(Ed. Note: this story originally ran on May 25, 2006)
The term "Triple Crown" holds majestic importance for the followers of several sports. It represents the highest individual achievement possible, and the elite athletes who claim that throne ascend to royal status within their sport.
In horse racing, the Triple Crown consists of the three premier events for three-year-old thoroughbreds: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. Winning all three races, which are held over a five-week period, has proven very difficult for even the best of horses.
In baseball, the Triple Crown denotes finishing first in the three major categories for hitters: batting average, home runs and runs batted in. Although many players have chased this rare distinction, precious few have captured it.
In football, a Triple Crown isn't well-defined or widely recognized. Because of specialization, a player ranking at the top of three distinct categories is nearly unimaginable in the modern day. But there was a time before free substitution and two-platoon football when the gridiron greats performed multiple duties and excelled at all of them.
The 1940s NFL featured "60-minute men" playing both ways and on special teams. Sammy Baugh, who spent 16 seasons with the Redskins and is recalled primarily as a quarterback, may be the best-known example. For the 1943 season, he led the league in passing (133 completions), punting (45.9-yard average) and interceptions (11). It was football's first Triple Crown – but the title would soon become a relic from a bygone era.
Horse racing's last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1978. Over the past decade, six different horses – Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones – have entered the Belmont with a chance to make history. But the final jewel of the Triple Crown eluded all of them. Now, after Barbaro's devastating leg injury in the Preakness, the sport of kings has gone 28 years without a coronation.
Baseball's last Triple Crown winner was Carl Yastrzemski of the Boston Red Sox in 1967. He led the American League with a .326 average, 44 home runs and 121 runs batted in. Since then, a number of players have captured two of the categories. Just this past season, in fact, Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves topped the National League with 51 homers and 128 RBI. But no batter has won a Triple Crown in 38 years.
To find football's last Triple Crown winner, you have to go back a full 60 years. During the 1946 season, Bill Dudley of the Steelers (shown here in his Pittsburgh uniform) led the league in rushing, punt returns and interceptions. He was also tops in "lateral passing," which was its own statistical category at the time. In essence, he won a "Quadruple Crown," an accomplishment that is unprecedented in football annals. (The Pro Football Hall of Fame Web site has a small section about the NFL's "Triple Crown.")
Dudley did virtually everything for Pittsburgh throughout that 11-game season, and he was deservedly named the league's Most Valuable Player. To appreciate his versatility, consider Dudley's statistical ranks for the 1946 Steelers:
- led the team in rushing (146 carries, 604 yards, 3 TDs)
- led the team in passing (32 completions, 452 yards, 2 TDs)
- led the team in interceptions (10 INTs, 242 yards, 1 TD)
- led the team in punting (60 punts, 2,409 yards)
- led the team in kicking (12 PATs, 2 FGs)
- led the team in punt returns (27 returns, 385 yards)
- led the team in kick returns (14 returns, 280 yards)
- led the team in scoring (48 points)
- placed fifth on the team in receiving (4 catches, 109 yards, 1 TD)
Many of the finest men in the 1940s were not only football stars, but also soldiers. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Sunday, Dec.7, 1941, three NFL games were already underway. The next day, the United States officially entered World War II, and player enlistments soon followed. (The Cold, Hard Football Facts will have more on this between now and Memorial Day.)
At the time of the attack, Dudley was a senior at the University of Virginia (he's pictured here carrying the ball for the Cavaliers). As a halfback, he became Virginia's first All-American, but he also contributed on defense and special teams. His total of 134 points scored that season (18 TDs, 23 PATs, 1 FG) still stands as a school record. On most plays, "Bullet Bill" would take a direct snap and have the option to run or pass. Throwing for 12 scores as well, he accounted for 206 of his team's 279 points.
After ruling college football and winning the Maxwell Award as its best player, Dudley became the No. 1 overall pick in the 1942 draft. His impact on the Steelers was immediate. In his first game, he ran for a 55-yard touchdown in a loss to the Eagles. He went on to lead the league in rushing, registering 696 yards and five touchdowns. He was named Rookie of the Year and a member of the All-Pro team.
Following his tremendous rookie campaign, Dudley joined the Army Air Corps (the predecessor to the Air Force) and served two years as a bomber pilot instructor. Remaining stateside, he powered the football team from Randolph Field in San Antonio to a 12-0 record in service play, earning MVP honors. He returned to Pittsburgh once the war had ended, rejoining the Steelers for the last four games of 1945 and still leading them in scoring.
By the next season, he was in a class by himself.
Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1966, Dudley stands as a reminder of the NFL's glorious past, when hundreds of men sacrificed part of their careers to serve their country. He also was a special player long before specialization. The Cold, Hard Football Facts hail Bill Dudley as pigskin nobility – and the last man to wear football's Triple Crown.