With the recent announcement that the Pro Football Hall of Fame plans on having an expanded “Centennial Class’’ of 20 inductees in August, 2020, to mark the 100th anniversary of the National Football League, there has been a torrent of names named and “must-be’’ lists of potential candidates. My colleagues Clark Judge and Rick Gosselin have both written on the subject, and now it’s my turn to weigh in.
As a long-serving member of the senior committee I am well aware there is a lengthy list of forgotten players whose greatness should have, at the minimum, gotten them into the final debate … if not into Canton itself.
Rick on Wednesday mentioned the seven first-team all-decade players not enshrined. Between the 1920s and 2000s only nine first-team all-decade selections (excluding the oft-excluded kickers and punters) are not in the Hall … and two of them are from the 1990s, safeties Steve Atwater and Leroy Butler.
That both were safeties is no surprise, but that is a topic for another day.
In Rick’s opinion, the other seven – Lavvie Dilwig, Al Wistert, Ox Emerson, Bruno Banducci, Drew Pearson, Cliff Harris and Jim Covert – should be atop the list of the 10 seniors who are to be half of the “Twenty for 20.’’ While I’d agree all are deserving --and, if adherence to history is the major factor, it’s a solid group -- my Top 10 differs.
One problem with players from the 1940s is that voters of that time believed they were playing in a league with watered down talent because so many NFL players had gone off to fight in World War II. That does not mean those who made up the all-decade team of the ‘40s weren’t great players, but it does give some rationale why so many were excluded when it came to the Hall vote.
Taking that into consideration my top 10 seniors differed some from Rick and Clark’s. That, of course, is the point isn’t it? Debating who should receive the ultimate individual honor for an NFL player has become a robust cottage industry in the media and among fans.
Selecting player A ahead of player B does not diminish the skills or worthiness of player B. The truth is there have simply been more great players than there were available Hall-of-Fame jackets, and so some great players slipped through the cracks. The greatest of these was Duke Slater, who tops my list.
Slater was the finest African-American football player of the first half of the 20th century and one of the NFL's best two-way linemen in the league's infant years. He played 10 years in what was the then-National Football League's hardscrabble infancy for the Milwaukee Badgers (1921-1922), Rock Island Independents (1922-1926) and Chicago Cardinals (1926-1931) before retiring after the 1931 season.
He played both ways -- and often every minute of every game, which he did for four consecutive years for Rock Island -- and continued doing even late in his career in Chicago. On Nov. 28, 1929, Slater was the only lineman to play all 60 minutes in the famous Thanksgiving Day game against the Chicago Bears won by the Cardinals, 40-6.
That day Ernie Nevers scored a record 40 points on six rushing TDs. According to newspaper stories of that time, they all came behind Slater's blocking.
Slater never missed a game because of injury and started 96 of the 99 games he played, making All-Pro six times. When he retired, Slater's 10 pro seasons ranked third for longevity in NFL history, and those 96 starts were fourth.
Slater’s percentage of starts to games played was the highest of any NFL player whose career ended before 1950 (minimum 80 games) and would have been higher had he not been held out of a game in 1924 by Rock Island management against the winless Kansas City Blues because of an agreement among teams that prevented African-Americans from playing in Missouri.
By 1927, Slater's sixth year in the NFL, the owners had begun to discuss banning black players from the league, as major-league baseball had already done. That year, eight of the nine African-American players in the league disappeared. Only one remained: Duke Slater. For all but two games, Slater was the only African-American player in the National Football League between 1927 and 1929, the exception coming when he convinced the Cardinals to sign Harold Bradley, Sr. to play alongside him.
Bradley was cut after two games. Slater was named All-Pro in 1927 and 1929. It is believed he was omitted in 1928 because the financially-strapped Cardinals played just half a season that year.
Slater almost single-handily held racism at bay for a decade in the NFL that he belongs in Canton, although that alone would seem to be reason enough. The real reason is he was one of the best two-way lineman of his era, a six-time All-Pro at a time when there were barely six black players in all of professional football and the greatest African-American pro football player of the first half of the 20th century.
Oddly, Duke Slater was a Hall-of-Fame finalist in 1970 and 1971 but did not gain enshrinement. Then he faded away, never to again see his name as a Hall-of-Fame finalist. He should be atop the “Twenty for ‘20’’ list.
After that you can go in a lot of directions but my remaining nine are Ed Sprinkle, Alex Karras, Tommy Nobis, Maxie Baughan, Ken Anderson, Eddie Meador … and three of Goose’s selections: Al Wistert, Drew Pearson and Cliff Harris. Rick did such a good job listing the credentials of Wistert, Pearson and Harris I’ll simply move on to the other six.
Ed Sprinkle 6-1, 206. Pos.: G ,TE, DE Chicago Bears (1944-55). 1940s All-Decade team.
Sprinkle was the most feared pass rusher of the 1940s. No less an authority than George Halas called him “the greatest pass rusher I’ve ever seen.’’ Few in Sprinkle’s day would have disputed that. He was a two-way player but most dominant defensively. He was a four-time Pro Bowl selection despite being despised by many who believed he was a dirty player. That led to two nicknames. “The Claw’’ for his vice-like tackling and “The Meanest Man in Pro Football.’’ The latter is self-explanatory. His selection to the Hall of Fame should be, too.
