Running back Chuck Muncie, who formed half of the New Orleans Saints’ productive “Thunder and Lightning” backfield of the late 1970s, died Monday of a heart attack at the age of 60.
The 6-foot-3, 227-pound Muncie, who wore prescription glasses under his helmet, possessed a rare combination of size and speed for the position in the mid-1970s and was among the league’s top backs of his era along with Walter Payton, Earl Campbell, John Riggins and Pete Johnson.
But Muncie’s promising career with the Saints ended after four-plus seasons in New Orleans, mainly because of substance-abuse problems that caused him to bicker with teammates, miss chartered flights for road games — including two in his second season in 1977 — and skip practices.
A decade after leaving the Saints, he served prison time for selling cocaine but turned his life around and started a foundation that has helped at-risk children avoid the mistakes he made.
The Saints confirmed reports of Muncie’s death through his family and issued a statement from owner Tom Benson.
“Sadly, we have learned of the untimely passing of Chuck Muncie,” Benson said in the statement.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family and other loved ones at this difficult time.”
A two-year star at Cal, the Saints made Muncie the third overall pick of the 1976 NFL draft after a sensational senior season in which he was the runner-up to Archie Griffin in the Heisman Trophy voting.
After selecting Muncie, the Saints went for 6-foot, 228-pound fullback Tony Galbreath with their second-round pick and then-coach Hank Stram dubbed them his “Thunder and Lightning” backfield.
The speedy Muncie was the lightning to the powerful Galbreath’s thunder.
They were quite a formidable duo as Galbreath, an accomplished receiver out of the backfield, helped opened holes that Muncie, also a capable pass-catcher, dashed through.
In their rookie season, which then consisted of 14 games, Muncie and Galbreath combined for 1,279 rushing yards and nine touchdowns and added 692 yards on 85 receptions. A year later, they backed it up with 1,172 rushing yards and 12 TDs and 100 catches for 815 yards.
Muncie accounted for 1,470 rushing yards and had 52 receptions for 520 yards in those two seasons before injuries plagued him in 1978.
A year later, Muncie became the first player in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards as he finished with 1,198 yards and averaged 5.0 yards per carry while scoring 11 TDs.
He also caught 40 passes for 308 yards and earned his first Pro Bowl invitation, where he was named the game’s MVP.
But weary of his antics on and off the field, the Saints traded Muncie to the San Diego Chargers after four games in 1980.
With the 1981 second-round draft pick they acquired in the Muncie deal, the Saints chose outside linebacker Rickey Jackson. Jackson turned out to be one of the team’s all-time greats and in 2010 was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Muncie played in 59 games with the Saints and was the team’s all-time leading rusher when he left with 3,393 yards and 28 touchdowns, which was also a franchise record. He still ranks fifth on the club’s all-time rushing list.
He had almost identical numbers with the Chargers, rushing for 3,309 yards in 51 games from 1980-84 and earning two more Pro Bowl invites.
But Muncie was suspended for all but one game in 1984 after testing positive for cocaine, which effectively ended his career. In nine seasons, he rushed for 6,702 yards and 71 TDs and caught 263 passes for 2,323 yards with three touchdowns.
Muncie was convicted of selling cocaine in 1989 and spent 18 months in prison, but later got his life in order and in 1997 established the Chuck Muncie Youth Foundation in Emeryville, Calif., to help children avoid the things that derailed his career.