The man who wrote the book on being a star wide receiver hasn’t had one written about him. Search Amazon.com for a book on Don Hutson, and you’ll come up like the defenders who tried to cover him — empty.
Hutson was the first great wide receiver in NFL history, a revolutionary player whose unique ability forecast the future of pro football. Hutson, who played for the Green Bay Packers from 1935-45, is the forebearer to Raymond Berry, Lance Alworth, Steve Largent, Jerry Rice, and anyone else in the pantheon of pro football pass catchers.
The Green Bay great was to the reception what Babe Ruth was to the home run.
“He was the best I’ve ever seen,” Clyde “Bulldog” Turner, who played for the Chicago Bears from 1940-52, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after Hutson died in 1997 at age 84. “I don’t like to compare players then with players now. But he was head and shoulders above the ones in that era.”
When Hutson retired in 1945, he held 18 NFL records. He left the game with 488 pass receptions. The next player on the list had 190. His record of 99 career touchdown receptions stood for 44 years before Largent broke it, and still ranks ninth all time.
Ten of his records still stand, including most points in a quarter (29), most seasons leading the NFL in touchdowns (eight), most seasons leading the league in receptions (eight), most seasons leading in receiving yards (seven), most seasons leading the league in TD receptions (nine).
But nearly seven decades after he last played, Hutson has become what he was when he played, an uncatchable ghost.
Nicknamed the “Alabama Antelope” from his time as a star at the University of Alabama, Hutson entered the league in 1935 at age 22.
Blessed with blazing speed — he ran the 100-yard dash in under 10 seconds — and what a 1938 Tuscaloosa (Ala.) News story called, “a puzzling change of pace,” Hutson was a nightmare for NFL defensive backs, and legendary Bears coach George Halas.
In Hutson’s second NFL game, he caught his first pass. It was an 83-yard touchdown on the first play of the game, as the Packers beat the Bears, 7-0. It was the first of his NFL-leading six touchdown receptions.
In those days, there was no such thing as the spread offense. Green Bay employed an offense called the “Notre Dame Box,” a variation of the single wing, according to Cliff Christl, who spent 36 years as a sportswriter for papers in Green Bay and Milwaukee and is the co-author of the book, “Mudbaths and Bloodbaths: The Inside Story of the Bears-Packers Rivalry.”
In the condensed offensive alignment, the passer wasn’t the quarterback, who was a blocking back. It was the left tailback.
The Packers would split Hutson out from the formation at times, which was not that common for an end in those days, said Christl.
Eventually, all teams would split out their ends, hence the term wide receiver.
In 1936, Green Bay won the NFL championship with Hutson leading the NFL in receptions (34), receiving yards (536), and both receiving and total touchdowns (eight).
A year later, he became the first NFL receiver to catch 40 passes in a season, hauling in 41 in 11 games. The Detroit Lions, who finished with the same 7-4 record as the Packers, completed 44 passes as a team that season.
In 1939, Hutson became the first receiver to have more than 800 yards in a season (846), averaging 24.9 yards per catch, as Green Bay captured the second of the three NFL titles they would win during Hutson’s career.
What makes Hutson’s accomplishments all the more impressive is that he played before there were separate offensive and defensive units. Jerry Rice didn’t have to cover receivers, too.
In 1940, Hutson pulled off the amazing feat of leading the NFL in touchdown receptions (seven) and interceptions (six). Starting that season, he also became the Packers’ primary option to kick extra points.
Hutson was the vanguard of the rise of the receiver, but in 1942 he won his second straight league MVP with a quantum leap season for the position. Hutson had 74 receptions for 1,211 yards and 17 touchdowns in just 11 games.
They were numbers that were as unfathomable then as man landing on the moon or music existing in the ether of something called iTunes.
Hutson had more receiving touchdowns than eight of the other nine teams in the NFL in 1942. His receiving yards were more than four teams had and so was his reception total.
Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch tied Hutson’s TD reception mark in 1951, playing in 12 games. (Hirsch caught three touchdown passes in final game that season against the Packers.) However, Hutson didn’t lose the record completely until Mark Clayton hauled in 18 touchdown passes in 15 games in 1984.
There is no question Hutson was a transcendent talent, but the 1942 season is such an anachronous outlier it raises competition-level questions.
During World War II, the NFL suffered from a paucity of players, as most talented professional and college players entered the military. The league considered shutting down, teams had to be combined, and players such as Bronko Nagurski were coaxed out of retirement to fill out rosters.
“Anybody I’ve ever come across to talk about Don Hutson said he was ahead of his time and a great player,” said Christl, a Pro Football Hall of Fame voter. “No doubt about that. He was the best receiver in the game until the 1950, ’60s, ’70, and still should be considered one of the best of all time.
“But I do think you have to look at his stats in those war years, when talent was thin, and take that into account. There is no question the talent was diluted in the league.”
There is also the fact Hutson played his entire career in a segregated NFL. No African-Americans were allowed to play in the league after 1933, until Kenny Washington reintegrated the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams in 1946, the year after Hutson retired.
Hutson largely eschewed the spotlight and rarely did interviews after his retirement, and so as the years passed his career became a bit caliginous beyond the numbers.
Tony Canadeo, a Hall of Fame running back who played with Hutson, told the Journal Sentinel upon Hutson’s death that he would have been a star no matter the era, opponent or the rules.
“He had all the moves,” Canadeo said. “He invented the moves.”
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