14 days to Packers football: Don Hutson

With 14 days left until the start of the NFL season, our countdown to the big day continues.

Thursday, Sept. 4, is the day when the Green Bay Packers travel to Seattle to take on the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks.  

Over the  course of the next 14 days we focus on the number that represents the days remaining … and for today we take a look number 14.

Most recently, we took a look at number 15 – Bart Starr – whose number was retired by the Packers, who is a Green Bay Packers Hall of Famer, a Pro Football Hall of Famer, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, Packers coach and beloved ambassador of the franchise. What else can we say about the man?

Today we move on to number 14 … a number worn by zero Packers players since 1950 – yes, that’s right – zero.


That’s because the one and only Don Hutson, one of the greatest, if not the greatest Packer of all time, wore the number from 1935 to 1945.

Yes, the arguments about the best player for the Packers have included the names of Ray Nitschke, Bart Starr, Brett Favre and Reggie White, but it was Hutson who set the standard for the modern game with his ability to catch the ball, score touchdowns and on top of it all, play defense during an era when player went both ways.

Consider his numbers: In his 11 years when teams played 12 games per season, Hutson played in 116 games, catching 488 balls for 7,991 yards (16.4-yard average), 99 touchdowns, the longest of which was 92 yards.

In his 11 years when teams played 12 games per season, Hutson played in 116 games, catching 488 balls for 7,991 yards (16.4-yard average), 99 touchdowns …

Consider that he also rushed the football during his days in Green Bay. He carried the ball 62 times for 284 yards, scored 3 touchdowns, and had a 4.6-yard average.

In all, Hutson accumulated 8,275 yards from scrimmage in his career.

His best year came in 1942 when he caught 74 passes for 1,211 yards (16.4 yards per-catch), scored 17 touchdowns and averaged 110 yards per game.

On the other side of the ball, he also dominated. Between 1940 and 1945, Hutson intercepted 39 passes, returned one for a touchdown and had 389 return yards.

But even a better kept secret is that Hutson also kicked field goals and extra points. He was 7-0f-17 in field goals during the days when even the best kickers were converting at 50 percent. He also converted 172-of-183 extra point attempts.

In all, he scored 823 points during his NFL career.

And as we have been doing this entire series, we once again turn to John Maxymuk, the author of “Packers by the Numbers: Jersey Numbers and the Players Who Wore them,” to provide insight and background and take us back to the years when Don Hutson dominated the game.

Imagine after a punt, Randy Moss gets down in a three-point stance and lines up at defensive end, and you will begin to understand how different professional football was in the 1930s. Don Hutson played end on both offense and defense for the first four years of his career, before muscular blocking back Larry Craig joined the team and allowed Don to move to safety on defense. The Packers were in two championship games in those first four years, so having the undersized Hutson on the defensive line wasn’t a fatal flaw in their defense.

Players were much smaller then, so Hutson wasn’t as manhandled as Moss would be today, but Don was much better suited to safety, where he intercepted 34 passes in his last seven years, altogether grabbing 39 for his career. When he retired, those 39 interceptions were second in league history to Johnny Blood‘s 40.

018-don hutsonAlthough he had never place kicked before coming to Green Bay, Don also booted seven field goals and 172 extra points for 193 points to add to his 103 touchdowns. Skilled as he was on defense and with his feet, however, Hutson is still remembered as one of the best football players ever, primarily because he was the most potent offensive force in the game, leaving records that would not be broken for more than 40 years.

Hutson was 6-1 and weighed  180 pounds, tall and lanky, and was known as the best player of his time. He was quick, a great leaper and had the best moves and the best hands in the league.

He was in the forefront in developing such standard pass patterns as the down-and-in, the stop-and-go and the post pattern. Cecil Isbell later said of him, “He was the first one with all the moves. He had good head and shoulder fakes and he had an endless series of changes of pace. It was impossible for one man to cover him and almost impossible for two. He had absolute concentration on the ball; he never heard a footstep in his life, and he’d catch the ball in a crowd almost as easily as he did in the open. And he ran like a halfback after he got it.”

Beyond all that, he was a very calm and confident player who was impossible to rile. The only thing he lacked was an arresting personality. New York Times columnist Arthur Daley wrote a piece on Hutson for Collier’s in 1944 that stated that Hutson and Isbell were not on speaking terms for their last year together. Since the two roomed together for all five of Isbell’s years in the league (as Daley himself would write about years later in The Times), one is left with the implication that his questionable tidbit was put in to create some controversy.

Ironically in one column, Daley quotes Isbell telling him, “If you ever see that fellow who wrote that we weren’t on speaking terms, you can tell him for me that he had it all wrong.”

Hutson was clearly one of Daley’s favorites and he would write a column about Don periodically after his retirement from football, generally rehashing the same stories each time: Don catching his first pass for an 83-yard touchdown against the Bears in his first start; speedster defender Dante Magnani covering Don into the end zone when suddenly Don grabs the goal post with his left arm and swings around to catch a touchdown with his right; Brooklyn coach Jock Sutherland refusing to believe that Hutson needed to be double-teamed until Don caught eight passes for 126 yards and a touchdown against the Dodgers when they played in 1941; Isbell tossing the shortest touchdown pass then on record, 4 inches, to Hutson in 1942. While Daley would mix up some details like calling it Hutson’s first game rather than his first start, the stories are generally true. Hutson was a football player like no other of this time.

Some question how much his numbers were boosted by playing against depleted wartime competition, but his greatest year came in the first year of the war when the competition was still strong.

After that, the Packers no longer had a good passer with Tony Canadeo, Irv Comp and Roy McKay throwing most of the balls. Don was not drafted because he had a wife and three daughters.

He kept retiring each year during the war, but Lambeau kept luring him back. For his last year, his salary was a then-astronomical $15,000, but he was worth it. The year after Hutson left, starting tailback Comp completed 28 percent of his passes for 1 touchdown and 8 interceptions. Don never got to play in a wide open Split-T formation, but spent his career in Lambeau’s variations on the single wing offense that became increasingly outmoded.

To many, Hutson was the Packers. The Bears considered Gren Bay a one-man team and keyed on stopping him with double and triple teams. Sometimes that worked and sometimes it didn’t, as Hutson caught 83 passes for 14 touchdowns in 22 regular season games against Chicago. Green Bay was a good team, but the Bears of the early 1940s were the best team in the league. After winning the 1940 championship 73-0 win over Washington, they continued their winning ways in 1941 and were undefeated when the Packers met them in Chicago in November with a seven-man line that held the Bears to only 83 yards rushing. The Packers won 16-14.

At retirement, Don had accumulated 823 points, more than double Ken Strong‘s second best total of 410 points.

Don was a consistent success in business, as well, running bowling alleys and car dealerships, and lived a long and contented life.

He would say, “Luck is the thing you need the most to succeed in football, business, or anything. I mean injury luck, business luck, card luck, whatever. And I’ve always been lucky.”

He also said many times that for every ball he caught in a game he caught a thousand in practice, and both Herber and Isbell attested to long practice sessions with Hutson. Luck is a good thing, but you still have to have the intelligence, diligence, and talent to take advantage of good fortune.

Don did, and became a charter member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963. He was inducted into the Packer Hall of Fame in 1971.

 

Here are Hutson’s career statistics:


 

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