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Joe Horrigan, the Hall’s Executive Vice President, is the foremost historian on the game.
When considering a name for this blog, I wanted something that was a football term – like “overtime” – but at the same time something that suggested an historical perspective like “over time.” After all, a key component of the Hall’s Mission is to preserve the Game’s history. You can also listen to me each week as I co-host “Pro Football Hall of Fame Radio on SiriusXM” from 2-4 ET every Saturday with Hall of Fame selection committee member Howard Balzer.
There’s a word in our football lexicon, that when used is like the proverbial left-handed compliment. And the word is “versatile.”
By its very definition – “competent in many areas and able to turn with ease from one thing to another,” “versatile” just sounds so, well, average. It’s definitely not a hardy endorsement. To me it insinuates someone is “adequate,” or maybe even “lacking” in some way.
Now, we’ve all heard the phrase, “A Jack of all trades is a master of none.” Well, that seems to be what “versatile” implies. But actually, the complete and correct version of that phrase is, “A Jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.” And folks, that’s my point.
There have been some very “versatile” football players over the years who were clearly better than many who were a “master of one” position. And my favorite example of that phenomenon is the legendary “Bullet Bill” Dudley.
No, “Bullet Bill” Dudley is not a fictitious character from the movie The Magnificent Seven. He was an outstanding halfback with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins during the 1940s and 1950s. A terrific player. Enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966 and dare I say, maybe the “most versatile” player in NFL history. And, I mean “versatile” in the most complimentary way. He was way beyond “competent.”
Although a book could, and come to think about it, has been written about Bill Dudley, but even so, I will attempt in just a few passages to summarize his amazing career.
First of all, by his own admission “Bullet Bill” didn’t earn his nickname as a result of his blazing speed. In fact he really wasn’t fast at all. It was just that he was elusive and had an uncanny ability to see the whole field when he darted and dodged would-be tacklers.
A recipient of the Maxwell Award while at the University Virginia as the Best College Football Player of the Year, Dudley was the first-round pick of the Steelers in 1942 and is just one of 14 Hall of Famers selected as the first overall pick. As a rookie, he won the NFL rushing title gaining 696 yards, completing 35 of 94 passes for 438 yards and two touchdowns, punting 18 times for a 32 yard average, returning 20 punts for 271 yards, and running back 11 kickoffs for 298 yards. In his first game he dashed 55 yards for a touchdown and in his second scored on a kickoff return. As you’d expect All-NFL honors were bestowed upon him that year.
But, following his amazing rookie performance, Dudley surprised many when he voluntarily interrupted his pro football career to serve his country during World War II enlisting in the Army Air Corp.
After training, the Air Corp recruited the famed All –American to play football as a member of an Army football team that in 1943 posted a 12-0 record. For his part, Bill was named MVP.
After fulfilling his two-year military commitment, Dudley rejoined the Steelers just in time to play in the final four games of the 1945 season. It was if he’d never left.
In those four games Dudley ran for two touchdowns, kicked two PATs and returned three kickoffs. In just four games he became the team’s leading scorer. But that was just a sampling of what was to come.
The following year, “Bullet Bill” led the NFL in rushing, interceptions, and punt returns. In so doing, he became one of just three players ever to win pro football’s so-called “Triple Crown,” leading in three different statistical categories in the same season. He actually led in a fourth category – completed lateral passes – but since that’s no longer carried as a separate statistical category it’s often overlooked. For his amazing performance, Dudley was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player. The NFL’s two other “Triple Crown” winners are also members of the Hall of Fame, Sammy Baugh, who led in passing, punting and interceptions in 1943 and Steve Van Buren who led the league in rushing, scoring and kickoff returns. Talk about “versatile.” Three of the best!
By the way, I think Bill is the only player to earn MVP honors in college, the military and the pros.
Dudley was traded to the Detroit Lions after the 1946 season. A popular player, he was elected team captain all three years he played in the Motor City (1947–49). In 1947 the 5-10 Dudley eluded a Chicago Bears punt coverage team for an 84-yard touchdown. That same season, he
Dudley finished his 9-year NFL playing career with three seasons as member of the Washington Redskins. And even in each of those final three seasons, “Bullet Bill” led his team in scoring.
In a 1950 game against his old team the Steelers, Dudley delivered one of the most amazing plays ever. The still-shifty runner was back to receive Joe Geri’s punt. Geri boomed one 60 yards that looked to have caught Bill off guard. However, recovering quickly, he managed to back pedal 30 yards and, while keeping both feet in bounds, reach out-of-bounds and pull the ball inbounds at his own four-yard-line. Somehow the amazing triple-threat-back then managed to reverse his momentum, turn up field and race 96 yards for a touchdown.
There are many more Bill Dudley stories, but here’s the really amazing thing. During his brilliant nine-year career, Dudley scored nine different ways. He is the only player in the history of the game to have scored rushing, receiving, passing, on a punt return, a kickoff return, a fumble recovery, and an interception, as well as kicking extra points and field goals.
Now, there is also that matter of lateral passing. If you count that now forgotten statistical category, he actually scored 10 different ways! The only other way he could have scored is if he recorded a safety.
Now that’s “versatile!”
Perhaps the good folks at Webster’s Dictionary should consider a new definition. Under “versatile” the notation should read, “see Bill Dudley.”