The idea began to form 21 years ago, when I was researching a book and planning to devote a chapter to Marion Motley, the Cleveland Browns fullback of the late 1940s and early '50s. The title of the chapter would be "The Greatest Player," and I was going to make a case for the 238-pound Motley as the best player I had ever seen. The only problem was that I had seen him through a boy's eyes in his best years, his All-America Football Conference years. By the time the Browns joined the NFL, in 1950, he was 30 and starting to slide.
I knew I had to find some old films of Motley and check him out again. That is usually a bad play, messing around with cherished memories. I remember boxing trainer Cus D'Amato telling the story of how he persuaded Jimmy Jacobs, the great collector of fight films, to show him movies of George Dixon, the featherweight champ of the 1890s.
"In my youth," D'Amato had said, "all my father would ever talk about was George Dixon, the greatest fighter who ever lived. It was George Dixon this and George Dixon that. Before every meal he'd lift a glass of wine to George Dixon.
"So I asked Jimmy if he had any old films of Dixon, and he said he did but I wouldn't want to see them. I told him to show me anyway. I watched one and I said, 'That's not George Dixon,' and he said, 'I'm afraid it is.' He was an old-fashioned, stand-up fighter who wouldn't last these days.
September 10, 1989
"I got this terrible pain in my stomach, watching that film. I mean it really hurt. I said, 'Jimmy, for chrissakes, shut off that projector.' "
The films of Motley didn't break my heart. They simply reinforced my earlier impressions of him, and I went ahead and wrote the chapter. Then I started thinking. Why only Motley? How about the rest of them? Why not look through all the old pro footage I could find? How about Red Grange and Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski and Don Hutson? What were they really doing out there? How good were they?
Legends, boyhood memories, reexamined through the eyes of an adult; watch the footage and evaluate the great old players by modern standards. It was a bittersweet thing, insatiable curiosity balanced by the fear of the great hollow—a Cus D' Amato stomachache.
Grange? Well, I had seen films of him from his days at the University of Illinois—those swerving, swooping runs against Michigan, tearing up Penn in the Franklin Field mud. But I had never seen any footage of him as a pro—it probably didn't exist. His pro career, which began in 1925 with the Chicago Bears, never came close to matching what he had done in college. Jim Thorpe? Once again, I had never seen any films, except for one or two clips of him at the 1912 Olympics. He didn't enter the pro game until 1920, when he was 32, and who wanted to see him old and washed up and playing out the string on tired legs? I seriously doubted that footage of either Grange or Thorpe existed. I was right. It doesn't exist.
The more I thought about the past, the more I became obsessed with two names: Nagurski, the fullback who played for the Bears from 1930 to '37, with a brief return in '43; and Hutson, the end for the Packers of the '30s and '40s who caught 99 touchdown passes, a record that still stands. I never saw either of them play in the flesh, but when was a kid they were the two names everyone knew. They epitomized pro football. Power and grace. The runaway bronc and the gazelle. They had become figures of speech. "What are you? A Nagurski? A Hutson?" Toughest runner, most gifted pass catcher—the essence of football. What did they look like in action? How would they rate by today's standards?
There had to be films of them somewhere, in some vault someplace, though I had never seen footage of more than a play or two. Nagurski was the first of the great massive, bulldozer fullbacks. I had read all the old quotes when I was a kid—"impossible to bring down one-on-one," "the only way to stop him was with a rifle," etc. We used to play a game in the sandlots of the Bronx called Nagurski. One guy would have the ball, everyone else would get on the other side, and the guy with the ball would try to run through us. And if, by some miracle, he made it, we would all yell, "Nagurski! Nagurski!"
But what was he like, really? He averaged fewer than 10 carries a game. The Bears' press book lists him with only one 100-yard game in his career. What did he do out there? How did he do it? Nagurski became a fixation with me.
