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Former Packers halfback Don McIlhenny dies at 88

Part of blockbuster Tobin Rote deal

Lambeau Field
Lambeau Field

Halfback Don McIlhenny, part of one of the biggest blockbuster trades in Green Bay Packers history, died Tuesday, April 18, the Dallas Morning News reported. McIlhenny was 88 and had endured a long battle with Alzheimer's and dementia.

On July 26, 1957, the Packers traded Tobin Rote, their starting quarterback for most of the previous seven seasons, and defensive back Val Joe Walker to the Detroit Lions for McIlhenny, a second-year player; tackles Ollie Spencer and Norm Masters; and guard Jim Salsbury.

Lee Remmel, then a sportswriter for the Green Bay Press-Gazette, labeled the move "the most spectacular trade in (the Packers') 39-year history." Just short of five months later, Rote led the Lions to their last NFL championship with a 59-14 victory over Cleveland in the league title game.

McIlhenny played three seasons with the Packers and led them in rushing his first season with 384 yards on 100 carries, a 3.8 average, as they finished 3-9 under coach Lisle Blackbourn. McIlhenny also finished third on the team in receptions with 18 for 210 yards, an 11.7 average. In 1958, when the Packers fell to 1-10-1 under Scooter McLean, McIlhenny finished fourth in team rushing with 239 yards and third in receiving with 20 catches. Both years, the Packers used two- and three-back formations with either one or two halfbacks.

When Vince Lombardi took over as coach in 1959, he installed a three-back offense with Paul Hornung at left halfback, Jim Taylor at fullback and Lew Carpenter and McIlhenny sharing time at right halfback. In fact, McIlhenny was off to perhaps his best start, averaging 4.9 per carry, when Lombardi scrapped his three-back set and inserted Boyd Dowler as a starting flanker in place of a right halfback.

In a 2005 interview, McIlhenny explained that when the formation was strong right, the right halfback would move out to a flanker position, and when it was strong left, the left halfback would line up either as a flanker, a slot back or what now would be called a tight end. Starting with the eighth game in 1959, McIlhenny said Lombardi decided to play Dowler fulltime rather than flank one of the backs.

Following the season, Dallas selected McIlhenny in its expansion draft, and he played two more seasons. Interestingly, he almost returned to the Packers in 1962, then had a change of heart.

"Vince and I got along very well," McIlhenny said in 2005. "I played here (Dallas) one year and finished up with San Francisco. But in 1962, the Packers came here to play (in the preseason) and they were good. I got it in me that I really wanted to play again. I went out to watch practice and I said to Vince, 'I'd like to visit with you if I could.' He said, 'That would be fine. Why don't you come by before the 5 o'clock club?' He said come by my room before that at the Holiday Inn, where they were staying.

"I went to see him and he said, 'What can I do for you?' I said, 'I was watching you guys practice and I would love to come back and play for you.' I was only 26 (actually 27) years old and still in good shape.' He said, 'That might not be a bad idea. Why don't you join us and come back to Green Bay. I can't promise you anything.' I said, 'OK.' I went back to tell my wife and sat there and thought, 'I haven't run and done things in a year.' I called him back on the telephone and said, 'Vince, I appreciate your courtesy, but I have things to tend to here, a new family. It was nice of you to suggest that I join the Packers, but I can't do it.' I saw him a few times after that socially and he was a good guy."

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