Charles Albert “Chunkin’ Charlie” Conerly Jr., one of Mississippi’s first football superstars at the national level, played quarterback for the New York Giants of the National Football League (NFL) from 1948 to 1961. He was born in Clarksdale on 19 September 1921 to Charles Albert Conerly Sr. and Winiford Fite Conerly and graduated from Clarksdale High School in 1941.
He received a football scholarship from the University of Mississippi, where he played single-wing tailback, but left the university after the 1942 season and joined the US Marines, seeing combat duty in the South Pacific. Conerly returned to the university after the war, and despite the Rebels’ miserable 2–7 record in 1946, he was selected to the all–Southeastern Conference (SEC) team. As captain during his senior year Conerly teamed with Barney Poole to lead first-year head coach John Vaught’s Rebels to the 1947 SEC championship, the school’s first. That season, as half of the heralded “Conerly to Poole” passing and receiving duo, he set national collegiate passing records. For his exploits, Conerly won all-SEC and all-American recognition and finished fourth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.
Also an outstanding collegiate baseball player, he was offered a contract to play professional baseball but chose pro football instead. In 1948 he joined the New York Giants and enjoyed a record-setting first season that earned him NFL Rookie of the Year honors. In 1949 he married Perian Collier, also from Clarksdale. She became a noted sportswriter and author who chronicled her husband’s NFL career in her 1963 book, Backseat Quarterback. During Conerly’s tenure with the team, the Giants won four Eastern Division titles (1956, 1958, 1959, and 1961), and he twice earned a spot on the Pro Bowl team. In 1956 he led the Giants to the NFL championship, and two years later he was the quarterback in the Giants’ sudden-death overtime loss to the Baltimore Colts. That contest, called by many commentators one of the greatest pro football games ever played, helped usher in the modern era of big-time sporting events on television. On 29 November 1959 the Giants held Charlie Conerly Day in his honor at Yankee Stadium. That year, at age thirty-eight, he won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player Award. At the conclusion of the 1961 season, he retired from football, and the following year the Giants retired his uniform number, 42, the same number he had worn during his playing days at the University of Mississippi.
Conerly spent his career in New York, the NFL’s largest market, where he played the glamour position, quarterback, at a time when live broadcasts of pro football games were in their infancy. Since he was such a high-profile figure, Madison Avenue turned him into a spokesman for a wide array of products, among them car batteries, men’s apparel, chewing gum, life insurance, deodorant, bread, and cigarettes. Of all these endorsements, his most famous was undoubtedly his portrayal of the Marlboro Man.
A skilled passer, quiet leader, and courageous performer known for his physical and mental toughness, Conerly took terrible beatings playing behind weak lines in the early 1950s and was often blamed by Giants fans for the team’s poor records. Whether he was cheered or, as was often the case during those early years at the Polo Grounds, booed, he showed little emotion on the field. Referred to by New York sportswriters as the “Old Pro,” he took a low-key approach to the game, avoided the limelight, and was something of a reluctant hero. In 1966 Conerly was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, and in 1993 Rebel football fans named him to the Ole Miss Team of the Century. Since 1996 the Conerly Trophy has been awarded annually to the state’s top collegiate football player.
Following a lengthy illness, Conerly died in Memphis of congestive heart failure on 13 February 1996.
- Charlie Conerly with Tom Meany, The Forward Pass (1960)
- Perian Conerly, Backseat Quarterback (1963)
- Lud Duroska, ed., Great Pro Quarterbacks (1972)
- Frank Gifford with Charles Mangel, Gifford on Courage (1976)
- Booton Herndon, Football’s Greatest Quarterbacks (1961)
- Mickey Herskowitz, The Golden Age of Pro Football: NFL Football in the 1950s (1990)
- William W. Sorrels and Charles Cavagnaro, Ole Miss Rebels: Mississippi Football (1976)
- John Vaught, Rebel Coach: My Football Family (1971)