On the Thursday before the 1984 Super Bowl, in Tampa, the NFL flew the 75-year-old Nagurski down from his home in Minnesota for a press conference. An impressive figure, hard, blocky-looking. He walked with a cane, and he answered questions sitting in a classroom chair. I sat in the next chair. His right arm was extended on the armrest, six inches away.
While he was speaking, I stretched out my left arm and measured my wrist against his. Nagurski's wrist was exactly twice as big as mine, and I weighed 240 at the time. No weight training for the Bronk—all massive bone structure. I asked him what he weighed, and he said, "Two-thirty-five, same as when I was playing." In the modern era, with weight rooms and all that, he might have been 260...or more.
"A monster," the Bears' old quarterback Sid Luckman said when I asked him about Nagurski. "The neck, the hands. When he made his comeback during the war and we won the '43 championship, they measured him for a size 19½ ring. That was the record until the Fridge broke it in '86."
I'm looking at my notes of that Jan. 19, 1984, press conference: His running style? " 'Just before they got to me, I'd put my shoulder down and ram 'em in the stomach. I'd knock 'em out of the way and keep running." Toughest opponent? "The guy who bruised me the most was Clarke Hinkle of Green Bay."
How would he have fit into the modern game? "I think I'd be a linebacker. In fact, that would be my preference. I don't think I could carry the ball 30, 35 times a game like this Riggins and stand up...not having to play defense, too. I'd like to see how some of these guys would do on defense."
Afterward, I got him alone. I asked him why he had quit after the 1937 season, when he was only 29. "I played during the Depression, and my salary went down every year," he said. "I asked George Halas for something like a $700 raise and he turned me down, and I said fine. I wanted to go home anyway. I was tired of knocking myself out, going on the wrestling tour between games to make extra money. It took its toll. There's so much arthritis in all my joints now, well, if I'm sitting and not moving, I feel real good, but if I try to move, all my joints start barking."
There was one more question that was bugging me, but I didn't know how to ask it. The numbers. Where were they? Officially Nagurski is credited with 633 carries for 2,778 yards, a 4.39 average, over five full seasons, plus one (1935) when he missed most of the games because of a back injury, and one game in 1943. He never led the league in rushing. No statistics were officially kept in his first two seasons, 1930 and '31, but, in a footnote, the NFL record manuals of the early '40s somehow found an extra 207 carries and 1,085 yards to credit to him for those two years. Those would have been his most productive seasons, but the mystery remains. Why so few carries for a workhorse like him?
"The Bears believed in spreading the work load, and Halas always stocked lots of good backs," Nagurski said. "They considered me valuable on defense, as an end and a linebacker. Then for my last three years, I had a back problem. I threw a cross-body block on an end—a stupid block—and I plowed into his knees with the small of my back. Broke two vertebrae. I was laid up quite a while."
There was no problem with Hutson's numbers. He came to the game in 1935 like an emissary from another planet. Within five years he had wiped every pass-catching record off the books. In 1942, when he was 29, he caught 74 passes. Four entire NFL teams completed fewer that season. His record for touchdown catches is being threatened only now, by Steve Largent of the Seattle Seahawks. I wanted to see how Hutson did it. His style. What were his moves, his favorite routes? How did he compare with Raymond Berry and Lance Al-worth, the two greatest receivers I had ever seen?
Last winter I called Steve Sabol, the president of NFL Films. I told him I was researching Nagurski and Hutson. Did he have any film footage? "Minimal," he said. But he offered to pull what he had.
I locked myself in a room at NFL Films in Mount Laurel, N.J., with a VCR—the old films had been transferred to videotape—and some old NFL guides, and I disappeared into another era.
I thumbed through the guides, which listed such things as a player's nationality and off-season occupation:
Joe Aguirre, E. Washington...Basque...Oil Worker.
George Platukis, E, Pittsburgh...Lithuanian...Laborer.
Andy Marefos, FB, New York...Greek...Poultry Dealer.
