Don Hutson, who died last week at 84, set 19 NFL receiving records while playing for the Green Bay Packers from 1935 to '45. SI's Paul Zimmerman reflects upon a Hall of Famer who redefined his position.
Don Hutson was one of the legends we of a certain era grew up with. Greatest team: Chicago Bears. Greatest runner: Bronko Nagurski. Greatest receiver: Don Hutson. You didn't question it; it was simply accepted.
I just missed seeing Hutson play, but I heard the stories about him. Used to swing around the goalpost with one hand and catch a touchdown pass with the other. Once caught a pass in full stride, one-handed, with his palm facing downward. All the stories.
Ten years ago I met him at an old-timers' reunion and asked him about those tales. "Well, the goalposts were on the end line in those days," he said, "so I kind of used the post as a pick. Swung around it? Well, yeah, I used to do that. As for catching a ball from on top...if I did that I was just showing off."
The 6'1", 180-pound Hutson came into the NFL as a two-time All-America at Alabama, where he was known as the Alabama Antelope. Pro football wasn't ready for him. Back then defense ruled the league. The year before Hutson showed up, the average team completed just four passes per game. Within five years he owned all the receiving records; 11 stood for at least 50 years. In 1942 he caught 74 passes, more than four of the league's 10 teams. Short and long posts, square-outs, down-and-ins, hooks, stop-and-go routes, deep flies, he had them all. Hutson also played safety and kicked for the Packers. In '45 he scored 29 points in one quarter against the Detroit Lions by catching four touchdown passes and converting five extra points.
In 1989 I flew to Green Bay and spent an afternoon in the Packers' film room watching footage of Hutson. I wanted to see the legend come to life. What I saw was a Ray Berry on the possession routes, blessed with the grace of a Lynn Swann, plus a great hunger for the ball at the point of the catch, like a Jerry Rice. For 11 years—99 touchdowns, three championships, a pair of MVP awards—he was the best.
I ran one catch back frame by frame, an impossible reception on a sideline route. His momentum was pulling him out of bounds, but he somehow corkscrewed his body back in and kept extending his arms—they seemed five feet long—and the ball stuck to his fingertips. I've seen only one other like it, Swann's against the Dallas Cowboys in the 1976 Super Bowl.
He was an unexplained force in the NFL, a meteor that lit up the sky. An original. A legend.
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