For Pete's Sake

By: Pete Fierle

Pete Fierle, Manager - Digital Media/Communications
Pete's familiarity with the game's history is a result of spending two decades surrounded by the world's largest collection of pro football information. His many duties include overseeing the Hall's website as well as the day-to-day operation of the Ralph Wilson, Jr. Pro Football Research and Preservation Center.

Packers prized catch!

May 05, 2011
A new "For Pete's Sake" blog appears each Thursday.

It was the last year before the National Football League adopted the annual college player draft.  The circumstances surrounding the signing of the “Alabama Antelope” actually helped fuel the idea of a draft. University of Alabama’s Don Hutson was a phenomenal end for the Crimson Tide who earned his nickname because of his speed and quickness which he combined with previously unseen pass-catching abilities. Needless to say his talents made him a highly desirable recruit for the pro circuit. As was the norm at the time, any NFL team could go after the best college players in hopes of signing them to a deal.

Immediately after Hutson thrilled 85,000 fans with his receiving performance in the Crimson Tide’s 29-13 win over Stanford in the 1935 Rose Bowl, he was approached by two NFL teams, the Green Bay Packers and the Brooklyn Dodgers. He signed with both!

Curly Lambeau of the Packers inked Hutson to a deal. Then, the Dodgers coach John “Shipwreck” Kelly seemed undeterred by Hutson’s deal with Green Bay and convinced the young receiver to sign with the Dodgers. Kelly promised him an extra $500 and told Hutson that would null and void the contract with the Packers.

Once received from Hutson, the Packers and Dodgers added their signatures to the contracts and shipped them off via U.S. mail to the league headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. As fate would have it, the Packers envelope was postmarked 17 minutes sooner than when Kelly’s mailing was processed. Both envelopes arrived to the attention of NFL President Joe Carr on the same day. At first confused, Carr investigated the situation and ultimately decided that Hutson’s rights would be granted to Green Bay since the contract mailed from the Packers was postmarked at 8:30 a.m. and the Brooklyn correspondence was stamped at 8:47 a.m.

From the very start of his pro career, it was clear that the Packers were perhaps more fortunate than even they were aware to get Hutson. Lambeau decided to sit the rookie end in the ‘35 season opener to make sure he was ready to go for the next game, a much anticipated matchup against the rival Chicago Bears. Green Bay entered the game having not beaten the Bears in the past six games between the two clubs.

A young Hutson voiced his nervousness to fellow future Hall of Famer Cal Hubbard in the locker room prior to kickoff.

“I’m scared to death. I did alright in college but these fellows are so much bigger and better. I’m not even sure I belong,” Hutson confided to Hubbard who assured the rookie he’d be fine.

It didn’t take long, in fact just one play, for Hutson to prove he belonged in the NFL. On the very first play of the game, Hutson ran a slow deliberate route, drew the defender on to him, and then introduced the Bears and the rest of the NFL to just why he was nicknamed after a speedy animal. Hutson suddenly shot into another gear and raced past a surprised Bears defensive back. The play, which was drawn up by Lambeau the night before, worked to perfection. Packers quarterback Arnie Herber who owned a rocket of an arm, fired a long pass downfield into the open hands of Hutson for an 83-yard touchdown play. Now that’s the way to start an NFL career!

In his later years Hutson reflected on his first NFL catch and TD. “I say that was my greatest thrill despite all these other things that happened because it got me off to such a good start when I went to Green Bay.”

Here’s a diagram of the play. You should note that Hall of Famer Johnny “Blood” McNally was the NFL’s top receiver at the time. So naturally the Bears may have had their focus on him rather than some rookie named Hutson. FYI, the touchdown was the only scoring that occurred that day as Green Bay’s 7-0 win snapped the losing streak

As you may know, Hutson spent the next 11 years leading the Packers to great success while revolutionizing the way players caught passes in the NFL. He racked up staggering numbers that not only annihilated all previous highs in the league to that point but withstood the test of time. He retired as the owner of virtually every NFL receiving record all which remained for decades and took a multitude of different receivers to topple them.

Making his accomplishments all that more amazing is that Hutson put up his numbers in an era that didn’t favor the passing game. During an interview in the late 1980s, he was asked by a reporter about how many catches he would have had if he played in the league at that time.

“I could catch 50 passes,” he shared with the writer.

The interviewer was caught off guard considering that Hutson caught 50 or more passes three times during his career including the unimaginable 72 receptions in 1942. He questioned the Packers legend.

“Well, I’d be catching those 50 passes during the year of my 75th birthday,” Hutson deadpanned.