Alex Karras 6-2, 248. Pos.: DT Detroit Lions (1958-70). 1960 All-Decade team.
Karras was one of the most dominating defensive lineman of his day and the anchor of one of the best defenses of the 1960s. He was named first-or-second-team All-Pro in nine of his 12 NFL seasons but was suspended along with Hall-of-Famer Paul Horning for gambling in 1963. Unlike Horning, Karras was less than apologetic about it and dismissive of the NFL’s hierarchy of that time. For this it seems he has paid an unfair HOF price. Karras missed only one game in his career. The Lions were a fearsome defensive team, allowing just 12.6 points a game in 1962, 13.4 in 1969 and 14.4 in 1970. Yet they made the playoffs only once because they were in the same conference with Lombardi’s Packers and often lacked the offensive power to go with their defensive punch. Regardless, Karras is long overdue for enshrinement. Nine All-Pro selections in 12 years. Really?
Tommy Nobis 6-2, 240. Pos.: LB Atlanta Falcons (1966-76). 1960s All-Decade team.
Nobis remains the greatest player in Falcons’ history nearly 50 years after his retirement. In his rookie season he led the NFL with 294 tackles, which remains the most ever recorded by one player. He was Rookie of the Year and a five-time Pro Bowl selection until suffering a horrendous knee injury in 1969. He was never the same player, yet still led Atlanta in tackles in 11 of his 12 seasons. Despite several more knee surgeries after a second knee injury in 1971, Nobis missed only two games in his final five seasons and started 132 of his 133 career games. He was a beast among beasts and long ago deserving of a place in Canton.
Maxie Baughan 6-1, 227. Pos.: LB. Philadelphia (1960-65), LA Rams (1966-70). Washington (1974).
Baughan was not named to the 1960s all-decade team, but don’t ask me why because he was selected to more Pro Bowls that decade – nine in 10 years - than any of the linebackers who did make it. He was a seven-time All-Pro as well. Baughan was a tackling machine but also a tactical savant who so well understood the defenses of George Allen that Allen called him out of retirement to help him install his defense in Washington. He would go on to a memorable coaching career, and, after being installed in the College Football Hall of Fame, seems only one bust short of what he deserves.
Ken Anderson 6-2, 212. Pos.: QB Cincinnati Bengals (1971-86).
Anderson is a curious Hall-of-Fame exclusion considering the voters’ love of stats and the quarterback position. He was a three-time All-Pro, four-time Pro Bowl selection and league MVP in 1981. He led the NFL in passing yards twice and QB rating four times, the latter in 1974, 1975, 1981 and 1982. When he retired after the 1986 season, Anderson was ranked sixth all-time in passing yardage (32,938) and so productive that nearly 30 years later he remains 39th, even though the passing game has changed radically since his retirement. Anderson also holds an odd distinction. In 1981 he led the Bengals to a Super Bowl XVI showdown with Joe Montana and the San Francisco 49ers. His team became the first in Super Bowl history to gain more yards and score more touchdowns than its opponent and still lose (26-20). That was through no fault of Anderson, who passed for 300 yards and two touchdowns and ran for a third while setting then-Super Bowl records for completions (25) and completion percentage (73.5%). Had he won that game he’d likely be in Canton.
Eddie Meador 5-11, 193. Pos.: CB-S L.A. Rams (1959-1970). 1960s All-Decade team.
Meador was a six-time All-Pro who started at cornerback from his rookie season until he was moved to safety in 1964. He was a six-time All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler and a stalwart special teams player, blocking a Rams’ record 10 kicks. He had 46 career interceptions and 18 fumble recoveries and was a fierce tackler. The Hall’s historic reluctance to recognize safeties has long worked against Meador but that should stop in 2020.
Two coaches will also be named on the “Twenty for ‘20’’ list and there are an abundance of candidates. My two would be Tom Flores and Buddy Parker.
Flores won two Super Bowls as head coach of the Raiders and was a pioneer in significant ways. Flores was the first Hispanic to be a starting quarterback in pro football history and the first to serve as an NFL head coach.
The Hall is about both production and impact. Flores had both.
Parker is a coach time has forgotten, perhaps because he had one of the oddest careers. Parker went 47-23-2 in six years leading the Detroit Lions, winning two NFL championships and three conference titles. He then stunned the Lions by announcing his resignation during a training camp dinner on August 12, 1957.
Two weeks later he took over the struggling Pittsburgh Steelers and went 51-47-6 in eight seasons, including 7-4-1 his second year, which was their best record in a decade. He went 9-5 in 1962 but several years later the Steelers became a victim of age and poor drafting. And so on September 5, 1964, he again resigned, allegedly telling Steelers’ owner Art Rooney, “I can’t win with this bunch of stiffs.”
No one did until Chuck Noll arrived in 1969 and began building Pittsburgh's 1970s’ dynasty. By then Buddy Parker was long retired and working in real estate, never to return to an NFL sideline. But he should make one last appearance in Canton with his two league titles and by virtue of the fact his .584 winning percentage is better than more than a third of the 24 coaches already enshrined.