Skip to main content

Remmel: The Day Don Hutson Almost Got Away


It is a story that begins the last week of December 1934, a time when the Packers were launching their pursuit of a legendary end, whose subsequent presence on the National Football League stage was to not only change the course of Packers and NFL history but also the way the game is played.

Since it was the year before the league implemented the draft, Don Hutson -- and every other player coming out of the college ranks -- was fair game. From the clubs' perspective, it was literally a case of "every man for himself."

Accordingly, as the final days of '34 were unfolding, Hutson and his University of Alabama football team were in California preparing for a Rose Bowl matchup against Stanford on New Year's Day. During this process, the Crimson Tide, and Donald Montgomery Hutson in particular, received a practice field visit from Curly Lambeau, then vice president, general manager and head coach of the Green Bay Packers.

Lambeau, the Green Bay native who had founded the Packers as a town team in 1919, was there on a scouting expedition to get a firsthand look at the fleet young end, who had become a consensus All-America selection with his pass-catching exploits for the Tide during the '34 collegiate season.

Following the practice, Lambeau visited with Hutson, unwittingly setting the stage for a history-making relationship.

Hutson, in turn, was to enjoy a career day against Stanford a week later, playing a major role in a 29-13 victory in the '35 Rose Bowl, and Curly was duly impressed.

Lambeau, who had pioneered the forward pass in the National Football League during the 1920s, was convinced that Hutson would fit nicely into the Packers' offensive modus operandi. And he ultimately was able to lure Don to Green Bay, although it took him seven weeks of dogged persistence.

He formally signed Hutson to a Packers contract on February 19,1935, for a princely sum believed to be between $175 and $300 per game.

Almost immediately, however, the proverbial fly in the ointment appeared. John "Shipwreck" Kelly, then the owner of the NFL's Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Hutson to a Dodgers contract later that same day, and both contracts were filed in the office of League President Joe Carr at Columbus, Ohio.

On the surface, it appeared to be a knotty problem. But Carr, a man of substantial common sense, resolved it with impressive dispatch and unassailable logic: Hutson, he decided, would be awarded to the team whose contract letter bore the earlier postmark.

It, providentially, turned out to be the one the Packers submitted and that development, in turn, triggered one of the most prosperous periods in club annals. The team's history, it's safe to say, would read very differently if the situation had been reversed.

With good reason. Perhaps no athlete has had a more profound impact upon the game than the "Alabama Antelope," who proceeded to originate pass patterns following his arrival in Green Bay, blazing the trail for all receivers who have followed him over the intervening 60 years and setting a host of records in the process, some of which still stand.

He simultaneously played a dominant role in the Packers' rise to national prominence, one which saw them acquire three world championships and play in four NFL title games during his 11-year playing career (1935-45).

In the process, Hutson became the most feared receiver in professional football, an extraordinary offensive threat for whom opposing coaches found it necessary to design special coverages and defenses.

His dominance is underscored by the fact that today, more than a half-century after his retirement from the playing field, he still owns 10 NFL all-time scoring and receiving records.

One of the most electrifying performers ever to grace professional football and a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- he was automatically inducted when it opened in 1963 -- his career statistics eloquently document Hutson's historic supremacy at his position.

The possessor of world class speed (9.5 in the 100-yard dash), soft, sure and big hands, along with a highly deceptive change of pace, he caught 488 passes for 7,991 yards and amassed the remarkable total of 105 touchdowns in 117 games -- a scoring ratio which has yet to be equaled.

Underscoring his eminence from the Packers' perspective, Hutson still holds title to no fewer than six major team records: most pass receptions, game, 14; most seasons leading the team in receiving, 10; most games with 200 or more receiving yards, 4; and most points scored in one quarter, 29; in addition to the aforementioned records for career touchdowns, 105; and career touchdown receptions, 99. Hutson also was the Packers' all-time scoring leader with 823 career points until kicker Ryan Longwell eclipsed that mark just last season.

