Countdown to Canton: The first ... and maybe last ... chance for Verne Lewellen
(The Pro Football Hall of Fame last month announced its 38 finalists for the Centennial Class of 2020. As a prelude to the Hall's choice of 15 inductees, we preview some of the candidates)
Four Green Bay Packers are among the 20 senior finalists for the Centennial Class of 2020, and sorting them out can be tougher than solving a Rubik’s cube. Nevertheless, if asked to choose one for the Pro Football Hall of Fame I could.
I’d pick former running back … defensive back … and punter Verne Lewellen.
That’s not to minimize the achievements of the other three Packers’ candidates – safety Bobby Dillon, receiver LaVern Dilweg and quarterback Cecil Isbell. They’re qualified for Canton, too. But I’d first lean toward Lewellen, and I’m not alone.
When I first consulted Packers’ historian Cliff Christl – a former Hall-of-Fame voter who compiled oral histories of the team's greatest players and reviewed every edition of the Green Bay Post-Gazette from 1919 to 1962, going through every play-by-play – I asked about Lewellen. He told me he was “among a handful of players in the discussion for the greatest Packer ever.”
Now, stop right there and parse that sentence. He didn’t say the best Packer not in Canton. He said “the greatest … Packer … ever.”
That covers a lot of territory. In addition to Dillon, Dilweg and Isbell, the Packers have 22 players enshrined in Canton who spent the bulk of their careers in Green Bay. They also have two coaches, one GM and five players who spent parts of their careers with the Packers.
That’s 30 with busts, with four more at the door. Yet Christl said Lewellen might have been the best of them all.
I have no idea because I never saw him play. He starred for the Packers from 1924-32. What I do know is that he was so accomplished that when Hall-of-Fame coach Curly Lambeau chose his all-time Packers’ team in the 1940s, he named Lewellen and Isbell over Hall-of-Famers Johnny Blood, Arnie Herber and Tony Canadeo.
I also know that when Blood was inducted in 1963, he said Lewellen should have been chosen ahead of him … and it’s easy to see why. The guy could do everything. One of the best all-around backs of the league’s first three decades, he scored more TDs than anyone of his era, once led the league in interceptions and was one of its two best punters.
Hall-of-Famer Sammy Baugh was the other.
He was a five-time All-Pro, moving from tailback to quarterback for the 1929 NFL championship game after Green Bay starter Red Dunn was hurt. Lewellen played all 60 minutes and punted seven times – averaging 50.6 yards, with kicks of 73, 65, 63 and 43 yards – en route to a 20-6 victory, climaxing a perfect season (12-0-1) with Green Bay’s first NFL title.
“Next to the Ice Bowl,” Christl told me, “I consider that 1929 victory the greatest in Packers’ history. Not only was it the game that won them their first NFL championship, but, more important, it was the game that established their credibility. It probably did more for the Packers’ legacy than any game leading up to the Ice Bowl.”
That was the first of three consecutive Packers' titles, and if there were such a thing as a team MVP then, Christl said, it would have been Lewellen. Christl's explanation: Lewellen excelled in the two most important facets of football in the 1920s -- scoring and field position.
As a punter, he was so accomplished that he sometimes kicked on first, second and third downs. In 1928, for example, he punted 138 times. That same season the Packers' kicker, Harry O'Boyle, led the league in field goals … with three.
"No one who ever saw Lewellen kick could ever forget him," Arthur Daly of the New York Times wrote in 1962. "He was the finest punter these eyes ever saw."
Yet there’s a built-in problem with Lewellen’s candidacy and it’s this: He played so long ago that there are few statistics available and fewer witnesses to measure his accomplishments. Nevertheless, we do have the recollection of former Packers’ quarterback Charlie Mathys, who not only saw him but played with him. And decades after retiring following the 1926 season, Christl found Mathys – then a member of the Packers’ board of directors – and asked about Lewellen.
“He was way ahead of his time in ability,” Mathys told him. “If he doesn’t get in (the Hall of Fame) it’s a joke.”
Well, he’s not in the Hall, and if there’s a joke it’s not only that he’s not in; it’s that he’s never been discussed as a finalist.
Now, of course, he will be, and that’s a giant step forward. But this is more than Verne Lewellen’s first real chance to make it to Canton. In all likelihood, it’s his last. So I urge the Centennial Class’ board of selectors not to waste the opportunity. Do what the Hall’s voters couldn’t … or wouldn’t … for far too many years.
Put Verne Lewellen where he belongs: In the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Follow on Twitter @ClarkJudgeTOF