I spent time with Basque oil workers, Greek poultry dealers, Lithuanian steelworkers and Italian machinists. It is easy to get sidetracked during an odyssey like this, to become addicted to the odd, the extraneous. As you watch those scratchy old black-and-white films, things jump out at you, stuff you would never expect. You fall in love with players you were only dimly aware of. But first there was the matter of Nagurski.
There was one tape. It featured highlights of the 1934 Giants-Bears championship, the "sneakers game" in the frozen Polo Grounds. New York trailed 13-3, then changed into sneaks at half-time and sprinted away with the game. 30-13. Nagurski was used to set the scene. The narrator said, "Chicago had the powerful Bronko Nagurski...." And there he was. Nagurski in his prime, before his back injury of 1935. Two plays.
The first one was a weak-side plunge off the single wing. The Bears officially went to the T-formation in 1930 under Ralph Jones, but in '34 they were still mixing in single-wing stuff. Nagurski ran through an arm tackle. Another Giant clawed at him from behind. Ed Danowski, the Giants" passer and defensive back, ducked his head in a half-hearted attempt at a tackle—yeah, good luck—and finally Nagurski was dragged down by defensive back Dale Burnett after a 14-yard gain.
The second play was a Nagurski run up the middle on a direct snap, with tailback Keith Molesworth faking something or other—he went back on his heels and threw his hands up, as if he had been shot. Nagurski, who had burst through the hole very quickly—I hadn't realized he had that kind of takeoff speed—ran through a couple of slaps and arm tackles and was nine yards downfield before the first contact was made. It was Danowski again, this time trying to bring down the Bronk with a cross-body block, but he had misjudged the big guy's speed, and Nagurski turned upfield and then headed for the sideline, where he was ridden out of bounds after a 20-yard gain.
And that was it. Two plays. Two carries, 34 yards. The stats for that game show him with nine carries for 45 yards. What happened the rest of the time? I'll never know. I ran the tape back again and again: Stood straight up before he got the snap...looked bigger than everyone else...could get low at the point of contact, though, and tunnel for yardage, like Larry Csonka...lowered the shoulder...surprising speed.
But was there more? This was just an appetizer. There must be more footage. Somewhere.
I turned to the Hutson stuff.
Hutson was part of a five-play generic highlight film. A former Columbia quarterback, Ed Rovner, who is now a lawyer in Maryland, once told me something that I have never forgotten. He said he saw Hutson catch a pass in full stride, a one-handed low catch in which he snapped up the ball with his palm turned downward. I've asked many people about this, but no one else remembered it. That's the stuff I wanted to see.
On the first play, Hutson, playing the shortside end in the single wing, ran a reverse right and gained two yards. A very ordinary play. On the second one, playing right halfback on defense, he closed fast to break up a pass, showing great speed. Next, he came up and made the tackle on a sweep, no gain. On the following play, also on defense, he kind of fell into a tackle after a completed hitch pass. Finally he caught his first ball, for a touchdown, on a crossing route in which he beat the defender by a few yards and cradled the ball against his chest after it had bounced off his fingertips. That was all for Mr. Hutson. One catch.
But there had to be more. Raw footage of games, season highlights, something. Uh-uh, not at NFL Films. Much of its stuff was bought in 1972 from the Telra Company, which shot highlights for some clubs. That material goes back to the start of the television era in the late 1940s. A lot of unorganized Telra film, in negatives, was still in the vast storeroom upstairs. It would have to be cleaned and processed. Some of it was worthless. The sprocket holes had shrunk; masking tape was used for splicing. Some had been heat-damaged. It would take years to process and research it all, and it would go back only to the '40s.
"I made a search for Nagurski and Hutson seven or eight years ago," Sabol said, "and this is all that I could come up with. But I did get some other stuff from the National Archives in Washington, good footage of the 1940 and 1941 championship games. It was part of the old Movietone News stuff. You can watch it all if you want to."
Yes, I wanted to. It wouldn't be Hutson or Nagurski, but it would be footage from their time, a look at their era and at the game's dominant team of a half century ago. How did people do things in those days? How was the game played?
