"You're the guy who named Don Hutson the best player of all time," a West Coast talk show host said to me on the air a few years ago. "Did people take that seriously?"
That's the kind of reaction I got when, in a 1993 pro football history book, I called the Green Bay Packers wide receiver the best ever. Hutson had never played a game on TV. He hadn't suited up in 48 years. But when he left the game in 1945 after 11 seasons, his 99 touchdown receptions were three times as many as any player in NFL history. Naturally, as I told Hutson a few years back (he died in 1997), I wish I could have seen him in action. The ideal day? October 7, 1945, against Detroit in Milwaukee.
The 32-year-old Hutson, in his final NFL season, scored 29 points that day.
In one quarter.
The stadium in Milwaukee's State Fair Park was a cavernous place with ramshackle bleachers. On a bright Indian summer Sunday, 25,500 showed up to see two title contenders knock heads. The Packers were defending NFL champs, and coach Curly Lambeau was breaking in a new halfback (the position from which most passes were thrown in the '30s and '40s), a young fellow named Roy McKay. The Packers' passing game figured to be tested by the Lions, who had one of the league's toughest defenses. Detroit scored first, five seconds into the second quarter, to go up 7-0. Then McKay went to work with the best player who ever lived.
Hutson was football's DiMaggio, a graceful runner who never looked as if he was trying hard. He also had some sprinter in him. At Alabama he had run the 100-yard dash in 9.8 seconds. The grainy, fluttering film I've seen of Hutson shows a 6'1" man, much taller than most of the defensive backs who covered him. But his leather helmet rode high on his head, making him appear a little nerdy.
You'd never know by listening to Hutson how good he was. He hated talking about himself. But after this game he wouldn't have to. Following the Lions' touchdown, the Packers started at their own 41. On first down Hutson juked Detroit's left cornerback, Art Van Tone, and got two steps on him. McKay's 59-yard scoring pass was perfect—though it didn't have to be—and hit Hutson in effortless stride at the Lions' 40 as he glided to the end zone. Hutson, who at various times in his career was a kicker, defensive end and safety, kicked the extra point. The Packers scored another touchdown on their next drive, and Hutson added the PAT.
Lions coach Gus Dorais then assigned a second defensive back, second-year man Bob Sneddon, to assist Van Tone in shadowing Hutson. A few plays later Hutson blew by Van Tone, who was guarding against a short pass, then turned around Sneddon, who was backpedaling to cover the bomb. Sneddon trailed Hutson by a clear step as the receiver reached the Detroit 15, and McKay's rainbow went over Sneddon's hands and into Hutson's for his second touchdown of the quarter. He kicked another extra point.
A Packers interception on the next Detroit snap gave Green Bay the ball at the Lions' 17. This time, inexplicably, Dorais put Sneddon man-to-man on Hutson. Sneddon stayed with Hutson to the goal line, but the acrobatic receiver made a leaping catch for a touchdown. Sneddon sank to his knees and began punching the turf. Finally, in the last minute of the quarter, McKay lofted one more touchdown pass to Hutson, this time from the Detroit six.
Mercifully, halftime came, with Green Bay up 41-7. Hutson had scored 29 points (four touchdowns, five extra points) in 13 minutes, still an NFL record for points in a quarter. At game's end, a 57-21 final, Dorais looked shell-shocked. "The game can be summed up in three words," he said. "Too much Hutson."