The mercury is climbing through 110 degrees, and on the empty
practice range golf balls are simmering like poached eggs as I
climb out of my rental car at the Thunderbird Country Club on a
late-summer morning in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
Fortunately it's just a few steps from the sun-scorched driveway
to the men's locker room, where refrigerated air and a
well-stocked bar defy the inferno outside. Alone at a table
sipping a giant iced Coke sits the legendary former Green Bay
Packer receiver Don Hutson, now a white-haired man of 82. He is
signing a photograph of himself catching a pass a half-century
ago. A Thunderbird member for 35 years, Hutson usually summers
elsewhere, and this is his first Coachella Valley August. "It's
hotter than holy hell," he says, grinning at his own naivete.
I'm glad to see Hutson looking well, because I have come to ask
him a question: What was the first pass route? Hutson should
know, because he is widely credited with having invented pass
patterns in the early 1930s, when he was an end at the
University of Alabama. "Look here," I imagine him telling Tide
quarterback Dixie Howell, "I'm going to run out five steps and
scoot toward the left sideline, and if you'll just throw it out
there, I'll be there." Hutson ran the very first pass route, and
I want to know what it was. A buttonhook? Post pattern? Z-out?
But first I ask him about the most remarkable catch he ever
made. I have it on the questionable authority of long-dead
sportswriters that Hutson once reversed direction on a crossing
pattern by hooking his left arm on the right goalpost and
spinning around the upright, his feet off the ground, for a
one-handed touchdown catch.
October 5, 1995
"That actually happened," Hutson says, and he supplies the name
of the passer, Packer tailback Cecil Isbell; the opponent, the
Cleveland Rams; and the situation--Hutson was being shadowed,
man-to-man, by the speedy Dante Magnani.
Next, I want the details of that 1945 game against the Detroit
Lions, the one in which Hutson, in the last of his 11 NFL
seasons, caught four touchdown passes and kicked five extra
points for 29 points in a single quarter--a record that may stand
forever. "Well," he says, pausing to adjust the hearing aid
squealing in his left ear, "the wind was blowing hard and
straight downfield, and you couldn't throw the ball 20 yards the
other way. Those defenders just couldn't get that in their
heads, that's all."
Right. It was windy.
Finally, what about the story that he once made a one-handed
catch of that fat wartime football while running away from the
passer--with his palm facing down and the ball at his ankles?
Hutson snorts with pleasure. "I don't think I can verify that."
I didn't quite believe that one myself, but nobody ever got
anywhere by underestimating Don Hutson. Jock Sutherland, the
coach of the old Brooklyn Dodger NFL franchise in the '30s, once
took umbrage at a suggestion that he double-team Hutson as other
teams did. "Utter nonsense!" said Sutherland. "No one can be
that good." Naturally, Hutson caught six passes, two for
touchdowns, in a Packer victory over Sutherland's club. Another
team, the New York Giants, thought they knew how to contain
Hutson until a game in 1942, when he caught 14 passes, tying the
Hutson left his name all over the NFL record books, so he never
has to explain how good he was. From 1935--when he joined the
Packers after his two-touchdown performance in Alabama's 29-13
Rose Bowl victory over Stanford--until 1945, when he retired for
the fifth and final time, Hutson dominated his position as no
other player ever has. Nine times Hutson led the NFL in
touchdown receptions; eight times he led in touchdowns and pass
receptions; six times he led in receiving yards; five straight
years he led the league in scoring. In 1942, when he caught a
then-unthinkable 74 passes, his nearest rival caught only 27. It
took 44 years for another receiver--Steve Largent of the Seattle
Seahawks--to surpass Hutson's career record of 99 touchdown
catches, and Hutson got his 99 in an era when the forward pass
was still being refined and NFL seasons were only 10 games long.
"I don't think there's any doubt that Don Hutson was the
greatest receiver ever," Washington Redskin coach George Allen
wrote in 1982. "He improvised moves and devised patterns that
have been copied ever since."
Ah, yes, those patterns. Is it true, I ask Hutson, that he was
the first to run the "quit"--that sneaky move where the receiver
appears to pull up on a play, only to dash off after the ball
when the defender relaxes?
"The stop-and-go?" Hutson says, then nods. "Yes, we started
that," referring to himself and one of the men who threw him the
ball, it's not clear which. "Arnie Herber was a great passer,"
he says, praising the Hall of Fame quarterback who had led the
NFL in passing twice before Hutson joined the Packers. It was
Herber's rainbow tosses to Hutson, along with Sammy Baugh's
aerial feats with the Redskins, that lifted pro football out of
its ground-game rut. Hutson's first play in a Packer uniform, in
fact, was an 83-yard touchdown pass from Herber in a 7-0 victory
over the Chicago Bears.
