(Photos courtesy of Green Bay Packers)
By Rick Gosselin
Talk of Fame Network
Vince Lombardi arrived just in time to save the legacy of the Green Bay Packers.
But not in time to save the legacy of Bobby Dillon.
The Packers were a struggling franchise in the 1950s, on the field and off. The Packers staged a stock drive in the early 1950s to keep the franchise afloat financially. But the infusion of cash could not curtail Green Bay’s losing ways. The Packers endured 11 consecutive non-winning seasons before Lombardi’s arrival in 1959.
Dillon was a part of seven of those non-winning years. He played one year at safety for Lombardi and enjoyed the only winning season of his NFL career, a 7-5 third-place finish in the West. Then Dillon retired at the age of 29 -- and the championship run in Green Bay began.
Lombardi took the Packers to the NFL title game in 1960 and then won five league titles from 1961-67. Eleven Packers from that era have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Players from winning teams have long been rewarded by the Hall of Fame. Sixty-eight percent of all enshrines in Canton have championship rings.
On the flip side, players from losing teams have historically been punished by the Hall of Fame. Especially defensive players. Quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and even some blockers have all been able to punch tickets to Canton without a championship ring. But it’s much harder for defensive players to gain admission -- and Dillon remains one of the classic oversights.
This was a great player on a bad football team. A very bad football team.
Dillon intercepted 52 passes in his career, good for a tie for 26th all time. Joining him on that 26th rung are Hall-of-Famers Jack Butler, Mel Renfro and Larry Wilson. Cornerback Champ Bailey also shares that spot, and there is likely a bust in his future as well.
But Dillon intercepted his 52 passes in fewer games (94) and fewer seasons (eight) than any of them. And Dillon did it with one less eye. He lost an eye in a childhood accident, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming an All-America at the University of Texas, a third-round NFL draft pick and a four-time Pro Bowl performer.
Dillon intercepted nine passes in his second season in 1953 -- and did it in just 10 Sundays, having missed two games with an injury. But those interception came during a 2-9-1 season by the Packers and no one noticed. Dillon was passed over in the voting for both All-Pro and the Pro Bowl.
Twice more in his career Dillon intercepted nine passes, in 1955 and 1957. Both times he would be rewarded with All-Pro and Pro Bowl acclaim. But in 1956, when he intercepted seven passes and returned them a league-leading 244 yards with one touchdown, again the voters passed on his accomplishments. No Pro Bowl, no All-Pro -- the price Dillon had to pay for having played on a 4-8 team that season.
Dillon played only 94 games in his career, and the Packers managed to win just 33 of them. He also recovered three fumbles for 55 career takeaways -- better than a takeaway every other game in his career. But no one noticed. He led the Packers in interceptions for seven consecutive seasons. But no one noticed.
Dillon was passed over in the voting for the NFL all-decade team for the 1950s, and his name has never come up for Pro Football Hall-of-Fame consideration. He was enshrined in the Packers Hall of Fame in 1974 and the Texas Hall of Fame in 1996.
Hall-of-Famer Ron Wolf spent 11 years in Green Bay as general manager of the Packers. In a building with one of the NFL’s best histories and film libraries, Wolf took the time to educate himself on the franchise’s glorious past. The game tape he watched of Dillon from the 1950s jumped out at him.
“He was a 9.7 sprinter coming out of the University of Texas and would be a corner in today’s game,” Wolf said. “But back then the best athletes were put inside. In order to qualify for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I believe you are talking about the best of the best. Bobby Dillon is one of those from his era. Witness the fact that (safeties) Jack Christiansen, Yale Lary and Emlen Tunnell are in the Hall. Dillon accomplished more than those particular players did in the same era. He was a rare football player, the best defensive back of his time.”
Alex Karras, Tommy Nobis and Eddie Meador were NFL all-decade defensive performers in the 1960s. Robert Brazile and Louis Wright were all-decade performers in the 1970s. Like Dillon, they never won a championship. Like Dillon, they have never been Hall-of-Fame finalists.
That’s a flaw in the voting process that needs to be corrected. More worthy candidates need to be cycled through the room as Hall of Fame finalists -- not just those who won championships.
And Bobby Dillon would be a good place to start.