Date of birth : 1914-08-13
Date of death : 2002-12-24
Birthplace : Redwood Falls, Minnesota
Nationality : American
Category : Sports
Last modified : 2010-08-09
In the early days of football, when players were asked to do a little of everything, Ward Cuff did it all—and then some. The New York Giants star was the NFL’s best defensive backs in an era when Sammy Baugh and Sid Luckman were picking enemy secondaries apart. He was the league’s most punishing blocking back when games were won and lost at the point of attack. He led the league in yards per carry one season and led his team pass receptions twice.
Ward also won games with his toe. Indeed, he was the NFL’s field goal champion four times and kicked more three-pointers between 1932 and 1945 than anyone else in the league. Oh, and he averaged 12 yards per punt return, too. The only thing the Giants didn’t ask Ward to do was throw the football, but there is little doubt he could have handled this too—he was a javelin champion in college! By the time he retired, people were saying, “They don’t make ’em like Ward Cuff anymore,” and they were right. He was one of the last “six-way stars” in pro football.
Ward Lloyd Cuff was born on August 13, 1914 in Redwood Falls, Minnesota. Redwood Falls was—and still is—a small town in the south central part of the state. Ward loved outdoor activities as a boy, particularly fishing. He played all the major sports at Redwood High School, excelling in football and track. In a part of the country where toughness was a way of life, they didn’t come much tougher than Ward.
Ward’s early football heroes attended the University of Minnesota. Among them were running backs Herb Joesting and Bronko Nagurski. He also followed Marquette, which was located due east across the Wisconsin border. Minnesota had an NFL team, the Duluth Eskimos, but Ward didn’t pay much attention to them. Pro football was still in its infancy when he was a boy. It was hardly a respectable way to make a living. Still, a trio of Green Bay Packers were on his radar: Lavvy Dilweg, Red Dunn and Whitey Woodin. All three were Marquette grads.
As fate would have it, when it came time to pick a college in 1933, Ward enrolled at Marquette, where he hoped to play for head coach Frank Murray, a future Hall of Famer. Ward was a fine student and a tremendous all-around athlete. At 6-1 and a sinewy 190 pounds, he had an imposing physique for his era. While not playing football, he boxed and competed in track & field. By the time he graduated, Ward would be the school’s heavyweight champ and hold Marquette’s javelin record.
Ward’s first varsity football season was 1934. Marquette struggled to a 4–5–0 record, scoring an impressive win over Kansas State and playing close games against Northwestern and Wisconsin. The 1935 team improved to 7–1–0, losing only to Temple. In their seven victories, the Golden Avalanche did not allow more than 13 points.
Ward was a blocking back on Murray’s teams, blowing open holes for his teammates. When he carried the ball, he was wildly effective, averaging over six yards per carry during his collegiate career. Ward also did the punting and kicking for the team.
Marquette was undefeated through its first seven games in 1936, gaining national attention with a Top 20 ranking. The marquee players were quarterback Buzz Buivid, who would finish third in the Heisman Trophy voting that winter, and the Guepe twins, Al and Art—for whom Ward did much of the blocking. The Golden Avalanche lost its final regular season to Duquesne, losing out on a possible Rose Bowl bid. But the team earned an invitation to the very first Cotton Bowl, in Dallas. Marquette’s opponent was Texas Christian, the national champions in 1935.
TCU defeated Marquette in the final game of Ward’s college career by a score of 16–6. Playing defensive back, he faced Slinging’ Sammy Baugh, who would become a familiar nemesis in the pros. Ward held his own against Baugh, though Slinging’ Sammy did return one of Ward’s punts 22 yards to ignite TCU’s final touchdown drive. Late in the game, Ward kept the score close when he picked off a pass thrown by Davey O’Brien, TCU’s quarterback in training.
Ward finished the Cotton Bowl as Marquette’s most effective runner and receiver, averaging 4.3 yards on seven carries and 10 yards on three catches. In the stands that day was Steve Owen, head coach of the New York Giants. He had been dispatched to scout the Guepe twins, but he returned with an unexpected assessment: “The guy we want is Cuff,” Owen reported. “He’s as tough as a boot.”
