On an early-spring day in the California desert, an all-time all-pro named Don Hutson, 76, is playing gin rummy in the locker room of the Thunderbird Country Club, much as he has for 30 years.
He used to be more active. A half-century ago when employed by the Green Bay Packers, Hutson invented pass receiving. Or so it seemed. He was the first of the National Football League’s great receivers.
What’s more, time has stood still for Hutson in two respects. Incredibly, 45 years after retiring, he still holds 11 National Football League records. And at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, he still would fit comfortably into his old Green Bay uniform.
But his is an inside game now. And in Thunderbird’s windowless locker room, which looks like a basement cafeteria at an old high school in the Midwest, Hutson is just one of 45 or 50 gray-haired millionaires spending the long day at several long tables, humped over playing cards.
A retired car dealer from Racine, Wis., Hutson said he only occasionally takes time out for golf, lunch or televised football. But he added that he’s heading into one of the big years of his life--the year that Steve Largent of the Seattle Seahawks presses toward the Hutson record that has often been called unbreakable: most touchdown catches, career, 99.
In the 70-year history of the NFL, Largent, with 97, and Hutson are the only two with more than 90, and no other active receiver is close.
“I love to see my records broken, I really do,” said Hutson, whose neighbor on the desert is Largent’s coach, Chuck Knox. “You get a chance to relive (a part of) your life, the whole experience.”
He expects to relive this one on TV.
“The other day, Chuck (invited me to) come up and see Largent get the record in person,” said Hutson, who wouldn’t be caught dead that far from a card table.
“I told him, ‘I will be glad to come up--if you’ll just let me know when he’s going to get it.’ ”
Last year, Largent scored twice. At Green Bay, Hutson had scored at least six touchdowns a year in an 11-year career, 1935-45.
Indeed, in his time, Hutson was such a dominating football presence that by the 1940s, he held--among other NFL records--14 of the league’s 15 pass-catching records.
The 14: most seasons leading league, eight; most consecutive seasons leading league, five; most receptions lifetime, season and game; most yards lifetime, season and game; most touchdowns lifetime, season and game; most consecutive games, pass receptions; most consecutive games, touchdown catches, and shortest touchdown catch, four inches.
Curiously enough, his longest touchdown catch, 90 yards, wasn’t long enough to get him in the book.
The league now has 31 officially recognized pass-catching records--and Hutson’s name still appears 14 times. Of the 11 NFL records he still holds, seven were set as a receiver, two as a scorer--in competition with kickers as well as runners and receivers--and two as a touchdown maker, in competition with running backs as well as receivers.
A two-way, 60-minute player in the NFL’s iron-man era, he played safety on defense in each of his 11 seasons, which, conceivably, might be compared to 22 years for one of today’s NFL specialists. This will be Largent’s 14th season as a specialist receiver.
One of the finest athletes the game has known, Hutson, who was never injured, also kicked field goals and extra points.
Two of his records will probably last forever--or at least another century or two:
--He was the NFL champion in total touchdowns in each of eight different seasons. The real question is whether anyone can surpass the joint runners-up, Jim Brown and Lance Alworth, who each led three times.
--As a pass receiver, Hutson was first in the league nine times. Again, the question is whether anyone can catch the runner-up, Alworth, who led the league three times.
Hutson would still hold 12 NFL records if Commissioner Pete Rozelle hadn’t taken one of them out of the book--possibly to save space--most points, one quarter, 29.
In his final game, at Detroit in a wind storm in 1945, Hutson scored on four long pass plays and added a field goal and two extra points, all in the second quarter.
Had he also missed two extra points?
“Not me,” he said. “In my day, we didn’t have a designated kicker. We just got in the huddle, looked around, and asked: ‘Who wants to kick this one.’ I only volunteered once in a while.
“I’d never kicked a football anywhere until I got to Green Bay.”
ATHLETE In his first NFL game, the season opener in 1935, the Packers, after the kickoff, were on their 17-yard line against the Chicago Bears with Hutson split left.
“Our wingback, Johnny Blood, was wide to the right,” Hutson recalled. “And our right end lined up as what you’d call a tight end today. The Bears had never seen that (formation) before. Nobody had.
“Our coach, Curly Lambeau, dreamed it up the night before.
“I went down the middle as a decoy (while halfback) Arnold Herber dropped back to pass. Blood was the league’s leading receiver. He was also the signal caller. The ball was supposed to go to him.”
