Countdown to Canton: Bobby Dillon has his eye on finally arriving in Canton
We’ll never know what Bobby Dillon might have done with two good eyes, but with only one he was one of the most prolific pass interceptors in NFL history. Whether that will finally earn him induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame 60 years after his retirement is now up to the Hall’s once-in-a-hundred years' Centennial Class selection committee.
Dillon is one of 20 finalists for 10 senior slots in the class, which will be voted on this month by a blue-ribbon selection committee formed to honor both the NFL’s 100th anniversary and right wrongs like the one Dillon represents.
When Dillon first announced his retirement in June, 1958, to take a job in sales back in his hometown of Temple, Tex., newly arrived Packers' head coach Vince Lombardi refused to allow it. After watching Dillon on film, Lombardi declared Dillon the league's best player at his safety position.
Dillon appreciated Lombardi’s endorsement, but it wasn’t enough to change his mind after laboring through seven losing seasons in Green Bay. Despite his team’s consistent failures, Dillon had been consistently successful throughout his career, named first team All-Pro four times and four times to Pro Bowls in seven years.
Those honors were a result of being a ballhawk who intercepted nine passes three times in what were then 12-game seasons. In fact, between his rookie season in 1953 and 1958, Dillon AVERAGED eight picks a year. No wonder Lombardi wanted him back.
Dillon finally agreed to return in late August, 1959, but only after staring down Lombardi, who insisted he agree to being fined $100 a day for having “missed’’ most of training camp. Dillon hung up on him.
A chagrined Lombardi called back and agreed to give Dillon an “expense’’ check for $4500, which Dillon then signed over to the team so Lombardi could technically claim Dillon had been fined when, in truth, he had not.
Being a reasonable sort, Dillon agreed and was rewarded with the only winning season of his career when the Packers went 7-5.
But Dillon was injured late that year and declined to return in 1960 for what would become the beginning of the Lombardi-built dynasty that put 11 Packers into the Hall of Fame. Had Dillon remained a year or two he might have been the 12th because at the time of his retirement he ranked second all-time with 52 interceptions, trailing only Hall-of-Famer Emlen Tunnell.
Tunnell had 79, but in four more seasons than Dillon.
Although a free safety by trade, Dillon was often used in Green Bay like a shutdown corner, consistently covering the opponent’s best receiver. He was, perhaps, the first and only “shutdown safety” in NFL history.
“When we played like the Chicago Bears, they had an end Harlon Hill, and no matter where he went, I went with him,” Dillon once told Packers’ team historian Cliff Christl. “I played him 'man' every game we ever played and had good success.
"Elroy Hirsch, I covered man-to-man; Tom Fears after Elroy left. I played Raymond Berry man-to-man. Val Joe (Walker) would move over to my position, and the cornerback (on his side) would move over to the other safety position. We didn’t change personnel, we’d just move them over.”
That Bobby Dillon was a victim of his team’s consistent ineptitude is beyond dispute. Not only was he never a Hall-of-Fame finalist; he also was not named to the 1950s' all-decade team despite his defensive dominance. And when the Packers went 4-8 in 1956, he was denied a fifth All-Pro selection despite making seven interceptions,returning them for a league-high 244 yards, an average interception return of 19 yards per pick.
The fact the Packers won only 33 of his 94 games held Bobby Dillon back far more than the left eye he lost at age 10 after two childhood injuries. Long after his retirement Dillon once suggested had he taken a different approach to that injury perhaps that would have given him the impetus needed to be enshrined in Canton.
“What I should have done was take the eye out and wear a patch,’’ he suggested. “That would have gotten me a lot more publicity for one, and it would have been a lot safer.’’
Not for opposing quarterbacks it wouldn’t have.
“He and Willie Wood were the two best safeties we ever had here,” Dillon’s former teammate Dave Hanner told Christl in 2004 after spending 44 years with the Packers as a player, defensive coach and scout. “Old Bobby was smart, and he was tough. He’d get knocked out a couple times a game, but he’d come right back. When Lombardi came here, he talked about Bobby being the best defensive back in the league at the time.”
Hopefully next month, at long last, the Hall-of-Fame’s Centennial Selection Committee will agree with Vince Lombardi and bring Bobby Dillon to the place he long deserved to be – enshrined in Canton.