Guest columnist: Centennial Class missed by excluding Wistert, Emerson

Clark Judge

(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.

All-Pros

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.

All-Decade

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.

Championships

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.

Record-setters

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.

Testimonials

For Emerson

“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.

For Wistert

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.”

Summary

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.

Comments (47)
No. 1-6
WMcCoy
WMcCoy

Great article as usual Clark.
When it was 1st announced for a centennial class, one of the statements made was they hoped to clean up the all decade 1st teams of which there were 7.
Of those 7 only 2 Cliff Harris & Jimbo Covert were chosen. 4 others did make the top 20...Ox Emerson & Al Wistert in your article. Also Lavern Dilweg & Drew Pearson. 1 other Bruno Banducci didn't even make the cut to 20.
Nothing against those selected, but so much for the all decade 1st team picks,who may never get another chance.( hope I'm wrong).
It would be nice to see the 10 finalist who didn't get in be next, but I know that's highly unlikely...If 2 seniors perhaps 1 is a living member. 2021 my picks would be Pearson & Dilweg.

Rancidaggro
Rancidaggro

Great article! Wistert is actually my number 1 pick for this years nominee along with Chuck Howley. I believe the 1940's All Decade list is a bit under represented in Canton and after Wistert was passed over last year I immediately put him at the top of my list for this year. Other than Duke Slater I thought Al Wistert had the best chance last year. Chuck Howley has been on my list since I started paying attention and has been climbing towards the top ever since. As much as I would love to see Pearson get the nod I think Howley would check a few more boxes for me. He would chip away at the long list of deserving Dallas candidates, he would represent the defensive side of the ball, and lastly he is still alive but up there in age. For those reasons (mainly the point about playing on defense) as well as his resume, he leaps over Pearson this year. At least for now. I tend to fluctuate a bit as we get closer to the selections and I run through every possible senior combination (usually trying to balance offense/defense, alive/passed, AFL/NFL, positions, divisions, as well as a consideration of those seniors who have recently been inducted.

I know Howley is a long shot but this year I have him as my number 2. One major hurdle would be two candidates from the NFC East. If not him then I wouldn't mind Randy Gradishar, Dave Grayson, Everson Walls, Lester Hayes or Tommy Nobis.

Most importantly, after some of the curve balls we faced last year, I hope we don't see anything out of left field. Unless of course you want to talk about special teamers. I also chose two nominees because anything less would be a travesty. 1-1-1? How about no. Combine and alternate coaches and contributors. Leave the senior nominees at two.

Can anyone else get behind a Wistert/Howley Selection for 2021?

Plawren2
Plawren2

And its now very possible Wistert and Emerson are forgotten and never elected.

brian wolf
brian wolf

One of the things that annoyed me about this years Centennial Class announcements was the "stage production" moments where Baker introduced Head Coaches Johnson and Cowher to the HOF ...

These coaches could have waited while older, deserving coaches could have been voted in but I get the feeling this Centennial Class might be the last chance pre-60s players make the HOF and I hope I am wrong.

Like Turney and Bob Fox had stated before, there is no reason why a Super Senior prior to 1960 and one afterward, cant be elected every year instead of the Lawrence Welk " a one and a two and a three" senior-coach-contributor approach now being discussed ...

With Isbell, Dilweg, Emerson, Lewellen and Wistert still on the table from last years finalists, you have a good starting point that could include many other players from 1910 - 1959 ...

Will the HOF care to give these players a chance or just elect more modern players who may still be alive, and can enjoy a last "stage production" from Baker himself ?

Whether Super Seniors or modern, at least two seniors per year need to get elected, which everyone on this site agrees with ...

brian wolf
brian wolf

It's interesting that the Pro Football Researchers Association, who have been compiling a Hall Of Very Good List, started their initial voting Class in 2003.
Of the initial 10 members of this class, all but three have made the PFHOF.

The players that didnt ... Gino Cappelletti, Pat Fischer and Al Wistert

Since I dont like or trust most "social media" outlets ... just wanted to give a shout out to two iconic entertainment celebrities ...

RIP Regis Philbin and John Saxon

As a kid, I watched Saxon play, The Robot/Maskatron on The Six Million Dollar Man ... the greatest hour in science fiction television history ...

Rasputin
Rasputin

Agreed completely. Thank you for this piece, John and Clark. Our Talk of Fame list was much better. Since Baker credited the players on the "blue ribbon panel" with having a big impact on the room, I suspect they pushed selections in the direction of recent players they were personally familiar with. The counterpoint is that the "experts" haven't inducted guys like Emerson or Wistert all this time either. My own suggestion is that the HoF move away from relying on media figures (except for good ones like Clark of course!) and include more historians. They tend to have the most knowledge and best perspective.

I'll add that reducing annual seniors from 2 to 1 would be catastrophic and quickly wipe out whatever good the Centennial class did in getting partly caught up to where things should be.

14 Replies

Plawren2
Plawren2

credited the players on the BRP? there was only 1 out of the 24: Ozzie Newsome? There were also 3 coaches (BillB, LeBeau, Madden), 20 members included 12 hall voters plus 8 others-2 former GMs/Hall contributors plus other media, historians

Rasputin
Rasputin

Several of those guys were coaches and/or players (e.g. LeBeau, Madden, Newsome, Belichick) and I think Baker was talking about players and coaches. I don't have time to dig up the interview right now but I remember watching him really pump that angle up as a good thing and impactful on the outcome.