Instead, it went to the guy who got open. Hutson. First NFL game, first play, first catch, 83-yards, touchdown. Final score: Packers 7, Bears 0.
Within weeks, the league was regularly double-covering the new Packer star--the first receiver to get that kind of attention--and eventually, some teams made it a practice to put three men on him.
Thus in Cleveland one year, against the old Cleveland Rams, he decided he had to do something different.
At the Cleveland 15-yard line, after the Rams had persisted in covering him outside, inside, and deep--with three backs--Hutson took his case to Herber in the Green Bay huddle.
“I’m going to run straight at the right goal post,” he said. “And when I get there, I’m going to stick out my right arm and whirl around it.”
Two wooden goal posts were used in that era to support the crossbar.
“Throw the ball just as I hit the post,” Hutson said he told Herber. “And be sure to throw it to the other side, where I’ll be after I’m turned around.”
As promised, Hutson, closely guarded, raced to the designated area. There, the Rams’ three accompanying defensive backs went flying on as Hutson left the ground with both feet and whirled around the post into the open. Easy touchdown.
“If it was illegal, they didn’t call it,” he said. “I never tried it again, but I take a lot of pride in one thing. That was the first post pattern.”
His speed, he said, was always his foremost asset as a receiver, although he never knew how fast he was until one spring at the University of Alabama, where he also played basketball and baseball for the Crimson Tide, and where, on his free days, he joined the football team at spring practice.
“The basketball coach was also the athletic director,” Hutson said. “And after a game one time, he came up to me and said: ‘You’re faster than you think you are, Hutson. The track team needs you.’
“I didn’t want to get into any more sports, so I said I didn’t have time.
“He said, ‘I don’t mean you have to run track. We just need you for a day or so to give (Alabama’s best sprinter) a little competition. Nobody else can push him.’ ”
The next afternoon, Hutson not only pushed him but beat him. At 100 yards, he finished in 9.7 seconds.
“I never practiced, and I never learned how to start, but they entered me in the rest of the meets that year,” Hutson said. “And the funny thing was, I always ran a 9.7.
“I ran second at the conference meet, running a 9.7 as usual. The guy who beat me ran a 9.6. That year, the world record was 9.5.”
It wasn’t track, however, that made Hutson famous at Alabama. It was the 1935 Rose Bowl game.
“The Stanford Vow Boys won the Coast that season, and wanted the national champion, Minnesota (at Pasadena),” he said. “The Big Ten wouldn’t let them come. Our team was their second choice, which always makes a good team more dangerous.”
That afternoon, underdog Alabama erupted for 22 points in the second quarter and coasted in, 29-13, as Hutson caught eight passes and scored twice on a big day for him and passer Dixie Howell.
“The Vow Boys had the best running team I’ve ever seen,” Hutson said. “But running teams can’t play catch-up.”
Hutson had migrated to Alabama from Pine Bluff, Ark., where he was born in 1913. His father was a railroad conductor with three sons. Don and his wife, Julia, have three daughters and four grandchildren. She was an Alabama student when they met.
Don, a recovered heart attack victim, and Julia celebrated their golden wedding anniversary three years ago.
Alabama-bred, Julia Hutson was never as comfortable in Wisconsin as she is in the California desert.
“Not many Southerners are,” her husband said.
FRIEND In the late 1930s and early ‘40s, the nation’s two best football players were probably Sammy Baugh and Don Hutson--the first of the quality modern passers and the first skilled, modern receiver.
One or the other was in the NFL championship game nine times in Hutson’s 11 years in the league, and on the winning side five times.
That was an era when the NFL champions began each new season at the Chicago All-Star game, so either Baugh or Hutson was usually there, too.
In the summer of 1945 it was Hutson’s turn in Chicago, and, as he tells it now, he was resting in his hotel room after a Green Bay practice one afternoon when a long-distance call came in from Baugh’s employer, George Preston Marshall of the Washington Redskins.
Marshall said he was hunting for Paul (Bear) Bryant. At Alabama, Hutson and Bryant had been teammates. They had played left and right ends.
“I can get Bryant the coaching job at Maryland if I find him tonight,” the Redskin owner said. “Do you know where he is?”
Said Hutson: “I just got him a ticket to the game. He’s sitting right here on my bed.”
“Put him on the line,” said Marshall.
And that, Hutson said the other day, “launched Bear on the greatest coaching career in football history.”
They were always best friends.
“I was best man at his wedding,” Hutson said.
