The idea began to form 21 years ago, when I was researching a book and planning to devote a chapter to Marion Motley, the Cleveland Browns fullback of the late
1940s and early '50s. The title of the chapter would be "The Greatest Player," and I was going to make a case for the 238-pound Motley as the best player I had ever seen. The only problem was that I had seen him through a boy's eyes in his best years, his All-America Football Conference years. By the time the Browns joined the NFL, in 1950, he was 30 and starting to slide.
I knew I had to find some old films of Motley and check him out again. That is usually a bad play, messing around with cherished memories. I remember boxing trainer Cus D'Amato telling the story of how he persuaded Jimmy Jacobs, the great collector of fight films, to show him movies of George Dixon, the featherweight champ of the 1890s.
"In my youth," D'Amato had said, "all my father would ever talk about was George Dixon, the greatest fighter who ever lived. It was George Dixon this and George Dixon that. Before every meal he'd lift a glass of wine to George Dixon.
"So I asked Jimmy if he had any old films of Dixon, and he said he did but I wouldn't want to see them. I told him to show me anyway. I watched one and I said, 'That's not George Dixon,' and he said, 'I'm afraid it is.' He was an old-fashioned, stand-up fighter who wouldn't last these days.
"I got this terrible pain in my stomach, watching that film. I mean it really hurt. I said, 'Jimmy, for chrissakes, shut off that projector.' "
The films of Motley didn't break my heart. They simply reinforced my earlier impressions of him, and I went ahead and wrote the chapter. Then I started thinking. Why only Motley? How about the rest of them? Why not look through all the old pro footage I could find? How about Red Grange and Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski and Don Hutson? What were they really doing out there? How good were they?
Legends, boyhood memories, reexamined through the eyes of an adult; watch the footage and evaluate the great old players by modern standards. It was a bittersweet thing, insatiable curiosity balanced by the fear of the great hollow—a Cus D' Amato stomachache.
Grange? Well, I had seen films of him from his days at the University of Illinois—those swerving, swooping runs against Michigan, tearing up Penn in the Franklin Field mud. But I had never seen any footage of him as a pro—it probably didn't exist. His pro career, which began in 1925 with the Chicago Bears, never came close to matching what he had done in college. Jim Thorpe? Once again, I had never seen any films, except for one or two clips of him at the 1912 Olympics. He didn't enter the pro game until 1920, when he was 32, and who wanted to see him old and washed up and playing out the string on tired legs? I seriously doubted that footage of either Grange or Thorpe existed. I was right. It doesn't exist.
The more I thought about the past, the more I became obsessed with two names: Nagurski, the fullback who played for the Bears from 1930 to '37, with a brief return in '43; and Hutson, the end for the Packers of the '30s and '40s who caught 99 touchdown passes, a record that still stands. I never saw either of them play in the flesh, but when was a kid they were the two names everyone knew. They epitomized pro football. Power and grace. The runaway bronc and the gazelle. They had become figures of speech. "What are you? A Nagurski? A Hutson?" Toughest runner, most gifted pass catcher—the essence of football. What did they look like in action? How would they rate by today's standards?
There had to be films of them somewhere, in some vault someplace, though I had never seen footage of more than a play or two. Nagurski was the first of the great massive, bulldozer fullbacks. I had read all the old quotes when I was a kid—"impossible to bring down one-on-one," "the only way to stop him was with a rifle," etc. We used to play a game in the sandlots of the Bronx called Nagurski. One guy would have the ball, everyone else would get on the other side, and the guy with the ball would try to run through us. And if, by some miracle, he made it, we would all yell, "Nagurski! Nagurski!"