Ward was drafted by the Giants in the fourth round. He joined a team starring two of the great players of the era, Ken Strong and Mel Hein. Strong was nearing the end of a pro career that would distinguish him as one of the finest backs of the pre-World War II era. Hein was a remarkable two-way player—a center who redefined his position and a linebacker who was particularly adept at pass coverage. Also on the club was Tuffy Leemans, the NFL’s reigning rushing champion, and Ed Danowski, who handled the team’s passing duties.
The rest of the team was young and inexperienced. In 1937, little was expected of New York in the East, which featured a talented Washington Redskins squad led by Baugh and coached by ex-Giant Ray Flaherty. New York used a modified version of the single wing offense called the A Formation. Ward was one of the wingbacks. He ran the ball, passed it some, and did a lot of blocking.
Ward arrived at Giants training camp and found himself sharing a room with Wellington Mara, the owner’s son. They would end up rooming together in camp and on road trips throughout his Giants career. Ward, Mara, Danowski and lineman Orville Tuttle were inveterate card players, passing endless hours on train rides and in hotels. Bridge was their favorite game.
Ward’s skills as a runner and blocker earned him a starting spot in Week 2 of his rookie season against the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was his soft hands, however, that helped him attract his first of many headlines as a defensive back. In the Pittsburgh game, which the Giants won 10–7, Ward picked off a pass and weaved his way into the Pirates’ end zone. The 65-yard return was one of the most spectacular plays of the NFL season.
As the season progressed, Owen noticed how strong Ward’s leg was. Linebacker Tilly Manton handled most of the team’s kicking duties, but he lacked the power to do much more than convert extra points. Twice Owen sent Ward into the game to attempt field goals of 40-plus yards, and both times he converted.
With 10 games down and one to go, the Giants faced the Redskins with a chance to win the division. New York’s record was 6–2–2, with four of those victories coming by shutout. Washington’s record was 7–3–0. The Giants hosted the Skins in the Polo Grounds, but Washington’s fans were well-represented. More than 8,000 poured into the stadium, along with the Redskins band. They made their presence known, as Baugh and Cliff Battles quieted the New York crowd with a 49–14 offensive masterpiece.
The season was not a total loss. New York’s youngsters had risen to the occasion many times and were now steeled for a championship run. Ward and fellow back Hank Soar, ends Jim Lee Howell. Charley Gelatka and Jim Poole, and linemen Tarzan White, Ox Parry, Ken Lunday and card partner Tuttle formed the nucleus of a club that would win the East in 1938 and 1939.
In 1938, Ward took over the kicking duties for New York. He led the NFL in PATs with 18 and tied for the lead with five field goals in nine attempts. At the time, kickers were allowed to use dirt to build up a make-shift tee on kickoffs. Ward would construct a small tower in order to get his powerful leg under the ball. His high kickoffs arrived in the arms of receivers an instant before the New York tacklers did, which led the NFL to limit the height of tees.
On offense, Ward still spent most of his time blocking, though he did catch eight passes for 114 yards. He actually spent quite a bit of time on the bench, as New York had stockpiled so much talent that Owen alternated entire squads by quarter. This depth proved invaluable as the season wore on. After starting the year at 1–2, the Giants ran the table, including a 36–0 wipeout of the Redskins in the final game to sew up the division title.
The Giants faced the Green Bay Packers in the NFL Championship, which was held in the Polo Grounds. Nearly 50,000 fans watched a matchup between New York’s stingy defense and Green Bay’s thrilling aerial attack. Quarterback Arnie Herber’s favorite target, Don Hutson, was injured, which made Ward’s job somewhat easier and gave the Giants an edge among the bookies.
The first quarter saw New York block two Green Bay punts. Ward followed the first with a 13-yard field goal, and Leemans crossed the goal line on a keeper after the second to make the score 9–0. Herber answered with a long TD strike to Moose Mullineaux to narrow the score to 9–7. The teams then traded touchdowns before the half, with Ward booting the extra point for the Giants.
The Packers took a 17–16 lead early in the third quarter on a field goal. But on their next possession, the Giants marched 61 yards to score the go-ahead touchdown on a great catch by Soar. Ward added a PAT to make the score 23–17. That’s how it stayed as the two clubs battled through a scoreless fourth quarter. The New York defense gave up a lot of yards in the game but made the stops when it counted most.
