Conerly, Charles Albert, Jr. (“Charlie”)
Conerly, Charles Albert, Jr. (“Charlie”)
(b. 19 September 1921 in Clarksdale, Mississippi; d. 13 February 1996 in Memphis, Tennessee), college football player, combat marine in World War II, and championship professional quarterback with the New York Giants of the National Football League (NFL) at the time the sport was capturing national attention.
Conerly was one of three children born in the Mississippi Delta to Charles Albert Conerly, Sr., a police officer turned farmer, and Winford Fite, a nurse. Like many young boys in the rural South and elsewhere during the 1920s and 1930s, Conerly participated in a variety of sports and games. He was good at all of them and by the time he got to Clarksdale High School, where he starred in football, basketball, baseball, and tennis, he was an accomplished athlete. Additionally, after three months of playing golf Conerly was breaking eighty, and he scored more than two hundred the fourth time he bowled. But it was football that earned him a scholarship to the University of Mississippi in Oxford (“Ole Miss”) in the fall of 1941. In 1942 after Conerly’s sophomore season, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and saw combat on several occasions, most notably during the horrific battle for the island of Iwo Jima. Early in 1945 he was discharged in time for the 1946 college football season, but it was a repeat of the 1942 season at Ole Miss: their team, the Rebels, won two games while losing seven.
In 1947, Conerly’s senior season, the twenty-six-year-old single-wing tailback blossomed. Conerly and the team’s end Barney Poole were a formidable pass-catch combination, and Ole Miss—ranked tenth in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in pre-season—had an 8—2 season and won the SEC championship, including a 13—9 victory over Texas Christian in the newly inaugurated Delta Bowl in Memphis.
Chunkin’ Charlie (“in the South we ‘chunk’ a rock or a ball,” explained his widow) was a consensus All-America and led the nation in every meaningful passing category: attempts (233), completions (133), completion percentage (.571), and touchdowns (eighteen). In addition, he ran for 417 yards and passed for 1,367. He finished fourth in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy, awarded to the nation’s outstanding college football player. Before leaving Ole Miss, Conerly batted .467 for the Rebels’s baseball team and fielded several offers to sign a major league contract in that sport.
While Conerly was fighting with the marines in the South Pacific, he was selected in the 1945 NFL draft by the Washington Redskins (he was eligible because his entering freshman class at Mississippi had been graduated by that time). Since the Redskins already had the legendary Slingin’ Sammy Baugh at quarterback and would subsequently acquire University of Alabama All-America Harry Gilmer, their need for a third passer was slight. They traded the rights to Conerly to the New York Giants. He started in the College All-Star Game in Chicago and then at twenty-seven—in those days an age when many were retiring from pro football—reported as a rookie to the Giants’s training camp. Before reporting, Conerly was involved in a minor flap. The baseball executive Branch Rickey, who was involved with the Brooklyn Dodgers’s football team of the rival All-America Football Conference, offered Conerly a four-year contract for $95,000, a huge sum for the time. He then bemoaned the fact that Conerly would sign “an inferior” offer, five years with the Giants at $72,500. Later it was determined that Rickey’s offer was a publicity stunt. Conerly was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “The Brooklyn offer came after the Dodgers were sure I had decided to play for the Giants.”
Although the Giants were only 4–8 in 1948 and Conerly was pressured constantly by opposing defenses, his individual play was outstanding. He passed for 2,175 yards and won Rookie of the Year honors. After the season he married Perian (pronounced Perry Ann) Collier on 23 June 1949. Perian Conerly gained recognition as a journalist and author. Her book, Backseat Quarterback (1963), about life as the wife of an NFL player, was critically acclaimed and sold well. The couple did not have children.
Conerly continued to perform well but for several succeeding seasons the Giants were mediocre. As the offensive leader, Conerly was the focal point of the Giants fans’ vocal displeasure. He had decided to retire after the 1953 season, in which the Giants’ record was 3—9, but new head coach Jim Lee Howell and his assistant, Vince Lombardi, talked Conerly out of it.
With a rejuvenated offense built around Frank Gifford and Kyle Rote and a smothering defense, the Giants were champions of the professional football world in 1956. Conerly —after fighting off competition from Paul Governali, Travis Tidwell, Arnold Galiffa, Fred Benners, Bobby Clatterbuck, George Shaw, Don Heinrich, and Lee Gross-cup—was finally appreciated as the Giants contended annually for an NFL title. Through the years, the stoic Conerly endured the wrath of fickle fans in silence.
In 1958 and 1959 the Giants battled to the NFL Championship game, only to lose twice to the Baltimore Colts, who were led by legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas. The 1958 “sudden death” overtime game is still widely regarded as the “Greatest Game Ever Played.” Nationally televised, it captured the country’s attention. More specifically, the Madison Avenue advertising agencies became aware of the drawing power of NFL athletes, especially the successful, hometown Giants.
Conerly’s thick southern drawl precluded him from radio and television opportunities like those that his teammates Gifford, Rote, and Pat Summerall received. However, his rugged, weathered, masculine looks did gain him some fame and fortune as the first Marlboro man in Philip Morris’s cigarette print ads. Conerly stood at six feet, one inch tall with a playing weight of 185 pounds.
During the later stages of his Giants career, Conerly and Don Heinrich formed a unique quarterback combination. Heinrich, although second team, would actually start the game. Conerly would observe the opponent’s defense from the bench for the first quarter of the game and then go in as the beneficiary of what he had seen earlier. The system worked so well that in 1959 Conerly was awarded the Jim Thorpe Trophy as NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
During Conerly’s final season in 1961, the Giants acquired future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Y. A. Tittle and Conerly became a backup. Coach Allie Sherman said of his forty-year-old quarterback’s final season, “Four times I called on Charlie during the season, and all four times he came through for us.” Conerly retired after the 1961 championship game loss, and the Giants officially retired his number forty-two jersey the following year.
Conerly operated a chain of shoe stores in Mississippi and played in many charity golf tournaments in his later years. After an illness, Conerly died of heart disease in a Memphis hospital at the age of seventy-four. He is buried in Oakridge Cemetery in Clarksdale. Each year the Charlie Conerly Memorial Trophy is presented to the outstanding college football player in the state of Mississippi.
As a man and a player, Charlie Conerly typified many men of the World War II generation. He saw what needed to be done and without fanfare simply did it. He was so highly thought of by his Giants teammates that when his old roommate Frank Gifford was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, he said, almost apologetically, “Chuck, you belong here, too.” Giants owner Wellington Mara often remarked, “Charlie is the best player not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.” Conerly was, however, voted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1966.
While there is no full-length biography of Conerly, information can be found in Don Smith, New York Giants (1960); Perian Conerly, Backseat Quarterback (1963); Barry Gottehrer, The Giants of New York: The History of Professional Football’s Most Fabulous Dynasty (1963); Dave Klein, The New York Giants: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (1973); Dave Klein, The Game of Their Lives (1976); and Frank Gifford with Harry Waters, The Whole Ten Yards (1993). An obituary is in the New York Times (14 Feb. 1996).