First I watched the 1940 game, Bears 73, Redskins 0, the most famous championship game of them all until the Giants-Colts sudden death game in 1958. I charted it as I would a game today, noting formations and strengths and weaknesses. By now the Bears' T-formation had been refined by Clark Shaughnessy and the man-in-motion was more than a decoy, as it had been in the late 1930s.
We all know, of course, that fullback Bill Osmanski broke a 68-yarder for a touchdown on the second play of the game, a carry that was supposed to go inside, not outside. But on the first play of the game, the left end was split wide and the left halfback went in motion right to a flank position, creating a modern pro set—two split receivers and a tight end. Right away I had learned something. I thought the modern pro set came about nine years later with Shaughnessy's L.A. Rams.
I also learned that if the Redskins' receivers had held on to the ball, the team would have stayed in the game. Quarterback Sammy Baugh had an early touchdown pass dropped. It would have made the score 7-7. He had another one dropped that could have made it 21-14, and another time, facing a big rush. Baugh overthrew a receiver who was open in the end zone. The Skins blew three TDs in the first half; the score could have been 28-21, a shootout, which, with their open style, was their kind of game.
The big problem was that the pass-blocking schemes of that era were cockamamy. Guards would routinely turn out and try to block the ends, which didn't work because they couldn't reach a charging end in time. Tackles would try to fill inside, using body-block and cross-block techniques that were effective for the run but hardly useful in slowing down pass rushers. The center didn't know what to do. Defensive ends charging from a wide position would be picked up by the backs—similar to the way backs pick up blitzing linebackers today—only the techniques were poor in those days. The backs would turn their bodies and try for a shoulder bump, or leave their feet and try to cut-block. The style of today, square up and meet the man head-on, was seldom practiced.
"Pass blocking wasn't organized then the way it is now,' " Luckman says. "You didn't have a guy sitting in the press box phoning down instant adjustments. Sometimes you had to feel your way along, and you were expected to dodge one or two guys rushing you."
There was nothing wrong with the passing techniques. Baugh and Luckman were terrific passers, throwing that fat ball. The trouble was that they were always throwing off their back foot, with defenders in their face. They threw in the 50% range, but it's a wonder they completed that many.
Luckman threw a lot of timed, quick-drop passes, and he was very good at it, especially the fade pass, in which he let the receiver run under the ball. Baugh was always running for his life. He was an athlete, a pass-run-punt, single-wing tailback. He threw sidearm, sometimes underhand, while falling down, scrambling, being rushed from all directions. That was what a team needed in those days, an athlete to throw the ball.
The Bears had been mixing their coverages on defense, sometimes dropping an end back, like a linebacker, sometimes dropping an inside man or two, very much like a modern 4-3. But in the second half, when the Skins had to throw out of their spread formation, which looked amazingly like a modern shotgun, Chicago rushed six and the hunt was over.
They were the Monsters of the Midway. They had an inexhaustible supply of talent—"We were the Detroit Pistons of the '40s," Luckman says—and the next year they simply wore down the Giants in their 37-9 championship win. It was 9-6 in the third quarter and then Chicago blew 'em away. They substituted almost completely new units. I could understand what Nagurski had said about Halas stockpiling so many good backs. They were loaded with them. Osmanski and Ray Nolting were only the beginning. In one six-year period the Bears had seven different runners finish among the league's top five.
As I watched that 1940 and '41 footage, one figure kept jumping out at me—number 14 for Chicago, Dick Plasman, 6'4", 220 pounds, helmetless, ferocious on his blocks, a great pass rusher and a receiver, too. He made a catch in the Giants game with two defenders blanketing him. The guy was terrific, a force out there, and then I remembered that Plasman was the last guy to play without a helmet.
"Yeah, in 1938 he ran into the wall in Wrigley Field and knocked himself out," says Ed McCaskey, the current board chairman of the Bears. Helmets were made mandatory by the league in 1943.
