Ox Emerson never sold real estate but he learned over time what six other members of the NFL’s All-Decade team of the 1930s came to realize. Location, location, location because truth be told if Emerson wasn’t located at guard and defensive tackle during his playing days his resume would have long ago landed him a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
There are 10 members of that All-Decade team not enshrined in Canton and seven of them are linemen. The best of them, most football historians would argue, was Ox Emerson.
Emerson played eight seasons in the NFL between the years 1931-1939 and was named first-team All-Pro six times. That’s 75 per cent of the time, which today would make him a millionaire. Not so in the 1930s.
Emerson’s career began with the Portsmouth Spartans, who would later become the Detroit Lions. Set to captain the University of Texas in 1931, he was ruled ineligible because he’d played two plays against Baylor in 1928 and so agreed to accept $75 a game to come north and turn pro. Eight years and six All-Pro seasons later his salary had doubled to $150 a game. No wonder the guy retired at the age of 30.
In between, Emerson was one of the most mobile guards of his time and the anchor of offensive lines that produced the biggest rushing yards in league history. In 1936, the Lions’ third year of existence after the Spartans were sold and moved to Detroit, Emerson led a pile-driving line that produced a record 2,885 rushing yards in 12 games. That record stood for 36 years before the 1972 Miami Dolphins broke it in a 14-game season.
Future Hall of Famer Dutch Clark led the team in rushing but he was not alone. A year earlier, four of the league’s top 10 rushers found daylight running behind Emerson’s blocks as the Lions won their first NFL championship, besting the New York Giants 26-7.
In 1932, Emerson’s second with the Spartans, their hard running offense produced a 6-1-4 record and one of the great oddities in NFL history. Because ties were thrown out in those days, the Spartans finished tied with the 6-1-6 Bears and met them in the league’s first “playoff’’ game for the league title on December 16, 1932 in Chicago.
Frigid conditions forced the game indoors. It was played at Chicago Stadium only days after the circus left town. Behind them they left not only four inches of dirt on the floor but much of it mixed with an ample supply of elephant, horse and lion droppings that Emerson once said made the whole place stink.
What stunk worse for Emerson and his teammates was the absence of star running back Dutch Clark. Clark had no idea such a game would be played and because of the economics of the NFL in those days he was not about to risk losing his offseason job as basketball coach at Colorado College for an additional $75.
What Clark missed was not only the league’s first playoff game and its first indoor game but one played on a field only 60 yards long. That forced teams to back up 20 yards and start over after they first crossed the 50 yard line so their accomplishments would be attained on a 100-yard “field.’’
The two teams battled to a 0-0 tie until the Bears intercepted a pass at the Spartans’ 13-yard line late in the fourth quarter. Several plays later, Bronko Nagurski plunged into the line but just before Emerson could get his hands on him, he back up and flipped a pass over the defense for what proved to be the winning score.
Emerson protested vehemently that day and for the rest of his life, insisting Nagurski had failed to drop back the then required five yards to legally pass the ball and would have been tackled short of the goal line had he not. As Emerson learned for not the last time, location is often everything in life and the location where this game was being played was Chicago. The illegal pass was allowed.
That year was the first of six consecutive seasons Emerson was named first team All-Pro. To put that into modern-day perspective, it’s the same number of times first-ballot Hall of Famer and fellow Lion Barry Sanders was named first team All Pro. It also ties Emerson with Hall of Famers and fellow Lions Jack Christiansen, Lou Creekmur and his old teammate, Dutch Clark
Emerson was a sure tackler and a fast and athletic offensive lineman who compensated for his relative lack of size (5-11, 203 pounds) with unusual quickness and near perfect blocking technique that allowed him to move larger men out of his way and, more importantly, out of Clark’s way.
Emerson was named first team All-Pro for the final time in 1937, then surprised the Lions by retiring at the age of 30 to take a job as an assistant coach with the then Brooklyn Dodgers (of the NFL). Emerson joined the only head coach he’d ever had in pro football, Potsy Clark, when Clark left for Brooklyn but his retirement didn’t last long.
The Dodgers had seven rookie starters and Clark decided they were not protecting future Hall of Fame quarterback Ace Parker adequately. Emerson was pressed into service and that season both started at guard and coached the offensive line before retiring a second time at the end of the season.
A year later, Clark and his staff were fired and Emerson returned to Detroit to work for Ford Motor Company and coach football at Wayne State University. Like many Americans that day, he left civilian life voluntarily during World War II, serving as a Lt. Commander on the aircraft carrier USS Block Island, which was sunk by a German U-boat off the Canary Islands.
After several days floating in a life raft, Emerson and several others were rescued and he returned to the U.S., where he coached the Naval Air Station football team in Corpus Christi, Tx. until his post-war discharge.
Emerson later coached in both high school and for six years as an assistant at Texas, but his greatest football moments came in the NFL. He is, without a doubt, one of the great forgotten players of the 1930s, yet has never had his credentials debated by the Hall of Fame’s Board of Selectors.
Location is everything in real estate and in life. Where Ox Emerson needs to be located, it seems, is the Hall of Busts at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Better late than never.