Guest columnist: Centennial Class missed by excluding Wistert, Emerson
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Each weekend this offseason a guest columnist weighs in with thoughts on the NFL -- past, present or future. Today, frequent contributor and historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal tells us why senior candidates Al Wistert and Ox Emerson deserve to reach Canton ... and should have made it with the Centennial Class of 2020.)
Like so many others, I was excited about the 2020 Centennial Class because it was a chance for the backlog of senior players I call “super seniors” (those who played long before the more contemporary players in the senior pool) to get one more shot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Among them was former lineman Duke Slater, one of my favorites among the “super seniors,” and he was elected. Hallelujah! However, in a couple of cases players who either played recently or had lesser credentials leapfrogged others, two of whom had ideal credentials.
Linemen Al “Ox” Wistert and “Ox” Emerson.
These two were twin sons from different mothers in terms of their Hall-of-Fame cases, and let me explain. Both were six-time first-team All-NFL selections. Both were all-decade selections. Both played on dominant teams that won NFL championships. Both played on teams that were statistically dominant. And both had excellent “testimonials” to vouch for their abilities.
Need more? Keep reading.
Emerson was All-Pro six times -- 1932-37 (five consensus-1932-36). Wistert was All-Pro six times -- 1944-49 (five consensus-1944-48) -- and was a second-team pick two additional seasons.
Check the record books, and see how rare it is for a player at any position in any era to be a six-time All-Pro -- with five of them being consensus picks (making the majority of the major All-Pro teams in a given season). Six-time All-Pros are in the upper-upper echelon of that metric. A five-time consensus All-Pro is a rarer accomplishment, and both these two-way players achieved that.
Both made the Official NFL all-decade teams but were also on the majority of the other all-decade teams chosen, evidence of strong recognition of their talents.
Emerson was a guard and lineman for the 1935 NFL champion Lions, Wistert was a tackle and defensive tackle for the 1948-49 champion Philadelphia Eagles. Both players have the jewelry, the bling, the rings.
Emerson was the top blocker on the 1936 Lions, a team that set an NFL record for rushing yards in a season with 2,885 yards (in 12 games), a mark that stood until 1972 when the Miami Dolphins broke it in a 14-game season. The 2,885 yards are still 13 all-time AND, on a per-game basis, still the best in NFL history (240.4 yards rushing per game).
Emerson was also a defender on the third-best defense in terms of points allowed in NFL history, the 1934 Lions.
Wistert was the top blocker for the NFL’s record-setting runner, Steve Van Buren. Van Buren retired as the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, and “Ox” Wistert was a huge part of that and other records Van Buren set. Like Emerson, Wistert was also part of a top defense. He started on five defensive squads that allowed the fewest yards rushing in the NFL.
For both Emerson and Wistert there are more statistical data points, but the facts speak for themselves: They played for dominant teams.
“I regard Emerson as one of the greatest linemen I have ever seen perform on a football field. Having him out of our first five games hurt us more than anyone will ever know.”—Potsy Clark, former Spartans-Lions head coach, in 1935.
“(Ox) Emerson, the Detroit guard, according to Link Lyman of our Bears, is the fastest, ‘slicing’ forward and the hardest to block, he has ever met in football. And Link is almost a football line all by himself.”—Red Grange, former Bears Hall-of-Fame back, wrote in 1934.
In his book, Pro Football’s 100 Greatest Players, Hall-of-Fame coach George Allen selected Wistert as one of the ten best defensive linemen of all time. Allen wrote, “He was as fine a blocker as you could want. He didn’t have the size to overpower people on the pass block, but he was a master of every kind of block.”
As a defender, Allen added, "“He always played in perfect position and was seldom off his feet. He was a superb pursuit man and seemed somehow to get in on every play. He was a sure tackler. He was maybe best against the run, but he was among the good early pass rushers.”
As can been seen, both Oxes “checked all the boxes” that are the basis for a Hall-of-Fame career for a lineman—personal honors, team success, championships, statistical prowess and statements by peers attesting to the worthiness of their careers. How players who didn’t check “all the boxes” bypassed them in the Centennial Class is hard to understand.
I just hope at some point these two “super seniors” get yet one more shot at Hall-of-Fame induction. They deserve nothing less.