It was purely fortuitous, Hutson goes on, that he signed with
the Packers, whose coach was Curly Lambeau, an architect of the
modern passing game. And it was kismet, in that era of the
two-way player, that Lambeau was willing to shield Hutson's
6'1", 185-pound frame from the rigors of playing defensive end.
When the Packers acquired blocking back Larry Craig in 1939,
Lambeau moved Hutson to safety and put the beefier Craig at end.
"That was a big thing for me," says Hutson. "I mean, when we
played the Bears, was I going to tackle Bronko Nagurski when he
came around end?"
Assuming the question to be rhetorical, I hold my tongue.
"Hell fire!" Hutson says with a laugh. "He'd run right over me."
The truth is, Hutson took a beating on his pass routes. The
rules at that time permitted defenders to wallop receivers
anywhere on the field until the ball was in the air; what's
more, Hutson was often double-teamed for the first 20 yards and
then picked up by a safety. Even so, in 1941 and '42, his two
MVP seasons, Hutson caught a total of 132 passes. "He's a cagey
and shifty gent," wrote John Kieran of The New York Times in
1942, "and when he runs out and throws up his arms, his fingers
seem infused with some peculiar form of magnetism that
unerringly draws flying leather in the form of a football."
I'm ready to spring the question that I have come to ask, the
one about the first pass route. But first I have to ask what
Hutson thinks about modern football ("wonderful"), today's pass
receivers ("They only play one way, which makes it easier, but
they're going against defensive specialists, so it equals out"),
and the man who has almost erased his name from the record
books, San Francisco 49er wideout Jerry Rice ("He's great; broke
all my touchdown records, and I love it"). And then I ask Hutson
to account for his own greatness. Did he attribute it to his
speed--Hutson ran a 9.7 100-yard dash in 1936--or was it his
unparalleled faking ability, his great hands, the spring in his
The questions amuse him, because Hutson has never thought of his
football career as anything but a delightful accident. As a
skinny boy in Pine Bluff, Ark., he seemed less athletic than his
younger twin brothers, Raymond and Robert. In 1930 his high
school basketball coach had to persuade him to play football his
senior year, and it took the owner of the local pool hall to
wrangle him a scholarship to Alabama. Once there, Hutson dreamed
of a pro career--in baseball.
"I didn't even think about pro football," he says. "They didn't
even write about it in the newspapers." Hutson played two
seasons in the Cincinnati Reds organization and was hitting
"about .275" at Rochester, N.Y., when he and the other two
outfielders, in his words, "got fired." As for his annual
announcement that he would retire from the Packers--five
farewells between 1941 and his final goodbye in '45--Hutson
chuckles. "I was trying to quit before I got killed."
An hour has passed, and there are still questions I haven't
asked--about the 23 interceptions Hutson snared in his last four
seasons; about the 193 points he scored as a placekicker; about
his three NFL championship rings; about his induction, in 1963,
as a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But it's time to ask the question. What was the first pass
route, Don? When you and Dixie Howell invented the modern
passing game, what pattern did you run?
Hutson opens his mouth ... and hesitates. "I don't know," he
says. "It's so long ago, the '30s." He frowns. "To tell the
truth, I can't tell you." Sensing my disappointment, he adds,
"At Green Bay, the first ones we ran were the down-and-out and
He gestures with his right hand, and I picture him as a
25-year-old, the Alabama Antelope, the epitome of speed and
grace. "He would glide downfield," Lambeau once said, "leaning
forward as if to steady himself close to the ground. Then, as
suddenly as you gulp or blink an eye, he would feint one way and
go the other, reach up like a dancer, gracefully squeeze the
ball and leave the scene of the accident--the accident being the
defensive backs who tangled their feet up and fell trying to
I searched Hutson's face for some telltale sign of the
melancholy or regret that often afflicts the aging athlete, but
I saw none. He gave up golf four years ago, after
quintuple-bypass surgery. Now his game is gin rummy, and he
can't wait for the heat to go away and the card players to
return. Meanwhile, his wife Julia's white sedan waits outside,
an old DON HUTSON MOTORS, RACINE, WISCONSIN medallion above the
back bumper. The medallion reminds him that although he owes his
fame to football, he owes his Rancho Mirage lifestyle to the car
Funny, that. The most money Hutson ever earned in a year as a
football player was $15,000, in 1945, and today there are
experts who will look you in the eye and swear that Don Hutson
was not just the best receiver the game has known, but also
possibly the greatest player who ever lived.
So I have to ask him one last question: Does he have an opinion
on who was the best player of all time?
Hutson's face crinkles into a grin. "Nah!"