As a child, Doug Atkins was accustomed to a hardscrabble life in Depression Era rural Tennessee. The son of a journeyman painter/carpenter who often squandered his income on alcohol, Atkins learned early on about the uncertainties of life.
“My daddy worked for a while, then drank for a while,” Atkins said in an interview with teammate Maury Youmans. “I soon realized that I needed to work in order to keep food on our table.”
At age 12, Atkins found employment packing tomatoes. He constructed the crates out of plywood before picking season, then loaded the ripe produce on to boxcars.
“It was very tough work,” Atkins said, “but I was making $50 a week, which was a small fortune for a young boy back in those times.”
Once the harvest was complete, Atkins returned to school and tried out for football. Weighing only 118 pounds his freshman year, Atkins found the coaching staff to be less-than enthusiastic about his participation on the team. But by senior year, Atkins shot up to 6-8 and weighed a robust 195 pounds. Although, despite the growth spurt, he was still known by his nickname "Tiny”.
“I ended up getting a scholarship to the University of Tennessee,” Atkins said. “My scholarship actually was in basketball. Once I arrived on campus, I sort of put the football thing aside. That wasn’t my real interest at that time.”
Tennessee football coach, General Robert Nyland, didn’t see things Atkins’ way.
“Coach reminded me that I had been recruited to play football and basketball and that was exactly what I would be doing while I attended Tennessee. He said it was fine with him if I participated in other sports like basketball or track, but I had to be on the football field for every practice and every game.”
A headstrong Atkins soon found his match in coach Nyland, a retired army man who had graduated from West Point.
“Nyland knew everything that was going on. Nothing happened behind his back. At first the team didn’t accept him. The players thought it was odd that coach wore his military uniform to practice. They did just about anything they could to test him out.”
Nyland always had two sets of boxing gloves at practice. If any players had a dispute, the coach would make them box to determine a winner. After finally having enough of the hazing by his team, Nyland asked the players to pick the toughest man among them.
“I thought if this ol’ boy hits Nyland, we won’t have a football team,” Atkins said. “But when they started the fight, Nyland would dance around, throwing jabs. He never missed. Soon that boy said he’d had enough. Heck, he was bleeding like a stuck hog. We later found out that Nyland had been West Point boxing champion four years running. From that day on he had our attention and our respect.”
Atkins became a three-year starter on the Volunteers football team and was chosen as an All-American his senior year. The Cleveland Browns then chose Atkins as their first pick in the 1953 draft.
“The ironic things was that I had just met a guy in a bar who traveled with a professional basketball team, the Detroit Vagabonds,” Atkins said. “That sounded like an appealing way of life to me. I asked him if he was taking on any additional players. He told me they’d just lost a fellow who had gotten married. The team offered $350 a month, a veritable fortune to me.”
Atkins left school, but not before running into coach Nyland.
“I was carrying my old cardboard suitcase, which of course the coach spotted immediately. He said ‘Where in the heck do you think you’re going?’ I told him I was sick of school so I was getting out of there. I’d been doing football, basketball and track year round. I had no life outside of that. I was more than ready to move on.”
After three months on the road playing basketball, Atkins met with Weeb Ewbank of the Cleveland Browns.
“We drank beer and talked football,” Atkins said. “He offered me $6,500 to play for the Browns. I finally got him up to $6,800. I signed for that money, two cheeseburgers and eight beers. Today I think the kids get $5 million signing bonuses.”
Atkins later discovered that Paul Brown had authorized Ewbanks to pay as much as $8,500 for the defensive end.
“I should have wrung his neck,” Atkins said.
Atkins played for the Browns for two years but quickly grew dissatisfied with Paul Brown’s academic approach to the game of football.
“We had to take tests. I cheated like hell to get through them. It was like college but worse.”
Browns’ methods also had physical effects on his young player.
“I developed ulcers, aggravated a bad knee, and I lost 30 pounds, all from stress,” Atkins said.
As Atkins chafed under Brown’s leadership, he devised ways to drive his coach to distraction.
“He hated this song “Three Men in a Tub”. So when I was in a diner with Brown, I’d play it over and over. It drove him crazy.”
Brown traded Atkins to the Bears in 1955 following his second season in the NFL. Atkins thrived under coach George Halas’ direction and soon became known as the meanest and most effective defensive lineman in the league.
George Halas in his book “Halas by Halas” talked about his new player.
“Doug was a giant at 6-8, 255 pounds,” said Halas. “He was tough and widely respected. By 1959 we led the league in defense for the first time since 1948. We held our opposing teams to fewer than 200 points. Atkins was a big part of that effort.”
Atkins became known as a devastating pass rusher who would think nothing of leaping over offensive linemen on his way to the quarterback. It was a skill he would credit to his years of track, which included the Southeastern Conference high jump title while at Tennessee.
