.

"I held my own with him, and my confidence started to grow," Powell said. "Someone got hurt and I got to start that game in Detroit where I sacked Bobby Layne several times."

He played two 49er seasons, then took a year off to box.

Mort Sharnik, former Sports Illustrated boxing writer and later a CBS matchmaker, well remembers Powell's heavyweight contender days.

"In the early 1950s, it was believed by me and a lot of other people that Charlie might be the successor to Marciano," he said.

"Here was a big, strong guy who could really hit.

"The problem was, after that year he took off from the NFL, he kept going back to the 49ers where he carried a lot more weight than he did when he boxed. If he hadn't tried to combine the two sports, I think he could have really done something.

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