State Your Case: Under any alias, Dick Barwegan belongs in the Hall of Fame

Dick Barwegan photo courtesy Chicago Bears.
Ron Borges

Everything about Dick Barwegan is strange, with the strangest that he’s not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But before we get to that, let’s get to a few other strange things about him.

Take his name for example.

He’s listed as Dick Barwegen in Pro Football Reference’s comprehensive statistical data base … but as Dick Berwegan according to the Chicago Bears, for whom he was an All-Pro player in his three seasons under George Halas. In some newspaper stories of his time he is listed as Barwegen, and in others as Barwegan … and on more than a few occasions in the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere he’s listed as both in the same story.

Then there’s his number. It is variously listed as 26, 31, 32 and 61. Unless you look at a photo of him in his College All-Star uniform. Then he’s number 45.

But which time?

Huh, you say?

Dick Barwegan didn’t just play for the College All-Stars once against the reigning NFL champions. He played four times during his years as a Purdue All-American, captaining the team TWICE because of player availability restrictions due to World War II.

He also served in the Air Force in 1945 and 1946, so he played for the College All-Stars both before the War and AFTER it, with his final College All-Star appearance coming in 1947 when they beat the world-champion Bears 16-0. That game was two years AFTER Barwegan had been drafted by the then Brooklyn Tigers.

A key to the All-Stars’ victory, it was written, was Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy’s decision to switch Barwegan from offensive guard to defensive tackle, a position he dominated that day.

Barwegan never played for the Brooklyn Tigers, though. They were defunct when he returned from the Air Force in ’47, having merged with the Yanks, so he instead began his pro career with the New York Yanks of the All-America Football Conference. That’s because their owner, Dan Topping, had jumped from the NFL to the fledgling AAFC that year.

Maybe we’re beginning to see how Barwegan, despite his talent, has gotten lost in the Hall-of-Fame shuffle these past 60 years?

Barwegan played one season in New York before the AAFC owners decided to distribute their talent more evenly and assigned him to the Baltimore Colts of the AAFC for the next two years. It was a welcome homecoming of a sort for Barwegan because in Baltimore he reunited with his coach at Purdue, Cecil Isbell, who was overjoyed to see him.

“I wanted Barwegan on the team,” Isbell told the Baltimore Sun that season. “He’s a great lineman on offense and defense, and he’s a great competitor. You should never underestimate the lift a player like that gives a team.”

Certainly you didn’t have to convince Bears’ coach George Halas of that.

When the AAFC folded, the NFL absorbed three of its teams, including the Colts. It was then that Halas traded five players, including future Hall-of-Fame quarterback/kicker George Blanda, for Barwegan in the fall of 1950. That trade led Cleveland sports columnist Bob Yonkers to be quoted in a column written by Baltimore Sun sports editor Jesse A. Linthicum.

"Someone in the Baltimore Colts’ front office must be allergic to good football players, " Yonkers said. "This week they traded Dick Barwegan, a truly fine guard, to the Bears for five guys named Nicodemus. ... In the opinion of (Browns’ defensive tackle) Bill Willis, one of the best defensive players in captivity, Barwegan is just about the best lineman he’s ever butted heads with.”’

Considering that Willis would end up in the Hall of Fame himself, that was high praise. Barwegan’s resume makes clear it was hard-earned praise and well deserved.

In his eight seasons in pro football, Dick Barwegan was named first-team All-Pro four times, second team All-Pro twice and selected to the Pro Bowl four times. This summer the Chicago Tribune ranked the 100 greatest players in Bears’ history as part of the NFL’s Centennial celebration. Number 51 was Dick Barwegan.

Or was it Barwegen?

Either way he was named All-Pro in 1950 and 1951 and selected to the Pro Bowl all three years (1950-52) he played in Chicago. When the Baltimore Colts were resurrected in 1953 by the NFL, the Bears traded him back to Baltimore, where he made his offseason home and was already in the seafood business. He was dealt with quarterback Bob Williams and end Paul Nestor for end Andy Hillhouse and two 1954 draft picks.

Barwegan made All-Pro again that first season in Baltimore.

After one last year with the struggling pre-Unitas Colts, Barwegan left for the CFL, playing a final season with the Ottawa Rough Riders before returning to the fish business in Baltimore.

You may wonder how a guy who played only three years for the Bears is remembered six decades later as the 51st best player in their 100-year history, but the reason is simple. He was so dominant in his era that he was named to the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1950s despite playing only half the decade.

Over 60 years later, Hall-of-Fame personnel director Gil Brandt would name Dick Barwegan in 2017 as the 24th best guard in NFL history, so one thing is clear: This is a guy who belongs in Canton.

There are four members of the 1950s all-decade team who have not yet been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. None is more worthy than Dick Barwegan … unless it’s Dick Barwegen.

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