A few weeks later, Ward participated in what is regarded by many historians as the first Pro Bowl. It pitted the Giants against a team of All-Stars, including Baugh, Clark Hinkle, Joe Stydahar and Gay Tinsley. The Giants won 12–10 on Ward’s fourth-quarter field goal.
The Giants and Redskins went down to the wire once again in 1939. The final game, held at the Polo Grounds, was a fierce defensive battle that was decided on the final play. New York led 9–7, but Baugh drove the Redskins deep into New York territory. With 45 seconds left, Bo Russell attempted a field goal and missed. The Giants advanced to their second straight NFL Championship meeting with the Packers.
Ward enjoyed another fine season in 1939, leading the league with seven field goals. Strong, no longer an effective runner, shared kicking duties with Ward, adding four three-pointers of his own. Ward, in turn, saw more time in the backfield, averaging a team-high 4.4 yards per carry. He was also New York’s second-leading receiver with 10 catches.
With the Packers scheduled to host the NFL Championship, Curly Lambeau moved the game from Green Bay to Milwaukee to better accommodate the expected crowd of 30,000-plus. The Packer faithful were rewarded for traveling the extra miles as Green Bay’s defense overwhelmed the Giants. After a 7–0 first half, the Packers broke open the game with 10 points in both the third and fourth quarters for a 27–0 victory. Four different Giants threw a total of six interceptions, as the team spent virtually the entire game bottled up in its own half of the field.
There was a silver lining to this dark cloud for the Giants. Lambeau had boosted ticket prices to more than $4—an all-time high for a pro football game—so the losers were winners in a way. Every New York player received $455 each from the team’s share of the gate.
After three straight seasons as contenders, the Giants slipped to third place in the East in 1940 with a 6–4–1 record. The offense sputtered with the retirement of Danowski, and after a Week 1 tie with the newly renamed Pittsburgh Steelers and a loss to the Redskins in Week 2, the Giants were unable to climb out of their hole. The season ended on an embarrassing note, New York proclaimed December 1st "Mel Hein Day" and then lost to the Brooklyn Dodgers, 14–6. The defeat enabled Brooklyn to slip past New York in the standings.
Ward enjoyed yet another fine season in 1940 and was now established as a star. He was perfect in PATs and kicked five field goals in eight attempts. He was a valuable runner and receiver, finishing with a team-high 42 points, and did yeoman’s work as a blocker for Leemans and Soar. That year, Ward was also part of a high-speed camera layout in Life Magazine that showed football in slow motion. His foot was captured at the moment it impacted the ball.
The Giants returned to the top of the NFL East in 1941 with an 8–3 record. Danowski came out of retriement to give the team another veteran leader to go with Leemans, Soar and, of course, Ward, who was by now regarded as one of the league’s most fiery competitors. Stories about his ferocity were beginning to circulate among NFL fans. A favorite concerned a killer block executed against the Chicago Bears on a punt return. When George Halas called Ward out for his rough play, he responded by saying he would be careful not to hurt any more of Papa Bear’s precious players. On the opposite sidelines, Owen could barely contain his laughter.
Ward led the Giants in scoring again with 46 points, converting 19 of 20 PATs and kicking five field goals to go with a pair of receiving touchdowns. He was New York’s go-to pass-catcher as well, reeling in a team-best 19 balls for 317 yards and a 17-yard average. He also picked off four passes, returning them for a total of 152 yards, which was tops in the league.
For the second year in a row, a day honoring a star player backfired on the Giants. This time the December 7th contest with the Dodgers was designated "Tuffy Leemans Day." Not only did the Giants bow 21–7 to Brooklyn, but during the first half the stadium announcer ordered all military personnel in the crowd to leave the Polo Grounds and report immediately to their bases. At halftime, the players were informed that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.
