By Dr. Ken 


My usual explanation for some of my family’s socially unacceptable behavior was usually “Don’t look at me, I was taken in by the dopey Polacks.” While some of Polish ethnicity may be offended by the use of the term Polack, my father’s family was fiercely proud of the fact that they were “off the boat immigrants” who worked their way up from the bottom. They wore what was an ethnic slur to some, as a badge of honor. The men on that side of the family were a tough group; hard working, hard drinking, hard gambling, and hard fighting iron workers with a few having reputations as less than model citizens. There were as the old man said, “One or two clinkers in the bunch” but almost all were law abiding in an era and in neighborhoods where hard drinking, hard gambling, and hard fighting were seen less as vices, than standard ways to blow off frustration with a life that by any measure, could be difficult. Adding to my father’s frustration was what he saw as an interruption in what could have been a successful athletic career. Dropping out of school after fifth grade to support a married teenaged brother and his family, my father’s only outlet from jobs as an ice man, mechanic, and iron worker was the Industrial League basketball games played between the employees of various New York City based enterprises. A small stipend and side bets fueled these rather competitive contests and I at times heard his refrain that was very much the equivalent of Marlon Brando’s famous On The Waterfront, “I coulda’ been a contender instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.” My father held a deep seated belief that under different circumstances, he could have “been an athlete” and the quality of athleticism was cherished. Other than showing off his still deadly, even into his mid-forties, underhand foul shooting and antiquated two-hand set shot as he competed well with twenty year olds on a local basketball court, he focused his athletic interest on baseball, which was typical for the era. He still however, maintained enough awareness about football to at least know who the Polish standouts were, with Giants tackle Dick Modzelewski a favorite.

In baseball, the Brooklyn Dodgers ruled because we lived in Brooklyn, and the loyalty was maintained after we moved. When the Dodgers migrated to Los Angeles, my father bailed out on them but we knew that Johnny Podres was to be exalted, not just for his heroics in the 1955 World Series but because he was Polish. Despite hating the Yankees, we were told to root for Tony Kubek because “He’s one of us” as was Bill Skowron. Even the players in far off cities like Bill Mazerowski and Moe Drabowsky were revered. The highest praise however, was accorded to “the athletes,” men like Gene Conley who played both Major League Baseball and professional basketball. That he did both for championship teams was, to my father, the ultimate achievement. In Brooklyn, we of course knew “everything” about Jackie Robinson and he too was my father’s hero. He overcame great odds to get and make the most of his opportunity to play and as my father reminded me, “This guy can be a pro at a lot of sports.” Because he was one of the great names and a star we actually saw on the streets at times, as we did most of the Dodgers, I studied his history. Robinson’s football accomplishments made it obvious he truly could have achieved greatness in any number of athletic endeavors.


The Brooklyn Dodgers of baseball featured the great, ground breaking Jackie Robinson but only after he starred in football for UCLA

One of the rare individuals who did in fact achieve a measure of excellence and at the highest levels of multiple sports was Charlie Powell. Very much lost to the past, Powell for most fans was no more than a name in a recent obituary. Unfortunately, for those of us who enjoyed football in the 1950’s, ‘60’s, and even 1970’s, the steady march of players who have passed on has become an almost daily occurrence. This past month, HELMET HUT lost a dear friend in “Goose” Gonsoulin, the former Denver Broncos great. We could memorialize numerous players each month, like Goose, such was their contribution to the game and such is the rate at which age and illness are now overtaking them.  Powell however, truly was special as an incredible athlete who started as a defensive lineman for the San Francisco Forty Niners at the age of nineteen and without the benefit of college football experience.




Powell graduated from San Diego High School as a multi-sport athlete who excelled in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. Running hurdles and sprinting 100 yards in 9.6 seconds while also being the team’s shot putter certainly implied that he participated in both aspects of “track” and “field” and well reflected his athletic versatility. He had options, with offers from the Harlem Globetrotters, the St. Louis Browns baseball organization, and numerous college football scholarship offers. Notre Dame and the major powers of the western U.S. called for his services but he chose baseball. He left the St. Louis organization after a stint in the minor leagues, “bored” and missing football. He became the National Football League’s youngest player when he signed with the Forty Niners and immediately fought for a starting position as a 220 pound defensive end. From 1952 through ’57, Powell was relentless and though stout against the run, became what might have been the NFL’s first definitive pass-rush specialist. In a time that sacks were not recorded, he chased down and tackled Detroit Lions quarterback Bobby Layne behind the line of scrimmage ten times in one game.


