Why Hall's 2020 Centennial Class may be aimed more at pre-modern era figures

Clark Judge

A reminder to those who may have forgotten: The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s expanded Class of 2020 is called the Centennial Class for a reason: It celebrates the last 100 years of the NFL … not just the past 30, 40 or 50.

OK, so most people know, right? Not so fast.

USA Today recently previewed the Centennial Class, with the writer handicapping the 10 seniors, three contributors and two coaches most likely to make it. There were 24 candidates. Only one pre-dated 1960 – former running back Marshall Goldberg.

Duke Slater wasn’t in there. Neither was Al Wistert. Slater played in the 1920s; Wistert in the 1940s. Guaranteed, one or both are inducted as part of the Hall’s Class of 2020.

They’re not alone. Ox Emerson wasn’t there. Nor were guys like Mac Speedie, Verne Lewellen, Lavvie Dilweg and Ed Sprinkle, all of whom played prior to 1960. Clark Shaughnessy and Buddy Parker weren’t included among the coaches, either, which is another way of saying the pre-modern era of the NFL was barely represented.

Nevertheless, based on everything I’m hearing, that’s not how it will be.

Granted, all depends on the “blue ribbon panel” the Hall will form to choose candidates, and we don’t know who comprises it, how it will be chosen or when it will be chosen. But, guaranteed, when it convenes, its members will be instructed that the Centennial Class of 2020 it selects should celebrate all 100 years … not just the modern era.

The problem, of course, is that there are so many deserving candidates over the past century, with our Rick Gosselin counting 65 all-decade players among the backlog of qualified seniors not in the Hall – including seven first-decade choices. Of those seven, only one (former safety Cliff Harris) has been a finalist.

And that was once (2004).

So, naturally, most fans believe the Hall’s expanded senior class is an opportunity for someone like a Cliff Harris … or Drew Pearson … or Maxie Baughan, Ken Anderson, Alex Karras or Bob Kuechenberg … basically anyone from the past 30, 40 or 50 years … to graduate to Canton.

And maybe it is. All are Hall-of-Fame worthy.

But my guess is that modern-era players don’t comprise the majority of the senior class and may, in fact, be a minority. The reason: There’s a litany of qualified seniors from that group, too – with Slater and Wistert the most noteworthy. Yet, unlike the modern-era candidates, it’s not just time that’s forgotten them.

It’s virtually everyone and everything.

Their peers are gone. Their coaches are gone. The writers who covered them are gone. The voters who saw them are gone. And, in all but a handful of cases, the players themselves are gone. There is almost nobody out there to speak up for them, which is why the expanded Class of 2020 was originated.

This is that chance.

Most of us remember luminaries like Baughan, Kuechenberg, L.C. Greenwood, Donnie Shell, Anderson and Cliff Branch. And for those who don’t, we have videotape to remind us. But try finding a “SportsCenter” highlight of Duke Slater, Llewellyn or Cecil Isbell, and good luck.

You can’t. Yet they’re as qualified for admission to Canton as the others. The only difference is that their hurdles are higher.

I remember former Green Bay defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur once explaining how his defense held Barry Sanders to a career-worst -1 yard rushing in a 1994 playoff game and, in the process, recalling how he told his players prior to kickoff to concentrate on stopping Sanders more than that afternoon’s bitter cold.

“I told them about the Ice Bowl,” he said, referring the Packers’ 1967 NFL championship defeat of Dallas in sub-zero temperatures. “And they had no idea what I was talking about. They don’t know history. They think the NFL started with ‘The Catch.’ “

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s blue ribbon panel won’t make that mistake. The Hall is built on a foundation of history, reminding anyone who visits Canton that the NFL didn’t start with The Catch or the Packers’ defeat of Kansas City in Super Bowl I and that its roots extend to the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.

That should be reflected in its choice of candidates for the Class of 2020 seniors, contributors and coaches. And I believe it will.

Comments (3)
No. 1-2

only two off the top of my head would be slater and wistert

Jay Casey
Jay Casey

Clark, great take on a difficult topic. Given the scarcity of actual HOF criteria, we are left to apply various perspectives, some based on historical impact -- the case with so many pioneers (and rightfully so) -- and then an evolution to stats and other quantifiable data, including team accomplishments. There is no right or wrong comparing these perspectives, but it all lacks consistency and clarity. Also, there is the physical ability of a player, which certainly should be a part of all this...... Duke Slater clearly makes the HOF grade on all those criteria, plus things that we are not supposed to consider beyond the football field. He contributed much to our country. Historian Andy Piascik offers intensive insight in Gridiron Gauntlet and other well-researched works that dive deep into the early years of football.
To be sure, there are pre-war prospects beyond Slater who deserve HOF busts, but their impact is sometimes skewed as some of them played against poor competition even as they moved from wildcat/ semi-pro level football into the NFL. One might wonder how a player in 1918 to 1930 who played in multiple pro leagues might viewed if he had an impact similar to that of Herschel Walker, who cant get a sniff at the HOF. His impact was truly historic in two pro leagues and deserves to be remembered in another 100 years -- in bronze. It all makes for great conversation, for sure

NFL Stories