By Jim McConnell, Staff Writer
Who was the best athlete in CIF-Southern Section history? We mentioned two candidates – Bonita High School’s Glenn Davis and Bishop Amat’s Pat Haden – in last week’s column. Readers have submitted a few more. (To continue, click thread)
Several “nominated” Citrus High School’s Billy Kilmer. No question, Kilmer was an outstanding high school athlete, a star in football, basketball and baseball. Still, many of Kilmer’s most impressive accomplishments came while playing at Citrus College, and then at UCLA.
Others called or wrote with the name Jackie Robinson. Jackie was a very good high school athlete, but he really came into his own at Pasadena Junior College and UCLA.
Robinson is also one of that rare breed, someone who played at the professional level in three sports. In Jackie’s case, he played pro football before serving in the Army in WWII and played pro basketball after his discharge in 1945. For his baseball exploits, check out his plaque at Cooperstown.
Then there is a name brought up by Glendora’s Warren Bowen.
“One of the most amazing and gifted athletes was Charlie Powell,” Bowen wrote. “The reports of his exploits were truly astounding.”
Turns out Powell is still very much with us, alive and well at 78 and living in Altadena.
As for his athletic accomplishments, well, I will let you be the judge. It should be known at the top that Powell – like Robinson – is one of those rare three-sport pros. And Powell’s trifecta is perhaps the most remarkable of any athlete.
Powell, who prepped at San Diego High, was CIF-SS football Player of the Year in 1950. In basketball, he was good enough to be an all-league center and talented enough to be offered a contract by the Harlem Globetrotters. In track, he was a sub 10-second man in the 100-yard dash and put the shot 57-feet, 9-inches – still a San Diego school record. In baseball, he was also all-league.
After graduation, he signed with Bill Veeck and the St. Louis Browns and played one season, 1952, with the Stockton Ports of the California League.
He then signed with the San Francisco 49ers of the NFL and in his NFL debut, as a defensive end, sacked All-Pro quarterback Bobby Layne four times.
He played from 1952 to 1957 with the 49ers. He also played in 1960 and 1961 with the Oakland Raiders of the American Football League.
But the third component of Powell’s professional career is the most compelling.
From 1953 to 1965, he boxed professionally. In the late 1950s, he was ranked in the Top 10 in the world in the heavyweight division.
At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he was one of the most feared men in the ring.
The late Mickey Davies, matchmaker at the Olympic Auditorium in the 1960s and 1970s, once told me that Charley was the most impressive physical specimen he had ever seen.
“If Charley would have concentrated on boxing and had the type of handling that Angelo Dundee gave (Muhammad) Ali, he would have been a world champion,” Davies said. “He was bigger than Ali, stronger than Ali, more athletic than Ali and hit a hell of a lot harder.
“But there’s a big difference between being in shape to play football and being in shape to fight a top-ranked boxer. I don’t think Charley ever really got into shape to box. And his handlers put him in a couple fights he just wasn’t ready for.”
Probably the biggest misstep in Powell’s boxing career came in 1954. Powell started his career undefeated in 12 fights. He then signed to meet Charley Norkus, a veteran of 36 pro fights, in a nationally televised main event.
Powell knocked Norkus down in the first round, but couldn’t put him away. Norkus then resorted to roughhouse tactics and eventually wore Powell down, winning by technical knockout in the seventh round.
Powell’s career never quite recovered.
Still, he had his moments. The best came in 1959, again in a nationally televised bout. Powell upset Nino Valdes, at the time ranked second in the world. Valdes carried a 46-16-3 record into the bout, expected to be a tune-up for a title shot. Instead, Powell took it to him, eventually knocking out the Cuban in the eighth round.
That put Powell back in the title picture. He fought top-ranked Roy Harris in 1959 in Harris’ hometown of Houston, with the winner to get a shot at Floyd Patterson. Harris, 25-1 going into the fight, was awarded a narrow decision, a fight most ringside observers (other than the judges) felt Powell had won.
From there, it was tough for Powell to land bouts. Most in the division avoided him. By the time he finally landed a bout with Cassius Clay in 1963, Powell was well past his prime. Clay knocked him out in the third.
Powell finally fought Floyd Patterson in 1964, but Patterson took him out in six. Powell’s last fight was in 1965.
He retired with a 25-11-3 record, 17 knockouts, and at least as many “might-have-beens.”
In later years, Powell became an accomplished golfer. He was also elected to the San Diego Sports Hall of Fame.
And, on any list of best prep athletes in SoCal history, he has to rate more than a mention.
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