Don Hutson, it also should be spread upon the record, was not merely an offensive player. At a time when players played "both ways," he also was a superior defensive back. So superior, in fact, that when he retired following the 1945 season, he was the second-ranking interceptor in NFL history with 30 thefts. And he played defensive end until 1939, his fifth season in the league, or his interception total undoubtedly would have been substantially higher

Beyond that, he augmented his already remarkable contributions by kicking short to medium-range field goals and extra points, leading the league in conversions in three different seasons (1941, '42 and '45).

All things considered, Hutson also might well warrant selection as the "NFL Player of the Century," since he both dominated and changed his game like no other athlete before or since.

Sports Illustrated's Peter King, for one, has come to that conclusion.

King has said that he had gone into his extensive research for the 1993 book he was writing, "Football: A History of the Professional Game," assuming that he would ultimately find that Jim Brown was the greatest player in pro football history.

After completing his research, King said he not only concluded that it was Hutson who deserved the accolade of "greatest" but also had dominated his game during his era more than any other athlete had in any other sport.

In this connection, he pointed out -- as a singular example of Hutson's superiority -- that in 1942 he had led the NFL with 74 receptions (in just 11 games) and his closest pursuer, a distant second, had only 27 catches.

George Halas, the late and longtime Chicago Bears coach, paid Hutson the ultimate compliment by devising special coverages in an effort to contain him. In fact, for three years after Don's retirement (following the 1945 season), Halas each year dusted off his special "Hutson Defenses," just in case Hutson -- then a member of the Packers' coaching staff -- might have been persuaded by Lambeau to come out of retirement.

Halas also said that, in game-planning to play the Packers during Hutson's day, he essentially conceded him two touchdowns per game, feeling he would be better served by making the "concession" and attempting to shut down the rest of the Green Bay offense.

In the 1944 NFL Championship Game, the New York Giants, at the direction of Head Coach Steve Owen, the game's premier defensive coach at the time, did Hutson the singular honor of according him "triple coverage." Lambeau, taking advantage of the Giants, utilized other receivers and the Packers' emerged with a 14-7 victory and their sixth NFL title, with Hutson largely playing the role of decoy on that occasion.

Making definitive comparisons of players from one era to those of another, obviously, is not a simple task, if only because comparing a two-way player to today's "platoon" performer is necessarily fraught with inequities.

However, Lambeau once made an interesting point in connection with how he felt Hutson would have fared in a different era. Asked the obvious question in the 1960s, approximately two decades after Don had retired, Curly replied, "I think Hutson would have been more successful today than when he played ... For two reasons: we would play him only on offense and we would split him out instead of having him in tight (Don was aligned as a 'closed' end in Green Bay's Notre Dame Box offense during his playing days)."

Perhaps typical of one with a flair for the spectacular, Hutson saved possibly his most extraordinary performance for his final season.

Playing against the Detroit Lions at Milwaukee's State Fair Park, Hutson put on the most spectacular one-quarter scoring exhibition in NFL history. Early in the second period that sunny October afternoon, the Packers trailed the Lions, 7-0.

Until Hutson took center stage. With tailback Roy "Tex" McKay on the throwing end in each case, Hutson riddled the Detroit secondary, gathering in four touchdown passes and kicking five extra points, as the Packers amassed an NFL-record 41 points during that astonishing 15-minute period en route to a 57-21 victory.

To this day, Hutson's 29 points during that memorable quarter remain the most points ever scored by one player in any quarter of any NFL game in the league's 84-year history.

Had he played in the second half, Hutson obviously might well have added substantially to that total. But he returned only to kick two extra points, thus closing out his career day with a then club-record 31 points.

Eight weeks later, Hutson retired, closing out his career by leading the NFL in receiving for the fifth consecutive season and the eighth time in 10 seasons, the latter a period of dominance at his position which remains without equal in NFL history.

Continuing an association with the team that is more than 55 years old, Lee Remmel was named the first official Team Historian of the Green Bay Packers in February 2004. The former *Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter and Packers public relations director, Remmel will write regular columns for as part of his new assignment.

In addition to those articles, Remmel will answer fan questions in a monthly Q&A column. To submit a question to Remmel, click here. *

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.

Related Content