KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Doug Atkins, a defensive lineman who earned induction into both the Pro Football Hall of Fame and College Football Hall of Fame, has died. He was 85.
Robert Shelton, a co-owner of Shelton-Hunt Funeral Home in Humboldt, Tennessee, said that Atkins died Wednesday morning of natural causes at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in Knoxville, Tennessee.
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Atkins was a four-time all-NFL selection who made eight Pro Bowl appearances during a 17-year NFL career with the Cleveland Browns, Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints. His 6-foot-8 frame created major matchup problems for opponents.
“He was just a vicious pass rusher,” said Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, a former Bears teammate. “He’d take the tackle all the way back to the quarterback and knock them both down, things like that. He had a great wingspan. He just played the game hard. He played the game the way you were supposed to play it.”
Atkins wreaked havoc with his size.
“He looked like Michelangelo’s David physically,” said Bill Curry, a former NFL offensive lineman who played against Atkins. “That’s what he looked like. Just huge. He was perfectly proportioned. ... He was symmetrical, but he was just so much bigger and stronger than any of the rest of us.”
Atkins spent his first two seasons with the Browns, who selected him out of Tennessee with the 11th overall pick in the 1953 NFL Draft. He was in Chicago from 1957-66 and with New Orleans from 1967-69.
He was a part of NFL championship teams with Cleveland in 1954 and with Chicago in 1963.
“Doug Atkins is an all-time great who will be remembered as one of the pillars of the 1963 Championship Bears. He had a freakish combination of size and athletic ability and was as tough as anyone who ever stepped on a football field,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said in a statement released by the team. “Doug wasn’t afraid to offer his opinion off the field as well and had a unique communication style when it came to interacting with Coach (George) Halas.
“He embodied the spirit and commitment of what it means to be a Bear. Our prayers are with Doug’s wife, Sylvia, and their family.”
Atkins, who originally enrolled at Tennessee on a basketball scholarship, was considered the NFL’s best defensive lineman for during his pro career. He was selected to the NFL’s 1960s all-decade team.
“He was one of the most physical guys that played the game ever,” Ditka said. “Nobody messed with Doug, believe me.”
Atkins played at Tennessee from 1950-52. Tennessee went 29-4-1 during his college career and won a national title in 1951.
“Doug Atkins was one of the best who ever played” at Tennessee,” Gus Manning, a Tennessee athletic administrator for over six decades, said Wednesday in a university release. “He was a real competitor and extremely tough.”
Atkins was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1985. Atkins and Reggie White are the only Tennessee players ever to be inducted into both halls of fame.
“Football has been good to me,” Atkins said during his Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech. “It has been my life.”
Tennessee has retired his No. 91 jersey, while the Saints have retired his No. 81.
The Saints issued a team statement extending their “sincere sympathies” to Atkins’ family and saying that “he holds a special place in our club’s early history and will always be remembered.”