Bryant, who in the end passed up Hutson’s last All-Star game to catch the train to Washington and coaching fame, was on his way home that week from World War II.
It was a war that Hutson had missed. “I was 1-A (in the draft) the last year,” he said. “But I had three daughters, and I was never called.”
Thus his NFL career proceeded without interruption into the mid-40s, when it ended just as Bryant’s coaching career was getting under way.
“It was as obvious to me as it was to George Marshall that Bear would be a big success,” Hutson said. “He had exactly the right temperament for coaching.
“I knew him most of his life because we both came out of Arkansas. He was from Fordyce, which isn’t too far from Pine Bluff.”
Bryant always preferred football, whereas Hutson’s boyhood game, he said, was baseball. An outfielder, he was on the Pine Bluff town team at 15.
“Town teams were big in those days,” he said. “That’s how the Green Bay Packers got their start in football.”
As a player, Hutson’s favorite sport was--and, he said, has always been--basketball.
“I’m like most (athletes),” he said. “I’d rather see football, but I’d rather play basketball.”
As a senior, he was an all-state basketball player at Pine Bluff, where he played only one year of football.
“In those days, there was no (pro) future in either football or basketball,” he said. “When Bear and I were at Alabama, the daily papers never printed a word on pro football. They gave you the NFL scores on Monday, and that was all.
“So from the start, I concentrated on baseball. My goal was the big leagues--until I found that there was more money in the NFL.”
There was for Hutson, in any case. Particularly after the 1935 Rose Bowl. The NFL season that followed was the last for the pros before they began drafting college players in 1936.
Accordingly, Hutson was prime merchandise.
“During the first few weeks after the Rose Bowl, I heard from every coach in the NFL plus the senior senator from Louisiana,” he said.
Why the senator?
“At first I didn’t know,” Hutson said. “In fact, I thought it was a put-on. When I picked up the phone, he said, ‘This is Huey Long.’
“I said, ‘Good for you. I’m the Duke of Windsor,’ and hung up.”
Calling back, Long convinced Hutson that he was real, and asked for some information.
“Counting you and Bryant, there were six of you fellows from Arkansas on the Alabama Rose Bowl team,” he said. “How did that happen?”
Hutson replied: “We have this little pool hall in Pine Bluff. Guy named Jimmy Harlan runs it. He told us about Alabama.”
The next time Hutson saw Harlan’s pool hall, there was a one-word sign on the front door, “Closed.”
“The LSU people set Harlan up in a house right on the campus,” Hutson said. “He never worked another day in his life. But LSU football immediately got better.”
The National Collegiate Athletic Assn., Hutson added, didn’t seem to care.
“The NCAA wasn’t too active in those days,” he said. “And that was pretty lucky for Bear Bryant.”
As a Fordyce High School junior, Bryant had played on a state champion that lost everyone else to graduation.
Looking around that summer for a better deal, he found it at Tuscaloosa.
“Bear went to Tuscaloosa High School, and practiced all season with us on (the Alabama) varsity,” said Hutson. “By the time he got to college, he was a very mature college boy.”
The Hutson era in pro football wasn’t the best of times, financially, for most athletes. It was a decade when the country was fighting through the Great Depression and then a great war. But Hutson was one of the lucky ones.
Hutson prospered all the way.
“I’ve always been lucky,” he said.
To begin with, capitalizing on the last year of unrestricted pro football free agency--before the NFL dreamed up the draft in 1936--he started with the Packers at $300 a week.
In those depressed days, many in his native Arkansas and Alabama didn’t see $300 all year. Seasoned newspaper reporters in Chicago were making $35 a week.
A decade later, he capitalized on another good thing. The Packers, by then, were heavily dependent on him.
So after deciding in the winter of 1944-45 to play one final season of football, he announced his retirement at a civic luncheon one day, “effective immediately.”
That had the intended result. The Packer coach, Lambeau, who had won three NFL championships with Hutson at left end, sweetened his offer.
“Not enough,” the player said. “If I come back next year, I want $15,000.”
“Never,” said the coach. “Nobody makes $15,000.”
“Sammy Baugh does,” said Hutson. “That will be two of us.”
Four decades after Lambeau gave in, Hutson, recalling the incident the other day, said: “That’s the kind of business deal I always liked to make--one that was good for both parties.”
His financial acumen--as exhibited in contract negotiations early on, and at the gin table later--was apparently inborn. “I can’t remember when I didn’t want to be a businessman,” he said.