The old films were full of revelations about the game. But I still had to pin down that elusive pair, Nagurski and Hutson.
The Bears told me they used to have old films in their archives, but a fire in 1961 destroyed them. I called the University of Minnesota, hoping to find footage of Nagurski in college. "Yes, we have films of the team when he was here, " the school's assistant archivist, Lois Hendrickson, said, "but it was shot from so far away, you'd have to be a genius to pick out Nagurski."
I called Nagurski's daughter. Janice Boyle, in Minnesota. "He had a stroke," she said. "He's in a home now. I know he once made a film. My brother Anthony has it. You can call him in Chicago."
"Some was from the '37 season," Tony Nagurski told me. "The players look like ants. You can see Dad's number 3 every now and then on defense, but you can't see what he's doing. I think he shot the offensive stuff himself because none of the backs have his number. Maybe he shot it in 1935, the year he was hurt."
Bronko's son sent me the tape. I watched it at home, my nose two inches from the screen, trying to get a look at number 3 in the grayish mass. I could find nothing.
I had better luck in the hunt for Hutson. One call did it. "Come on out," said the Packers' video director, Al Treml. "You can watch all you want."
I saw Hutson in his early years, the 1930s, when he played left end on defense. How was he as a pass rusher? Don't ask. On sweeps and traps he gave ground and did what he had to do without trying to unzip anybody. Later, they moved him to defensive right halfback.
His helmet rode high on his head, and he seemed a little awkward at times, an Ichabod Crane, until he was in full flight. Then he was a gazelle. He usually played the short side on the single wing, and when he was in tight he would occasionally have to block a tackle. I watched him take one of those big guys down with the strangest-looking block I had ever seen. He threw a head fake, turned his back, flipped one leg in the air and made contact with his butt and back, a sort of reverse, reverse-body block. My god, I thought, what planet did he learn that one on? But his guy dropped. I saw him go back into coverage and break up a pass, and I saw him intercept one, and then on the sixth play of the highlight reel, there it was. The play that was worth the trip.
The Packers were playing the Giants. Clarke Hinkle, the fullback, took a direct snap. He scrambled—two defenders were in his face—and threw the ball, sidearm. Hutson was running a down-and-in. The Giants' Tuffy Leemans went up for the ball with him. Hutson did a scissors kick in the air, up, up—and stayed up, like Michael Jordan. With his body fully extended, Hutson snatched the ball away from Leemans, came down running and glided in for the score, a 62-yard touchdown. It was over in an instant. Smooth, quick, decisive. Eleven years of that. Ninety-nine touchdowns.
Two plays later Hutson ran a deep sideline route. Tailback Cecil Isbell threw the ball, not well. It was behind Hutson, the defensive back was screening him off. With his momentum carrying him the other way, Hutson reached back, reached, reached—his arms seemed five feet long—reached past the defender, made the catch, kept his balance and scored. I ran the play back, frame by frame. It was an impossible catch. I've only seen one other like it: Lynn Swann's against the Cowboys in the '76 Super Bowl.
I watched Hutson for two hours. I saw him outjump two or three defenders, R.C. Owens-style, on the goal line, and I saw him catch deep passes so smoothly you couldn't believe it had happened.
Then I saw him toward the end of his career, in '43 and '44. The defense double-and triple-covered Hutson and sometimes chopped him down at the line of scrimmage. Still, he led the NFL in catches both those years. I wondered what his numbers would have been like if he had had a Baugh or a Luck-man throwing to him.
How does he rate on my alltime list? Hutson, who is 76 now and living in retirement in Southern California, was not a precise technician, like Berry, the finest possession receiver I ever saw. Hutson was more like Alworth—the same explosive speed, the same hunger for the ball downfield, a monster at the point of the catch. He wasn't as compactly built, but, yes, he reminded me of Alworth: the explosion going for the ball, then the glide after the catch. The two greatest receivers I'd ever seen became three.
