When we talk about safeties who deserve Hall-of-Fame consideration we mention guys like Eddie Meador and Cliff Harris. Steve Atwater. LeRoy Butler. Donnie Shell. And John Lynch.
But you almost never hear the name Jimmy Patton. And I’m not sure why.
Maybe it’s because of the position he played. For years, Hall-of-Fame voters were blind to the position. Or maybe it’s because he was overshadowed by teammate … and safety … Emlen Tunnell. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because he died so young – he was 39 when he was killed in a car accident while driving to see his dying sister.
Whatever it is, he's been forgotten. And I’m sorry, but he deserves better.
Because Jimmy Patton was critical to the success of the New York Giants of the late 1950s and early 1960s. No, he wasn’t big. He stood 5-feet-10 and weighed 183 pounds. And he didn’t wear hip pads because he wanted to increase his speed and thought that would help.
Of course, it also made him vulnerable when bulldozers like Jim Brown or John Henry Johnson burst into the secondary … except … except it really didn’t. Jimmy Patton was fearless and didn’t shy away tackles.
He made them. Lots of them. Just as he made interceptions. Lots of them.
In fact, his 52 career picks are second all-time among the Giants. Only Tunnell with 79 has more. But Patton, who played alongside Tunnell in the late 1950s, led the league one season with 11 and had at least one interception in all 12 of his NFL seasons.
“If I could stop every pass,” he once said, “no one could afford to pay my salary.”
A former University of Mississippi star, Patton was the 92nd pick of the 1955 draft (John Unitas was the 102nd) and immediately made an impression – not with his defense but with his legs and his vision. As a rookie, he was asked to return punts and kicks, and he did both well. In a defeat of Washington that season he took a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown before returning a punt 70 yards for another score.
Within a year he was starting at safety for the Giants, and by 1957 they were league champions – thanks to a 47-7 thrashing of Chicago that featured a 28-yard Patton interception return. Under the direction of then-defensive coordinator Tom Landry, Patton thrived on a unit that featured Tunnell, Sam Huff, Andy Robustelli and Jim Katcavage, allowed just 37 points the last four games of 1958 and blanked Cleveland in the divisional playoff game.
Of course, then the Giants went on to lose to Baltimore in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” and appear in four of the next five championship games … all defeats. But don’t fault Patton. From 1958 through 1962 he was a first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl choice every season and was considered one of the best … if not THE best … defender in the game.
When he retired in the spring of 1967, Jimmy Patton had been a six-time All-Pro and part of one of the best defenses … and football teams … in the game. While people in New York never forgot him, he quickly faded from the public consciousness elsewhere. And that’s a shame because, as NFL historian John Turney of Pro Football Journal said, Patton "must be viewed as a man who gave all he had to his team.”
Over the course of 46 consecutive starts – from the second game of 1958 through the first 12 of 1961 – Jimmy Patton had 30 interceptions, and maybe that doesn’t impress you. But this should: Only six others prior to the league merger had 30 interceptions in four straight seasons, including Tunnell, Jack Christiansen and Dick “Night Train" Lane – all Hall of Famers.
Turney once did a story entitled “Nemesis: Pilfering the Pigskin” in which he detailed players with 10 or more interceptions against one opponent. Tunnell led the list with 15 vs. Washington. Jimmy Patton was second at 14, also against the Redskins.
“He had the three qualities you find in the best players,” former Giants’ coach Allie Sherman said of Patton. “Consistency, top performance and great heart.”
So why has he been forgotten? Remind me to ask members of the Hall-of-Fame seniors committee next time they convene. Because Jimmy Patton is someone who should be more than remembered. He’s someone who should be enshrined.
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