None of us here in England ever saw Don Hutson play but I have seen a few film clips and read everything about him that I could find. I have corresponded with or talked to people like Tony Canadeo, Raymond Berry, Lee Remmel, Dante Lavelli and Art Daley and their opinions simply reinforce my belief that he was the greatest to ever play the game. My most precious memories though were the phone calls to Don in California where I discovered a humble, shy gentleman who never boasted and hardly spoke of his achievements. He could never get over the fact that somebody in England had actually heard of him.
When Don Hutson was playing, he was the most feared pass receiver in professional football. Sleekly built at six feet one inch and weighing 178 pounds Hutson set 19 NFL records while leading the Green Bay Packers to three World Championships. In Hutson’s years most NFL teams were geared to a running offense but he caught 488 passes for 7,991 yards. He scored 105 touchdowns and he even threw one touchdown pass.
That happened one day in New York against the Giants, Don took the ball on an end-around and as the Giants swarmed round him he picked out Harry Jacunski who was all on his lonesome way down the field. Afterwards he said, “That was almost as big a thrill as my first game touchdown against the Bears.” He scored 823 points and in 1963 was one of the first members of the National Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“His impossible catches were not luck” - Dante “Gluefingers” Lavelli
For all his records and honours Don Hutson never boasted about them. He usually smiled shyly and said nothing because his actions always spoke louder than words anyway. Perhaps Don’s most memorable catch was made against the Cleveland Rams. The Rams coach, Dutch Clark, assigned a half-back called Dante Magnani to cover Hutson because he didn’t believe it was necessary to double or triple team Hutson. Magnani was fast and he was tough and he was told not to let Hutson get inside him. Early in the game Hutson moved down the field in low gear, Magnani was with him stride for stride. Hutson shifted into second gear and Dante stayed with him as Don looked around for the pass. Packer tailback Tony Canadeo or was it Cecil Isbell had aimed it between the goal posts and as Hutson went into high gear Magnani was still with him as they raced towards the goal posts and then Hutson reached out, grabbed one of the posts with one hand and spun round. He caught the pass for a touchdown and Magnani, as if he were covering a ghost, kept running through the end zone. In those days the posts were on the goal line. Hutson had not planned this manoeuvre, he had done it instinctively. It was this instinct which made him so special, nobody ever taught him how to feint defensive backs Don simply did it. The illustration (left) is taken from Don’s niche in the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and was sent to me by the great man himself.
“He was way ahead of everybody else” - Raymond Berry
When I asked Don about this incident in one of our many telephone calls, he laughed and said, “I guess he is still on his way to Texas, Terry”.
Over twenty years ago, in the early 1990s, he told me another story and I imagine it took place in the early 1930s. Don was in a 100 yards race against other athletes and at the gun he shot forward but was pulled up for a false start and penalised 5 yards. Away they went a second time with Don going through his speed gears and at the line the race was adjudged to be a dead heat between Don and another guy. The other guy was Jesse Owens (pictured), another Alabama born sportsman like Don, who won four Gold Medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. In 1984 a street in Berlin was named in honour of the great Jesse Owens. I think this story shows just how great an athlete Don Hutson was, he could run the 100 yard dash in 9.7 seconds.
Once Jock Sutherland, coach of the Brooklyn Dodgers, thought he had discovered a way to stop Hutson, but on that day Don caught six passes, two for touchdowns and the Packers won 38-7. After the game Sutherland said, “Hutson is incredible, he can run three ways at the same time”.
Born on January 31st 1913 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, a railroad town in the south-eastern part of the State, Don was skinny and shy as a boy. His friend Bob Seawall talked Don into trying out for the football team and although he made the team Seawall remained the star. Seawall was wanted by every leading college in the south and he selected the University of Alabama on condition that Hutson went too.
During his senior year Don had grown from a skinny 145 pounds to a wiry 175 but this increased weight did not affect his speed or his moves. He teamed up with a strong armed passer, Millard “Dixie” Howell and they formed a scoring combination that took Alabama all the way to the Rose Bowl where they beat a powerful Stanford side 29-13 and Don attracted nationwide attention with his performance.
“Hutson is still the receiver all others are measured against” - Joe Horrigan
After the performance Curly Lambeau (pictured) of the Packers and Shipwreck Kelly of the Brooklyn Dodgers both wanted to sign Don and he signed contracts with both teams. Earl “Curly” Lambeau started the Green Bay Packers with the help of George Whitney Calhoun, the sports editor of the Green Bay Press Gazette. As head coach from 1919-1949 he compiled an amazing record 248-108-23 for a fantastic winning percentage of .685. As a player he was a devastating running back and as a coach he was the innovator of the passing game. The contributions he made to the game of football, the NFL, the City of Green Bay and the state of Wisconsin go without saying, he was a man among men.
The two contracts both duly arrived at the NFL headquarters where Joe Carr, the commissioner, had to decide which one was valid. The one from the Packers was dated 17 minutes earlier than the one from the Dodgers so Joe Carr ruled that Don was headed for Wisconsin. Hutson’s salary was $300 per game and it was so huge in those days that he was paid two cheques of $150 each, drawn on different banks in an effort to keep the amount secret.
“He was the only man I ever saw who could feint in three directions at once” - Greasy Neale
Smooth, great hands, hard to tackle, Hutson could outfight defenders for the ball all over the field. And as I said previously in this piece he was a world class sprinter. One spring day at Alabama he left a baseball game he was playing, hustled to the athletics track and ran 9.7 seconds for the 100 yard dash, then returned to the baseball game. And he was great to the very end. In his last season, 1945, Hutson scored 29 points in the second quarter in a 57-21 rout of Detroit in Milwaukee. In the game Don scored 31 points (4 touchdowns and 7 extra points) not forgetting he also played defensive back
“I used to concede Don two touchdowns and hope we could score more points” - Beattie Feathers
Mere statistics and descriptions of his feats do not do justice to Don Hutson. When you see players of the modern era run curls and hitches, posts and corners remember it was Don Hutson that invented them all. When you see players wear black polish underneath their eyes, think of Hutson for he came up with this idea as well. Double and then Triple teaming was invented to try and halt Hutson. Don was truly ahead of his time.
“I love to see my records broken, I really do.
You get a chance to relive a part of your life, the whole experience”
Don Hutson 1989 in California