As I was watching the early footage of Hutson, another figure kept emerging, number 30 on the Packers, Hinkle. Seven years after his last season, 1941, Hinkle's career rushing record of 3,860 yards was still the best in NFL history. I watched his running style—nifty on the sweeps but able to turn upfield with a great burst of speed. It was the same burst he showed when he got near the line on an inside play. Phase Two of the running game, as John Robinson calls it—the ability to break out of the pile. Hinkle was 210 to 215 pounds, a big back in those days. What stood out most in the old films was his power, then his defense. On one sweep by an opposing runner, he came up like a maniac and sent the runner flying into the bench. Pete Rozelle once said the difference in the game is that in the old days, they really didn't hit the way they dc now. Well, this guy did.
He was an All-Pro four times, a gifted two-way player, but his career overlapped Nagurski's and the publicity went to the big man from Chicago. "There was always the dispute as to who was better, Hinkle or Nagurski," Treml said. " 'People in Green Bay still argue it."
Nagurski again. I had one last stop to make in my search for him. I called Joe Horrigan, the curator of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He gave me the magic words. "We have two 1937 games, start to finish," he said. "If Nagurski was on the active roster, he was in 'em."
Oct. 31, 1937, Bears 3. Giants 3. The New York Times reported: "The mighty Bronko Nagurski was used so sparingly that he carried on only three plays, seeing action less than half the game." I never found out why. I spotted him right away, because of his size. The Bears were in a tight T, and Nagurski was actually lined up at right halfback, playing a step closer to the line than the other two backs. He moved the pile on his first carry, for five yards, and added a zero and a minus two on a sweep that should really have been a minus five.
I ran the next reel.
Oct. 24, Bears 28, Detroit 20. Nagurski's first carry was over right tackle. He hit the hole high, the defense gave, two backs came up and knocked him to his knees, and he crawled for five more yards. The gain was 17 yards overall. I saw him do that kind of thing, put a sag in the pile, three or four more times. He set up a score with another 17-yard plunge, starting wide, cutting back and showing a burst. Then when he went over the goal line from the two—head down, knees up—everything gave.
My favorite play was a five-yard sweep to the left. A tackier came up high. Nagurski looked mad about something. He attacked the defender, launching himself into him with a fury, chest to chest. The other guy's feet went up in the air and they fell together in a heap.
Nagurski seemed to get into rages. Sometimes he was careful and precise on his blocking, sometimes he would throw one of those long body blocks that eventually cost him two fractured vertebrae, and bodies would fly. On defense he was a form tackier most of the time, but occasionally he would go for the head and the ball carrier would drop whether he was hit or not. No one wanted a piece of him.
Why so few carries? Well, Halas wanted to share the wealth. Besides, there was only so much energy in the Bronk's body. At least, that must have been part of it.
How to put Nagurski in historical perspective? In today's game, shorn of his defensive chores, he would have routinely cranked out 1,000-yard seasons. He would have had Larry Csonka or John Riggins numbers. He was very similar to Csonka in style, the way he would come up high at first and then dig his shoulders down and tunnel for yardage, but he played madder. I never saw Csonka or Riggins fly into such rages.
Hinkle, playing in the same era, was smoother. Nagurski was a rough nugget. Using modern techniques, he would have been a devastating pass blocker, in the style of Motley—who under Paul Brown in Cleveland became the first modern pass-blocking fullback. But Nagurski was a banger. Motley was a steamroller, a gathering force. He remains No. 1 on my alltime list.
Like Motley, Nagurski had his greatest years at the beginning of his career. I get the feeling that before his crushing back injury in 1935, Nagurski was a different player, tougher, wilder, more free-spirited. But we'll never know—at least until someone unearths the really old Nagurski footage.
Horrigan put the film back in the can.
"Want to see more games?" he said.
Yes, I would like to see more. All of it. But not now. I had found what I was after. I had seen what I wanted to see. I wanted to leave with the memories still fresh of two men who defined football for an era, Nagurski and Hutson. Power and grace.
INTO THOSE RAGES