Bobby Dillon was the epitome of a great player who played for bad teams. Although he didn’t play for a winner until his final season with the Packers, Dillon was a perennial all-pro who retired as the team’s career leader in interceptions. At the time, he also ranked second on the NFL’s all-time list.
In fact, after newly hired Vince Lombardi spent his first few months on the job in early 1959 studying the Packers’ game films from the previous season, he called Dillon the best player in the league at his position and labeled him one of three untouchables on his roster.
Dillon was listed as a right safety, essentially the free safety, throughout his career, but he also was called on to cover the game’s premier receivers one-on-one. “When we played like the Chicago Bears, they had an end Harlon Hill and no matter where he went, I went with him,” Dillon explained. “I played him man every game we ever played and had good success. Elroy Hirsch, I covered man-to-man; Tom Fears after Elroy left. I played Raymond Berry man-to-man. Val Joe (Walker) would move over to my position and the cornerback (on his side) would move over to the other safety position. We didn’t change personnel, we’d just move them over.”
When Dillon retired with 52 interceptions only future Pro Football Hall of Famer Emlen Tunnell, who had played four more seasons at that point, had more. Tunnell finished with 79 interceptions. He intercepted 74 from 1948 to 1958 with the New York Giants, joined Dillon in Green Bay in 1959 and intercepted five more passes in three seasons with the Packers.
Dillon led the Packers in interceptions in seven of his eight seasons and three times intercepted nine passes in what were then 12-game seasons. “Dillon is one of the few men in the league who can get the ball even when it’s thrown perfectly,” Lisle Blackbourn, the Packers’ head coach from 1954 to 1957, said in 1959. “He has that something extra.”
Dillon also still holds the Packers’ record for return yardage on interceptions with 976 and shares the team’s single-game record for interceptions with four. His four picks came against the defending NFL champion Detroit Lions on Nov. 26, 1953. Dillon also returned five interceptions for touchdowns, a club record that was subsequently broken by Herb Adderley and later Charles Woodson.
Remarkably, Dillon played his entire career with only one eye. He lost his left eye when he was 10 years old following two childhood accidents. It was replaced with a glass eye, but the loss of vision on his left side never seemed to diminish Dillon’s ball awareness.
“He and Willie Wood were the two best safeties we ever had here,” former teammate Dave Hanner said in 2004 after spending 44 years with the Packers as a player, defensive coach and scout. “Old Bobby was smart, and he was tough. He’d get knocked out a couple times a game, but he’d come right back. When Lombardi came here, he talked about Bobby being the best defensive back in the league at the time.”
The Packers chose Dillon in the third round of the 1952 NFL Draft. He played in 92 games before retiring after Lombardi’s first season and the only season in which Dillon played on a winning team.
Actually, Dillon notified Lombardi in June 1959 that he was going to retire to work full-time as a sales manager for a plastics company in his hometown of Temple, Texas. Dillon was one of the few players Lombardi gushed about after studying the 1958 game films and the announcement caught him off-guard. So much so, Lombardi said, “He is irreplaceable at this time.” Lombardi also wouldn’t take no for an answer when he instructed his business manager, Jack Vainisi, to try and coax Dillon out of retirement.
By late August, Dillon agreed to return until Vainisi told him he’d have to pay a fine of $100 per day for the time he missed. “I said, ‘Thanks Jack,’ and hung up,” said Dillon. “About 20 minutes later, Lombardi called. He said, ‘I understand your position, but I have my rules.’ I said, ‘Fine, I’m just not going to do it.’ He said, ‘Wait a minute. You promise you’ll keep it quiet… I’ll give you a check for $4,500,’ or whatever it was. ‘It’ll be an expense check, but you’ve got to sign it back to the team, so I can say I fined you.’ Everybody always said Lombardi never compromised, but I know one time he did.”
As it turned out, Dillon pulled a leg muscle in the eighth game, missed the next two games and, consequently, lost his starting job to John Symank. Before the season was even over, Dillon announced he was retiring at age 29 and this time it was for good.
In 1957, Dillon helped coach the defensive backs under Blackbourn after his defensive coach Tom Hearden suffered a stroke.
Born Feb. 23, 1930, in Temple, Tex. Given name Bobby Dan Dillon.
Height: 6-1; Weight: 180
College: Texas, 1949-51
Associated Press All-Pro Team (chosen since 1940): 1954, ’55, ’57, ’58
Other years selected to an all-pro first team: 1953, ’56
Pro Bowl Selection (game played since 1950): 1955, ’56, ’57, ’58
Packers 50*th* Anniversary Team: 1969
Packers All-Modern Era Team: 1976
Press-Gazette All-Century Team: 1999
*(Based on Official National Football League Score Sheets, Dillon missed two games in 1959. Dillon was not listed as playing on Nov. 22 and Nov. 26. However, the “National Football League: 1960 Record and Rules Manual” incorrectly credited Dillon with playing in all 12 games in 1959 and, thus, he’s also incorrectly credited with playing in 12 games by “Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League.” The fact is Dillon played in 92 games while with the Packers, not the 94 listed in the records.)