In the off seasons, Powell continued to indulge in his love of boxing. As a youth, he took boxing lessons from one of his neighbors, World Champion Archie Moore. Fighting regularly at the local boys’ club, Powell’s father once remarked that “they had to stop him because he was knocking too many guys out.”  He became a professional in 1953 and with success, sat out the 1954 football season to focus on his boxing career. He returned to the Forty Niners in ’55 but continued to box in a very serious manner in the off seasons. After the 1957 season, he again decided to place his efforts into boxing and retired from professional football. Reducing his playing weight from 230 to a “fighting trim” of 210, he began to climb the heavyweight ranks. By 1959, having knocked out Nino Valdes, the second ranked heavyweight in the world, Powell found himself rated number four in the division As a boxing fan, my father knew his name but had no idea that Powell was also a professional football player. He was just a name in the newspapers or one of numerous fighters seen on occasion through the blur of our tiny black-and-white Dumont television set on the Friday Night Fight Show.




Powell, despite earning recognition as a developing heavyweight with world class potential, signed with the new American Football League in 1960. He was only briefly a member of the Los Angeles Chargers as they traded him to the Oakland Raiders prior to the start of the AFL’s inaugural season. As a Raider, Powell again was outstanding, especially as a pass rushing defensive end and remained with the team through their first two seasons, to again, spend more time on his boxing career.



Although Powell had originally signed with the Los Angeles Chargers when joining the AFL, he was traded to the Raiders before the league’s inaugural 1960 season began. At defensive end wearing number 87, he tormented his former team on this play


Powell caught my father’s attention in a big way when the announcement was made that Charlie Powell (“Charley” in the fight game) would box the rapidly rising former Olympic Champion Cassius Clay. My father took note, stating that “Powell must be better than we thought if he’s fighting the Clay kid.”



The Clay Kid of course later became Muhammad Ali and on January 24, 1963, he kayoed Powell in the third round, two fights prior to defeating Sonny Liston. Powell later lost to former World Champion Floyd Patterson but it was widely agreed that had he followed a more traditional boxing path, Charlie Powell could have been a true contender and top rated heavyweight for quite some time. Comparing his $12,000.00 purse for the Clay fight and noting that it was more than his salary for any of his NFL or AFL seasons, Powell may have realized that boxing could have been a more lucrative path for him. His brother Art Powell, a top AFL receiver primarily with the Titans and Raiders, explained it best by noting that if managers and trainers had “handled him right, he might’ve been a champion.” Charlie was often rushed into fights with very good opponents rather than given the opportunity to work his way up through the ranks as most fighters were, especially in that era. He was a serious fighter but for long stretches of professional football camp and then the actual seasons, he was not on the boxing scene.  The well-known boxing trainer Cus D’Amato who trained Floyd Patterson and mentored a young Mike Tyson, briefly worked with Charlie in Catskill, N.Y. and said, “This is a kid with great ability and a tremendous punch, but with a lot of bad habits. If only you’d brought him to me five years ago.” When he finally retired from both sports, he became a salesman in the automotive and cleaning supply businesses and owned a business in South-Central Los Angeles.


January 24, 1963, Charlie Powell goes toe-to-toe with Cassius Clay, but lost the fight on a third round knockout


Unfortunately, and perhaps as a result of football, boxing, or a combination of both pursuits, Charlie suffered from dementia for a number of years prior to his death. Brother Art said, “He was losing his short-term memory, but the long-term stuff, he had that.” Much of the “long-term stuff” included an underrated and very good pro football career and a boxing career that saw him share the ring with the higher rated fighters of his era, including Ali. A true all around athlete, and obviously blessed with favorable genetics as evidenced by the career of brothers Art and another younger brother Jerry who played at Northridge State and then as a receiver and return man for the World Football League Hawaiians in 1974, Charlie Powell was one of the few who mined his talent and rose to the top in two very distinct athletic endeavors.



He was also proud of the fact that as the oldest of nine children, he had what he believed was a wonderful life and parental guidance. He at one time stated “We weren’t rich, but we had all the love and attention in the world. There were times when we had to pour water instead of milk on our Post Toasties, but there were never any dope arrests in our family and no one ever had a child out of wedlock.” Men like my father recognized great athletic ability and “the right type of upbringing” and it’s a shame that more have not and never did. Charlie Powell deserved more.