FROM NFL OFFENSIVE LINEMAN TO HOMEBUILDER

With custom creations, Chatham County's Ken Huff keeps reaping rewards

BY CHAPEL FOWLER, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/29/20

CHAPEL HILL — At his home in Governors Club, the decorations in Ken Huff’s basement paint a very different picture than the ones a floor above in his office.

Downstairs, you’ll see four …

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FROM NFL OFFENSIVE LINEMAN TO HOMEBUILDER

With custom creations, Chatham County's Ken Huff keeps reaping rewards

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Posted

CHAPEL HILL — At his home in Governors Club, the decorations in Ken Huff’s basement paint a very different picture than the ones a floor above in his office.

Downstairs, you’ll see four framed jerseys on the wall, a row of signed game balls sitting on the mantle and a slew of other keepsakes from his football career.

A blue and white Colts helmet rests the coffee table. A 1984 Super Bowl pennant hangs above the couch. And an old flyer for the 1974 Sun Bowl — featuring a young Huff with a head of thick brown hair and sideburns — leans against the beer tap in his well-stocked home bar, logically named Huffer’s.

But upstairs, the mood changes.

On the wall by his desktop Mac, his UNC diploma hangs next to a general contracting license for the state of North Carolina and two Governors Club builder of the year awards. A nearby table is full of thick binders, blueprints, carpenter’s pencils and notepads for ideas, instructions and ongoing projects.

From basement to office, it’s a nod to the intriguing career path that Huff, 67, has taken in life. All American offensive lineman. No. 3 overall pick in the NFL Draft. And since 1986, the owner of Ken Huff Builders, Inc., a custom homes business that works in Chatham County and beyond.

With it has come plenty of success — and a lot more stories.

“Since college, I’ve basically had two jobs: one was the NFL, and one was a builder,” Huff said. “And I’ve been blessed with both of them.”

‘Lightbulb went on’

How did a lanky California teenager who went to Massachusetts prep school to focus on swimming get drafted ahead of Walter Payton? Huff, to this day, sometimes wonders the same thing.

His football career began with little fanfare in Coronado, a city on a peninsula across from San Diego. Surrounded (literally) by beaches and waves, swimming was Huff’s end goal from age 6.

But he made strides as a defensive tackle as a junior and senior in high school, and starting putting on some weight. And by the time fall came at Deerfield Academy — Huff graduated high school at 17 and took a post-grad year — football looked like a mighty fine way to kill some time ahead of swim season.

After a few months of continued improvement and college interest, he dropped swimming in full and spent his winter on recruiting visits rather than in the pool.

“I got a little bit of heat from the administration for that,” Huff said. “I tried to try smooth things over in the spring by playing lacrosse for them.”

After one stroll down Franklin Street in February — it was 70 degrees, and he wore a T-shirt — Huff decided UNC was for him. He arrived in Chapel Hill in the summer of 1971 to play for coach Bill Dooley and staff, who converted him from a defensive tackle to an offensive lineman after two days of practice.

After a year on the freshman team, or Tar Babies, Huff latched on as a three-year, 35-game starter for the Tar Heels. UNC went 22-13 in his time at guard, winning the 1972 ACC Championship and two Sun Bowls. Huff grew to love the cerebral aspects and minutiae of the offensive line position.

Still, he said, he had “absolutely zero clue or idea that I’d be playing in the NFL.” He majored in psychology, something he saw as applicable to a business career, and kept an academic focus.

In a world devoid of social media and mock drafts, his first indicator that he might have a pro football career on the horizon was being selected to Playboy Magazine’s 1974 preseason All-American team ahead of his senior year.

That fall, he raked in awards, including a consensus All-America selection and the ACC’s league-wide Jacobs Blocking Trophy, while clearing the way for one of the country’s top offenses. UNC scored 30.3 points per game, eighth in the country, and had two 1,000-yard rushers.

By Jan. 28, the day of the 1975 NFL Draft, Huff had an agent and a heads-up that he should be near a phone early that morning for call. But, he thought, he’d still have time for a 9 a.m. breakfast.

“I’m ready to step out, and the phone rings,” Huff said. “I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, that’s too early. They just started.’ My agent told me I’d been selected. The lightbulb went on at that point.”

‘One of the mainstays’

In the mid-1970s, Don McCauley opened a bar in Carrboro.

The former UNC star running back, then playing with the Baltimore Colts, enjoyed the restaurant business — but, truthfully, he also needed the extra money to supplement his not-so-flashy NFL contract in the offseason.

McCauley quickly bonded with one UNC offensive lineman, four years younger than him, who frequented the bar. He was polite, sharp and respected the rule Dooley, his head coach, had put in place for players who drank — beer was fine, but not liquor. On especially busy nights at the bar, McCauley even paid the 6-foot-4 lineman to run front-door security with a buddy and keep an eye out for trouble.

So you can imagine McCauley’s delight when his team, the Colts, drafted Huff, his old bouncer — who wasn’t too shabby of a guard, either — third overall in 1975 (a pick ahead of Payton, a future Hall of Fame running back with the Bears).