The NFL Championship was played two weeks later in Chicago against the Bears. Chicago had won the 1940 title by a score of 73–0 over Washington in the NFL’s all-time worst drubbing. The Bears weren't quite as dominant in this contest, but they were more than a match for the Giants. Chicago led 9–6 after 30 minutes, with Ward having his extra point blocked by Johnny Siegal. He atoned for this failure in the third quarter when he knotted the score at 9–9 with a 17-yard field goal. Moments earlier, he had reeled in a 20-yard strike from Leemans but was stopped short of the end zone. New York’s inability to reach paydirt would cost the team dearly, as the momentum swung decisively in Chicago’s favor.
From that point on, it was all Bears, as they scored on three drives and added another touchdown on a fumble recovery to win 37–9. Chicago rubbed it in after the last score when benchwarmer Ray McLean drop-kicked the extra point. Among the few highlights for the Giants that day was a spectacular diving catch by Ward in the first quarter for a 23-yard gain.
After losing to the Bears, the players’ attention turned to the war. Some 26 Giants enlisted; by war’s end more than 50 would trade their blue jerseys for green khakis. With the wartime talent drain beginning, multitalented players like Ward saw their roles expand. In 1942, he led the Giants with 5.0 yards per carry as a runner and had a team-high 16 catches for 267 yards. Ward also handled return duties in addition to his job as the club’s kicker. He was a perfect 18 for 18 in PATs but made just three of 11 field goal attempts.
This inefficiency was emblematic of the Giants’ season. At times they played like champions, but they often looked like bums, especially during an October losing streak. They needed wins over the Cardinals and Dodgers the last two Sundays just to reach .500. New York finished 5–5–1, in third place behind the Redskins and Steelers.
After the 1942 campaign, Ward’s draft number came up, but he received a medical discharge from the Army. Not surprisingly, he became the focus of the New York offense in 1943. He ran for 523 yards on 80 carries, averaging a jaw-dropping 6.5 yards per carry, which led the NFL. He scored 53 points, 27 of which came on extra point kicks. He missed only one all year.
The Giants were in the thick of things all season. Ward’s reputation as a safety now prompted other teams to throw away from him, so New York’s success or failure often rested on the performance of his teammates in the defensive backfield. Sometimes they were good—they shut down Baugh and the Redskins twice in thrilling victories in the final two weeks. Sometimes they were not—Sid Luckman and the Bears riddled them in a 56–7 blowout earlier in the year. Luckman’s seven TD passes established an as-yet unbroken record. The Giants were involved in another history making event that year, a 0–0 game with the Detroit Lions. It was the last scoreless tie in NFL history.
At season’s end, the Giants were tied with Washington atop the East with a 6–3–1 record. A playoff was ordered and this time Baugh solved the New York defense, as the Redskins cruised to a 28–0 victory and the division crown. The Giants managed a meager 112 yards of offense on the day. The season may have ended on a disappointing note, but for Ward it was a year in which he finally received All-Pro recognition. He had been named on a few All-Pro lists dating as far back as 1938. But in 1943 he was a consensus first-teamer for the first time.
The Giants headed into 1944 with just a handful of familiar names on the roster: Al Blozis, Len Younce and Ward. The previous year’s quarterbacks, Leemans and little Emery Nix, were in the service. That opened the door for ex-Packer Arnie Herber to unretire and vie for the job in camp. He arrived so out of shape that Owen called him a tub of lard. But the power arm was still there, and with second-year star Bill Paschal and Ward joining Herber in the backfield, New York had enough offense to win the close games.
Ward—who was named an All-Pro again at age 31—averaged 5.6 yards as a runner and 12.1 yards as a receiver. He also returned punts and kickoffs again. Strong came out of retirement again to relieve Ward of kicking responsibilities, while Hein coached the Union College football team on Saturdays and then suited up for the Giants on Sundays. Ward was a key member of the league’s most opportunistic defense. New York registered five shutouts in the abbreviated 10-game schedule as the Giants edged the Philadelphia Eagles for the Eastern crown with an 8–1–1 record.
The 1944 NFL Championship was just like old times, with the Giants and Packers facing off. This time Herber was wearing the blue uniform, and the Giants held bragging rights during the regular season, having beaten Green Bay 24–0. But Paschal injured his ankle in the final week, making Ward the team’s lone offensive weapon, as he switched from wingback to tailback for the title game. He responded with 76 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries and two catches for 23 yards.