Atkins was named Most Valuable Lineman in the 1959 Pro Bowl and earned All-NFL honors in 1960, 1961 and 1963. He started in the Pro Bowl for eight of his last nine years with the Bears.
He was also known for his fierce temper and emotional fireworks both on and off the field. The word around the league was that he was tough on every play, but even more difficult to handle when he was mad.
“Doug was a man you never wanted to make angry,” teammate Stan Jones once said.
Halas was a strict man and a man of predictable habits. He rose at 6:30 a.m. sharp, exercised for half an hour, ate a bowl of bran flakes, half a grapefruit, a banana and coffee. He was in his office by 9 a.m. and met with his staff by 9:15 a.m.
Atkins had no such set routine and viewed life as it unfolded before him, rather than as a product of an immutable plan. Not surprisingly, as a result of their differences, Atkins and Halas often clashed.
“Doug resented discipline of any kind,” Halas said. “He was way too casual about practice. He hated any kind of a routine. He thought he could get it all done on Sundays, which is not the way I work at all. I’m not at all surprised that Doug didn’t get along with Paul Brown. Brown was a very straight fellow, a strict disciplinarian. Doug resented that from the first time they met. They were like oil and water”
Halas soon found that when Atkins acted out, the best counterbalance was to come back even stronger against his player.
“One night a fan called me telling me that Doug was acting up in a local bar,” said Halas. “I got on my clothes and headed over there. Sure enough, there was complete havoc going on. When he saw me, Atkins shouted a river of profanities. I upped him and met his river with my personal Niagara. Doug then put down his glass and headed back to camp.
“The next day he was out there on the practice field, no trace of wobbliness from the night before. My technique of fighting fire with fire worked where Doug was concerned, and eventually we became good friends.”
Atkins continued his independent ways throughout his entire tenure with the Bears. Teammate Richie Petitbon remembers the atmosphere in Atkins’ room at training camp.
“Doug always had a cooler filled with cokes, beer and other stuff, and he played this loud country music," Petitbon said. "After that incident with Halas in the bar, the assistant coaches were afraid to come in and check on Doug. Not difficult to guess why.”
Petitbon remembered clearly one incident that involved Atkins and a pit bull.
“There was this year he brought a pit bull to camp, kept it in his room,” said Petitbon. “The dog’s name was Rebel. One night I had to leave to go back to my room. I walked by Rebel and heard this tremendous growling then he bit into my leg. And you know with pit bulls, once they latch on they are not going to let go. It hurt like Hell. Doug didn’t do a thing to help. Nobody could leave until Doug, or Rebel, said it was OK to go.”
Predictably, Halas and Atkins often clashed over salaries.
“One time we were talking about contracts and I said ‘Coach, I want an extra $500.’ Halas looked surprised and said ‘If I gave that to you. You’d just spend it.’ I told him that was what I wanted it for, but I don’t think he ever gave in.”
Atkins once asked Halas for a loan.
“He was ragging on me for not playing as well as Gino Marchetti. I knew Gino had just received a $50,000 loan from his team management. I told Halas that if he gave me equal money like Rosenblum gave Marchetti, he’d get his own version of Marchetti on the Bears roster. He never paid and I continued to play like Atkins, not Marchetti.”
Halas recalled one particularly heated exchange with Atkins.
“I’ve put up with this crap for eight years,” Atkins told Halas. “Your coaching facilities are antique. Bevins should be cut. He’s no good. Galimore is OK. He’s the best back in the NFL. You can’t have two guys controlling the defense. I have a $500 bonus at the end of the season. If I don’t get that by Tuesday, you can get another defensive end. I’m going to write an article about this once I’m done playing.”
Atkins’ relationship with the press was also contentious at times.
“There was one writer who said I played badly,” Atkins said. “I asked him what in the heck he knew about that since he wasn’t in our meetings or on the field with us. He told me he played some in high school and it was his personal opinion that I wasn’t any good. I told him I’d call every player in the NFL and tell them this writer was a drunken philanderer. I didn’t know if that was true or not. It was just my personal opinion. That shut him up for a while.”
Eventually after 12 seasons in Chicago, Atkins felt his tenure with Halas had run its course and requested a trade.
“Coach called me and asked if I was still happy with the team,” Atkins said. “I told him no, I was ready to leave. Halas made calls and got me a contract with New Orleans. I played there for three years until my retirement. As much as I had enjoyed being in Chicago, New Orleans was a fine team with fine fans.”
Atkins played football for a total of 25 years in high school, college and the pros. He was one of the first to play exclusively at defensive end and helped revolutionize the position.
Atkins’ No. 91 jersey was retired by the University of Tennessee in 2005. His Saints uniform, No. 81, is one of two numbers originally retired by the franchise. Atkins was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.
“Football in a way was much like the work I knew in my early years,” Atkins said. “You had to toil and put in the time to earn results. I knew coach Halas never felt I put in the time and effort in practice that he wanted me to, but in my view I did what was required. The results were there and that is what counts.”