As an Alabama student, with Bryant as a partner, he had operated the Captain Kidd Cleaners in Tuscaloosa.
Talking about those days, he said: “At the university, I was the only athlete in the business school. The only reason I wanted to play pro sports was to get a stake.”
He got it rather early in his pro career at Green Bay and opened a bowling alley there, the two-story Packer Playdium. Next, he formed the Hutson Motor Car Co. and began selling automobiles to sports fans, “and, of course, anybody else.”
As a football player, mixing business with civic responsibilities, he headed the county Red Cross drive, ran the Community Chest appeal one year, and joined the Elks, Eagles and Lions, serving a year as president of the Green Bay Lions Club.
Sundays, as a receiver, he made money and all-pro. Monday to Friday, as a joiner, he made money and friends--and he was shortly making more from bowlers and car buyers than from the Packers. Even when they had to match Baugh’s salary.
In nearly every town of the 1930s, the prominent car dealers--with exclusive sales rights for miles around--were the royalty of the business world.
Asked about it, Hutson said: “I never aimed for automobiles. That just happened to be the thing I got into. I just wanted to run a business, any business.
“In 1949 (four years after leaving the Packers) I had two offers I couldn’t refuse. A guy wanted me to go into frozen orange juice in Florida--this was just as frozen orange juice was coming in--and another fellow wanted to sell me the Cadillac agency in Racine.”
Racine was a railroad and steel town on Lake Michigan 40 miles north of Chicago, and although a victim later of exposure in the U.S. Rust Belt, it was a good business town in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
Because he preferred Wisconsin to Florida, Hutson chose cars over oranges and made his fortune in Racine, finally disposing of his last Wisconsin properties only last year.
He was asked what he liked about running a car agency in Racine.
“The challenge of making it go,” he said. “And telling 150 people what to do.”
Hutson’s best business decision?
“When I was a senior at Alabama, I had the luxury of being able to sign with any team in the country,” he said. “And that year, I signed with two NFL teams at the same time. I didn’t really intend to, but I did.”
Both had wanted him, so he played one against the other.
“It was plain luck, more than any decision I made,” he said. “A year later, I’d have had to go to the team that drafted me, and I’d have been getting $50 a week, or less, instead of $300.”
The teams that won Hutson’s autograph in 1935 were the Packers and the Brooklyn football Dodgers, and eventually he signed with the Packers. He accepted their final offer one week when he couldn’t reach the Dodgers on the telephone after three days of trying. Football teams in the ‘30s didn’t have offices.
Then, after the Dodgers tracked him down, he signed with them, too.
“I’d promised the Dodgers that they could match the best offer I got,” he said. “They said a promise is a promise, and I agreed.”
Both contracts were mailed to NFL Commissioner Joe Carr, who, fortunately for Hutson, accepted Green Bay’s because it had been postmarked first--by 20 minutes. Post offices in the ‘30s postmarked the mail every few minutes.
“Luck is the thing you need the most to succeed in football, business, or anything,” Hutson said. “I mean injury luck, business luck, card luck, whatever. And I’ve always been lucky.”
Looking around, he said: “Whose deal?”
DON HUTSON’S RECORDS
Don Hutson, who played left end for the Green Bay Packers 50 years ago, still holds seven of the National Football League’s 31 official pass receiving records. He also holds four other NFL records for touchdowns and total points. All but one are for longevity or sustained excellence. Hutson’s 11 records:
Most consecutive seasons leading league: 4
Runner-up: Lance Alworth: 3
Most seasons leading league: 8
Runners-up: Lance Alworth, Jim Brown: 3
Most consecutive seasons leading league: 5
Runner-up: Gino Cappelletti: 4
Most seasons leading league: 5
Tied with Gino Cappelletti
Most seasons leading league: 8
Runner-up: Lionel Taylor: 5
Most consecutive seasons leading league: 5
Runner-up: Lionel Taylor: 4
Most seasons leading league: 9
Runner-up: Lance Alworth: 3
Most consecutive seasons leading league: 5
Runner-up: Don Hutson: 4
Most touchdown receptions, career: 99
Runner-up: Steve Largent: 97
Most seasons leading league: 7
Runners-up: L. Alworth, Raymond Berry: 3
Most consecutive seasons leading league: 4
Runners-up: Many tied: 2
FO Former Packer Don Hutson still holds the NFL record of 99 career touchdown receptions.