On defense, Ward was part of a double-team lockdown on the dangerous Don Hutson. The Packers ended up using their superstar end as a decoy and ran the ball to the resulting soft spot in the New York defense. They scored twice in the second quarter to take a 14–0 lead, before Ward rumbled into the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut the deficit in half. The Giants mounted what looked to be a game-tying drive late in the quarter, but Herber threw an interception to end the threat.
Ward played his last season with the Giants in 1945. Once again, he filled many roles, serving as the team’s primary punter and punt returner. He also finished as New York’s second-leading rusher and receiver.
Ward was the final veteran remaining from the early 1940s. Younce and Blozis had joined the Army. (Blozis was killed in France, casting a pall upon the season.) This left mostly rookies and over-the-hill players to fill out the New York roster, and it showed, as the Giants managed only three victories. The lone bright spot occured in the next-to-last game, when Herber came off the bench and threw three TD passes to Frank Liebel in a span of five minutes to win the game.
With the war over and a return of talent to the NFL in 1946, Ward became expandable. The Giants decided to keep Strong on as the team’s kicker and traded Ward to the Chicago Cardinals. He left New York as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, with 319 points.
Now 33, Ward was almost done as an all-purpose back, but his strong and accurate right leg still had value. The Cardinals had the makings of a good team. Their defense was solid, and they had a terrific offensive line led by Vince Banonis and Buster Ramsey. Ward saw enough action to score one rushing touchdown and one receiving touchdown, while leading the team with 55 points on the power of five field goals and 28 extra points. The Cards finished a respectable 6–5. They would win the NFL West in 1947 and 1948.
Unfortunately for Ward, he would not be a part of that success. Following the 1946 season, he was shipped “home” to Green Bay, where the Packers were beginning a free fall that would last until Vince Lombardi took over the team. There were still enough quality players to play winning football, and Ward contributed as the team’s kicker, with a league-leading seven field goals and 30 PATs in 30 attempts.
Ward didn’t have much fun in Green Bay. Curly Lambeau was ill-equipped to coach in the rapidly changing NFL, and sometimeshe took out his frustrations on the Packers. Ward could have played on, either in Green Bay or for one of the AAFC teams, but he decided to retire at age 35. He took a job as football and track coach at Central Catholic High School in Green Bay.
As was the case with many players of his era, Ward’s final numbers were not immediately impressive. In 11 seasons he rushed for 1,851 yards and seven touchdowns, and caught 106 passes for 1,559 yards and 13 TDs. These days, some guys do that in one season.
It is when Ward is compared to his contemporaries that his value becomes clear. He played in the first, second and fourth Pro Bowls, and was a first-team All-Pro as both a halfback and fullback. The Giants reached the postseason five times in the nine years Ward played for them, and in 11 years he was on a grand total of one losing club.
As a pass defender, Ward had few peers. He picked off 11 passes and was rarely beaten in the open field. As a kicker, Ward led the NFL in field goals in his first full year at that position and in his last year as a pro. Between the years 1932 and 1945, his 43 field goals led the NFL. Ward was the three-point champ four times, setting a record that was later broken by Lou Groza.
During the 1950s, Ward moved with his wife, Doris, and their two daughters to the West Coast. He served as an assistant for the Oregon State football team, before taking a job with the Boeing Corporation in Seattle as a recruiter and as an industrial recreation manager.
Ward kept his hand in football, helping out at Blanchet High School in Seattle. Among the players he worked with was Rick Redman, who went on to become an All-Star linebacker with the San Diego Chargers.
Ward followed the Giants through their glory years in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and watched Y.A. Tittle carry his number 14 to further glory. The team later retired the jersey to honor both men. Ward retired from Boeing in the 1970s and moved to the San Francisco Bay area. He passed away of heart failure on Christmas Eve in Vallejo in 2002.
Ward was remembered as a player who could find a way to beat you if given the chance. And if not given the chance, he would create one. Though never considered the best player on the field, Ward was often the most indispensable. Many a Giant victory turned on a key block, tackle, kick, run or catch made by the man from Redwood Falls. Off the field, he was a true gentleman and trusted friend. "I have a lot of fond memories of him,” said Wellington Mara when informed of Ward’s passing. “He was a terrific competitor."
View the full website biography of Ward Cuff.