“I can’t tell you how delighted I was,” McCauley, now 71 and living in Hillsborough, said. “Any time a running back can get a great lineman like him, you’re clicking your heels, to say the least.”

So began the first eight years of Huff’s NFL career. Baltimore, 2-12 the year before he arrived, logged three straight winning seasons and divisional round playoff appearances from 1975 to 1977. Huff was firmly entrenched as a starter and grew close with McCauley, among others.

“I could always cut back over to Ken, and there was going to be some room to maneuver,” McCauley said. “He was studious, bright, a natural leader. I always looked at him as one of the mainstays.”

By 1982, Baltimore was struggling — the team went winless in a strike-shortened season — and Huff’s second contract was expiring. Ahead of the 1983 season, he held out of training camp, asking for money the Colts weren’t willing to pay him. After a final negotiation Huff’s agent called him, laughing.

“Why are you laughing?” Huff said.

“The Colts just released you” the agent said.

“That’s nothing to laugh about.”

“Well, I’ve got four teams on the phone right now who want you.”

“Who’s the closest?”

Conveniently for Huff, that was Washington, the reigning Super Bowl champion just down the road from Baltimore that featured, among others, quarterback Joe Theismann, running back John Riggins and a young, talented offensive line known affectionately as The Hogs.

The cherry on top: they gave him more money than he’d asked the Colts for.

Huff spent just three years with Washington, mostly as a backup and veteran presence, but he left with plenty of memories, including a 1984 Super Bowl appearance (the team lost to the Raiders). He was in his 30s, but the atmosphere made him feel like a rookie again — he actually looked forward to practice.

And after every practice, he’d meet with a group — the rest of the offensive line, Riggins and defensive end Dave Butz — in a nearby equipment shed for what they called “5 O’Clock Club.” Each player chipped in $20 a week, and grounds crew workers used the cash to keep the shed stocked with cold beer.

The group’s “meetings” — Huff uses the term very loosely — could last anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours. Sometimes, Riggins brought a jar of white lightning moonshine. Huff and company later figured out Joe Gibbs, their head coach, could see the shed directly from his office window.

“If we had a long meeting the night before, we had long practice the next day,” Huff said, laughing. “And other players caught wind of it. So if practice was going long, we, as linemen, really heard about it.”

‘I’m still learning’

Figure out which partner is the decision-maker — there’s always one in every relationship.

Figure out what part of the house is most important to them. Master bedroom? Kitchen? Backyard?

Stagger your houses three to four months apart so you can use the same subcontractors for all of them.

And don’t dump the entire 16-month construction plan on your clients on Day One — although you’ve built dozens of homes, you have to remember: they’ve never been a part of this process.

Pointers like that come to mind easily for Huff, who’s now spent about twice as many years working in custom homes than he has played football.

As his NFL career wound down, Huff spent offseasons collaborating with architects, to get his feet wet. But office work made him antsy — he needed to be out in the field, as an on-site supervisor. When Washington released him in 1986, he retired, took a year off and dove right into his second act.

Returning to Chapel Hill, something Huff had always planned to do, ended up jump-starting his business. In the nation’s capital, teeming with big-time builders, he was a “very small fish in a huge pond,” he said.

But in his old college town, he saw a growing demand for custom homes in private communities, such as Governors Club and The Preserve in Chatham County and Treyburn in Durham. In those neighborhoods, “you could do one, two or three houses a year, do well and still have a market,” said Huff, who moved back in 1993.

In a normal year, Huff will oversee the construction of three or four houses. He has a reliable base of 15 or so subcontractors — companies that provide trades such as carpentry, roofing, flooring and electricity — and staggers projects so he can use those same businesses (ones he trusts) on every home.

“I’ve done some ultra-contemporary houses, some classical colonials and everything in between,” Huff said. “Every house is different, so that makes it fun for me as a builder — for every house, there’s new challenges. I’m still learning stuff after 30 years.”

Plus, he quipped, a decade in the NFL prepared him well for angry clients, because “you get used taking abuse from people” when you make your living on the line of scrimmage. That’s a joking exaggeration, though — Huff has built around 50 houses in Governors Club, and he said only twice have he and clients ended on bad terms. He remains friends with some people he built for 20 years ago.

“He says he’s going to retire by the time he’s 70,” Bonnie Parks, Huff’s girlfriend of eight years, added. “But I don’t know. That’s not very far from now.”

Huff concurred. An avid outdoorsman who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for his 55th birthday, he said he “feels fantastic,” especially after recent left knee and right hip replacements, and could see himself building for another five. If he still gets up every morning looking forward to the gig, then why not?

“I’ve got a lot of friends who have recently retired,” he said, “and they’re calling me constantly looking for something to do, or to play golf. I say, ‘Guys, I’ve still got my job! I have to work.’ But I love it … I can’t think of a better way to spend my years on earth.”

Reporter Chapel Fowler can be reached at cfowler@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.

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