When the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced last month that it would increase the number of senior finalists the next three years, it also said it would increase the number of voters choosing them. Instead of nine selectors, as it is today, the figure would move to 12.
Significant? It could be. If the Hall makes the right move.
It should … no, it must … include historians.
That was underscored last week when The Talk of Fame Network ran a Senior Draft and invited five historians to participate. The results were illuminating: The No. 1 choice, former Dallas linebacker Chuck Howley, has never been a Hall-of-Famer finalist. Nor was the second choice, former guard Dick Barwegen. Granted, the third pick of the draft, Denver linebacker Randy Gradishar, was a Centennial Class finalist. But he failed to make the final cut.
Worse, he’s had little traction with senior voters since.
The difference between historians and voters is twofold: 1) Where historians dig deep with their research, viewing game films and play-by-plays of seniors, voters typically don’t; and 2) historians pay far more attention to pre-1960s’ standouts than most of today’s 49 selectors because ... well, because they're historians.
Exhibit A: Last week's draft when Ken Crippen, founder and lead instructor of The Football Learning Academy, spent the 35th and last pick – Mr. Irrelevant – on a running back named Tony Latone. Never heard of him? Neither had I. So I looked him up.
He played for three teams from 1925-30 and is unofficially the NFL’s leading rusher of the 1920s. Moreover, he outrushed and outscored Hall-of-Famer Red Grange despite playing 30 fewer games. Latone’s 1930 contract with the Providence Steam Roller is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Tony Latone is not.
In fact, he’s never been a finalist.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s mission, as it constantly reminds us, is to 1) honor the heroes of the game; 2) preserve its history, 3) promote its values and 4) celebrate excellence EVERYWHERE. Tony Latone was a hero whose excellence was celebrated … but not in Canton.
The reason: He played so long ago that he’s been forgotten.
Now look at former Philadelphia star lineman Al Wistert. An all-decade tackle who was an All-Pro eight of his nine pro seasons, Wistert played on back-to-back championship winners (1948-49), was a captain of those teams and was so accomplished that he was named to the Eagles’ Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame.
But Canton? Not a chance.
Like Gradishar, Wistert was a Centennial Class finalist. But, like Gradishar, he was left behind in 2020. In our Historians’ Draft, however, he wasn't. He was the first player off the board in Round Two with the sixth overall choice.
The reason: He wasn’t forgotten.
Nor were past stars like offensive lineman Ox Emerson, end Lavvie Dilweg, running back Ward Cuff and wide receiver Jim Benton, all pre-1960s’ stars. In fact, of the 20 players chosen on the final day of the Senior Draft, seven – or more than a third of the class – played prior to 1960. That’s because historians dive much deeper into the NFL’s past than most of today’s selectors.
So why wouldn’t you have them involved with the senior process? You would. No, you should. I don’t care if it’s as a voter or a consultant. They must be heard.
Hall-of-Fame president Jim Porter understood that when he succeeded David Baker last October. One of his first acts was to talk former Joe Horrigan, once the Hall's executive director, out of a two-and-a-half-year retirement-- a move endorsed then by John Madden.
Horrigan is widely considered one of pro football's premier archivists.
"The Tom Brady of football historians," The Athletic's Tom Reed wrote in a 2019 profile on Horrigan
So when Porter appeared on an “Eye Test for Two” podcast recently (Ep 107: Pro Football HOF President Jim Porter Returns To The Show | Spreaker), he was asked if the Hall might take another step forward and include historians in future senior votes. He didn’t say yes. But he didn’t say no, and consider that encouraging.
As last week’s Senior Draft demonstrated, they bring a different perspective to the table. They haven’t forgotten the past because researching the past is what they do. You want to fix a leak, you call a plumber. You want to know about Cecil Isbell, you consult an historian.
One of the foundations of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, remember, is “to preserve (the game’s) history.” Some people think that history starts with the NFL-AFL merger. Some think it began with The Catch. Historians don’t. They go back to the game’s beginning, evaluating stars on whose shoulders the NFL was built.
That’s a more comprehensive view of the past and one that shouldn’t be ignored. So don’t. Include historians in the next senior vote.