The Pro Football Hall of Fame will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the NFL with a special, expanded “Centennial Class” of enshrines in 2020.
“Twenty for 20” (20 candidates for 2020) is how the Hall labels it. In addition to the five modern-era candidates who will be a part of the Class of 2020, there will be 10 senior candidates, three contributors and two coaches – nominations that will be awarded with a keen eye toward the history of the game. “History of the game” translates into an acknowledgement that the NFL started playing football in 1920 – not 1990.
So the great players from the game’s first four decades (1920s through 1950s) should be given as much consideration as any great players from the next four decades (1960s through 1990s) who may now find themselves in the senior pool.
I’ve got the seven players who should be at the front of the line for this centennial class.
There have been 145 players selected first-team all-decade through 2000. Those teams are voted upon at the end of each decade by the Hall of Fame’s selection board – the same group that annually picks the Hall of Famers. Those all-decade selections represent the elite of the elite – the best players of their generation.
If you are selected to the all-decade team, that’s essentially a rubber-stamp to Canton. You deserve to have your candidacy debated and discussed in the context of the greatest players of all time. Most have -- 94 percent of the first-team all-decade players have already been enshrined. Only nine of the 145 are still awaiting on busts and two are from the 1990s all-decade team who remain in the pool of modern-era candidates, safeties Steve Atwater and LeRoy Butler.
That leaves seven first-team all-decade players in the senior pool – and six of them have never even been discussed as finalists. They should be the first seven players discussed by the Hall’s proposed blue-ribbon panel that will pick the 15 centennial candidates. That group of overlooked seven includes two receivers, four blockers and a safety.
Here are those unlucky seven:
Lavvie Dilweg, end (1926-34), 1920s all-decade team: Upon his retirement, Dilweg was regarded as the greatest end in NFL history. Unfortunately, the guy who replaced him in the Green Bay offense was even better – Don Hutson. Dilweg was a six-time all-pro selection. Only one player in the game’s first three decades garnered more all-pro selections – Hutson. Dilweg was a driving offensive force on a Green Bay team that won three consecutive NFL titles from 1929-31. Hall of Famers Bronko Nagurski and Cal Hubbard put Dilweg on their all-time teams and Red Grange said Dilweg was the greatest end he ever played against. They competed against him. The rest of us never saw Dilweg play. I’ll trust their opinions.
Ox Emerson, guard (1931-38), 1930s all-decade team: Like Dilweg, Emerson was a six-time all-pro selection whose blocking helped the Detroit Lions win their first NFL championship in 1935. He and the Detroit offensive line were even better in 1936 when the Lions rushed for an NFL-record 2,885 yards in a 12-game season. That record would stand for 36 years before the 1972 Miami Dolphins rushed for more on the way to the only perfect season in NFL history. And they did it in a 14-game season. Like Dilweg and all the elite players of that era, Emerson played both ways and was as sure a tackler as he was a blocker.
Al Wistert, offensive tackle (1943-51), 1940s all-decade team: Wistert was an all-pro in eight of his nine seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. His blocking helped Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren win four rushing titles and he served as captain of a team that won consecutive NFL championships in 1948-49. Wistert was a College Hall of Famer at Michigan and his jersey number (70) has been retired by both his college and pro teams. Hall of Fame coach George Allen named Wistert one of the 10 best tackles ever to play the game. There are now 25 tackles in the Hall of Fame and Wistert isn’t one of them.
Bruno Banducci, guard (1944-54), 1940s all-decade team: Banducci played his first two seasons in Philadelphia and his last nine with San Francisco. His team finished first in the NFL in rushing seven times and a teammate won four rushing titles. But his team never won a championship and that may have been the reason he has been overlooked by Canton these last six decades. Sixty-six percent of all Hall of Famers played on a championship team. When you have no stats and no rings, the road to Canton is a rocky one for an offensive lineman.
Drew Pearson, wide receiver (1973-83), 1970s all-decade team: In the eight all-decade teams selected since 1930, there have been 21 wide receivers named to the first team. Twenty of them now have busts in Canton. Pearson is the only one who has not been enshrined – and he has never even been a finalist for his career to be discussed. In 1994, to celebrate the NFL’s 75th anniversary, NFL Films identified the 75 greatest catches in league history. Pearson had three of them, including the “Hail Mary” that beat the Vikings in the playoffs. His hands helped the Dallas Cowboys reach seven conference title games and three Super Bowls during his 11 seasons.
Cliff Harris, safety (1970-79), 1970s all-decade team: Harris made the Cowboys as an undrafted college free agent from tiny Ouachita Baptist, then went on to start five Super Bowls in the 1970s decade. He was a college track sprinter who was among the first of the game’s box safeties, earning the nickname “Captain Crash” for his aggressive tackling. That speed also allowed him to average 29.1 yards on kickoff returns in 1971, helping the Cowboys win their first NFL championship. He went to six Pro Bowls in his 10 seasons and was a first-team all-pro selection three times.
Jim Covert, offensive tackle (1983-90), 1980s all-decade team: The Chicago Bears led the NFL in rushing in Covert’s first four seasons and finished in the Top 3 in seven of his eight seasons. History defines Covert as a complete left tackle. He spent his college career pass blocking at Pitt for Dan Marino, then showed his versatility as a run blocker with the Bears and Walter Payton. Covert was the sixth overall choice of the 1983 draft who made the NFL all-rookie team, then was elected a captain by the Bears in his second season. Chicago reached three NFC title games in Covert’s career and won a Super Bowl in 1986.