Plawren2
Plawren2

Baker is a salesmen and PR guy, first and foremost, could sell ice in winter to folks living in Minnesota, so I would be a little careful in reading too much into his public statements, whats interesting is one would think LeBeau, Madden and Belichick-a real football historian - would be the ones giving more value to the earlier players, my theory is that BillB got Sprinkler elected

Rasputin
Rasputin

Belichick maybe. I'm not so sure about LeBeau, Madden, or Newsome. But I held media figures accountable too.

Plawren2
Plawren2

agreed, all BRP members need to be held accountable for the outcome, I don't think its fair for Baker or others to be selective in their criticism or approval

Rasputin
Rasputin

Except we have little choice but to speculate on what the problems with the BRB/selection committee might be as long as the process lacks transparency. If votes were public, for example, we'd know.

Plawren2
Plawren2

I agree about the need for transparency, but let's be honest making the votes public also allows for unfair attacks on voters since voting by its very nature is a subjective process. They may not be good cases but one could make case for electing Covert and Sprinkle. Just pointing out that making votes public may not improve the process or the outcomes, but I am not opposed to it. Not sure how making votes public in the modern process would work since it consists of a series of votes from 15-10-5 all within a few hours, likely not as revealing and there is no way Hall would ever make the meeting and discussions open to public view.

Rasputin
Rasputin

The criticisms and PRAISE of voters would be more fair than they are now because they would at least be directed at the right people. Voters disagree and argue with each other. No reason the public can't be involved and express their opinions too. HoF voting is a privilege, not some natural right. If they can't stand the heat then get out of the kitchen. The HoF isn't a safe space and these writers aren't precious little porcelain dolls. As for logistics, there are any number of ways it could work. As it goes or even waiting until the process is finished before releasing how each voter chose each round.

As an aside for the record, to illustrate your point on differing opinions, I actually supported Sprinkle's induction (I agree with you on Covert though; awful timing at best). I made arguments on another site that actually swayed some people who initially opposed it. That's the type of open discussion that's being hampered right now by the non-transparent system. Fans should know what rationales are being used to block or boost certain players. If exposed the illegitimate obstructions (ahem Chuck Howley ahem) might fall away, with accountability leading to better outcomes.

Plawren2
Plawren2

As I said I am not opposed to more transparency, but given the size and voters now on the committee (compared to say 20+ years ago) I just doubt that such a step would improve the process and outcome as much as some might think it would. And yes I am not worried about sensitive voters, but they are volunteers in this process, and constructive fair public comments and discussion are great, but we are both aware that in our society today and on social media many commenting in a way beyond that to hatred and threats.

And I am not convinced today that there is illegitimate obstructions blocking Howley or others (there certainly was in the past) and I really doubt any transparency will satisfy those (including us) that feel he is being treated unfairly-same for supporters of many others still not elected. Instead of transparency I would much rather see more voters, more diversity (including non writers) and term limits or term rotations for the full committee, and for the seniors/contributors more members (from current 9 to say 15+) and all members, not just annual rotation of 5, would vote on finalist selection, also term limits or term rotations for the committees. In my view greatest improvement in entire voting process are more voices, and fresh voices involved. Instead of the same people, many having served for decades at this point and frankly, especially in regards to seniors, really have nothing more to add and are perhaps already set in their views.

Rasputin
Rasputin

I think transparency is more important than tinkering blindly with format or voter makeup. At least we could propose more informed reforms then, if others were needed. Though I'd still support such tinkering over the status quo, even if transparency isn't forthcoming. Bringing me back to my original point...

Plawren2
Plawren2

I don't think considering having more voices in the room, more diversity and perspectives, new experiences and views, and rotating members so as to have "fresh" discussions each election is "tinkering blindly". I consider those "informed reforms" that will actually update the process and breakdown fixed minds and decisions. Again I am not opposed to transparency just pointing other revisions to the process that in my view will have much more fair reaching positive impacts on updating and revising the process.

Rasputin
Rasputin

It involves you making assumptions about what type of voter mix is better (maybe good, experienced voters get replaced or neutralized by "new" ones who make worse decisions), which, as I said, is necessary given the lack of transparency. Having transparency would inform us where the problems lie.

Plawren2
Plawren2

"Having transparency would inform us where the problems lie."

What problem are you assuming? If a voter expresses an opinion in support of -or in opposition - to a candidate is that a problem, isn't that their right as a voter? What exactly would you expect this transparency to achieve in terms of improving the process? Except give some fans an axe to grind. Lets remember all voting is subjective.

Rasputin
Rasputin

You seem to have forgotten your own posting above, and expressed desire to seek "improvement" in the voting process by radically reforming the selection committee's makeup.

You also said, "agreed, all BRP members need to be held accountable for the outcome".

So you concede that some outcomes are better than others (our own opinions, of course, which we also have the right to express), and that the status quo has produced unsatisfactory results. I'm just saying knowing how each selection member voted would let us know whom to hold accountable in a more informed way.

It could improve the process in numerous ways. If they know their votes will be public voters might automatically make more responsible decisions. Could you imagine the things Congress would try to get away with if all their votes were secret? They would feel compelled to publicize rationales for voting the way they did. Such arguments could clarify and even assuage upset fans, possibly persuading them that the choice was valid after all. Or they could let fans and others know what arguments they need to be making to improve their chances of persuading voters to change their minds. At the very least it would lead to a more informed discussion.

Being informed is better than simply tossing your hands up in frustration and confusion.