By Ken Crippen
Pro Football Researchers Association Executive Director
It’s that time of year again. The Hall of Fame induction ceremonies have finished and attention has now turned to the Class of 2013
. On August 22, the two senior’s candidates will be announced by the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the annual discussion of the selections begins.
"Super seniors" are candidates who have been retired for at least 50 years. The four candidates that are the focus of this article are Al Wistert, Lavvie Dilweg, Duke Slater and Mac Speedie. Each have unique qualifications and reasons why they should be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Albert ‘Al’ Wistert
1943-51 Philadelphia Eagles
Hall of Fame coach George Allen listed Wistert as one of the 100 best pro players of all-time in his book Pro Football’s 100 Greatest Players
and also selected him as one of the 10 best defensive linemen of all-time.
“He always played in perfect position and was seldom off his feet,” Allen wrote of Wistert’s defensive abilities. “He was a superb pursuit man and seemed somehow to get in on every play. He was a sure tackler. He was maybe best against the run, but he was among the good early pass rushers.”
Of Wistert as an offensive lineman, Allen wrote, “He was as fine a blocker as you could want. He didn’t have the size to overpower people on the pass block, but he was a master of every kind of block.”
Prior to Wistert’s arrival in Philadelphia, the Eagles never had a season of .500 or better in their history. They finished .500 or better eight of the nine seasons that he was on the team. Prior to his arrival, the Eagles cumulative winning percentage was .219. During his tenure, they went .649. The Eagles have won three NFL championships in their history. Two of them came while Wistert was on the team.
Offensively, the Eagles led the NFL in rushing yards three times during Wistert’s career. That had never happened prior to Wistert’s arrival, and the team has only done so once in the 60 years since he retired.
Philadelphia led the NFL in points scored three times during Wistert’s career. That feat had never happened before his arrival and has never been achieved by the team since. Four times during Wistert’s career an Eagle running back led the NFL in rushing yards. No Philadelphia RB had ever done so before Wistert joined the team and none has done so since.
Defensively, the Eagles led the NFL in fewest points allowed twice during Wistert’s career; something that never happened prior to his arrival. The Eagles led the NFL in fewest yards allowed three times during Wistert’s career; a first for the team. Philadelphia led the NFL in fewest rushing yards allowed five times during Wistert’s career; a franchise first.
Wistert was named to at least one major first all-pro team six times (consecutively 1944-49), including five times consensus (1944-48). In the four seasons from 1946 through 1949, various major news agencies selected combined all-NFL/AAFC teams. Wistert was named first team on at least one of those teams in all four seasons: 1946 (AP), 1947 (AP, Sportswriters Inc.), 1948 (Sportswriters Inc., The Sporting News), and 1949 (International News Service).
No other player accomplished this feat, including none of the 16 Hall of Famers who played all four of those seasons. Of the 10 all-NFL/AAFC teams selected from 1946-49, Wistert was named to six. Only Mac Speedie and Hall of Famers Steve Van Buren and Bulldog Turner were named to more (Speedie will be discussed in more detail, later, in this article).
Wistert was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s all-decade team of the 1940s. He was also named by the Professional Football Researchers Association
to their very first class of the Hall of Very Good in 2003.
In The Hidden Game of Football
, football historians Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John Thorn analyzed the Hall of Fame credentials of hundreds of players. They determined that of all the players not in the Hall of Fame, Wistert was the most deserving of enshrinement.
Laverne ‘Lavvie’ Dilweg
1926 Milwaukee Badgers, 1927-34 Green Bay Packers
Pro Football Hall of Fame member Red Grange stated, “I have always rated Dilweg as the greatest end who ever brought me down.”
It can be argued that Lavvie Dilweg was the second best pre-modern era end that played the game, behind Don Hutson. Dilweg was a beast on defense: He was excellent at stopping the run, could clear out blockers for
his teammates, or tackle any runner near him, and also had the flexibility to drop back into coverage and play the pass.
Dilweg intercepted 27 passes over his career. No other pre-modern era defensive end currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame comes close to this achievement (Bill Hewitt has two). Don Hutson has 30 interceptions to his name, but he played defensive back with the Packers.
For four consecutive years, Dilweg led all ends in interceptions for the season (1928-1931). In 1927, he tied for the league lead in interceptions among ends. He has two interception returns for touchdowns, which ranks second among all pre-modern era ends (Guy Chamberlin had three). That was just his defensive skills.
On offense, he was productive, even though ends of his day primarily blocked and were not receivers. However, if you compare him to other pre-modern era ends currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Dilweg would rank third in receiving touchdowns and third in total offensive touchdowns.
Of the pre-modern era ends who played at the same time and are currently in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Dilweg ranks first in receiving yards (2,069), first in receptions (123), and first in yards-per-reception (16.8).
Graded in five statistical categories (interception percentage, receptions/game, yards/game, yards/reception, and touchdowns/game), Dilweg had the best overall grade among all ends for five consecutive years (1927-1931). He ranked better than Hall of Fame ends Red Badgro and Ray Flaherty over the same time period.
Dilweg was a six-time consecutive, consensus all-pro. Only Don Hutson, among all ends, had more between 1920 and 1960 (10). He was a four-time consecutive, unanimous all-pro. Only Don Hutson, among all ends, equaled that between 1920 and 1960 (4).
The Green Bay Packers won three NFL Championships while Dilweg was with the team. The 1965-67 Green Bay Packers are the only other franchise in NFL history to win three consecutive NFL Championships.
Dilweg was a member of the All-Decade team for the 1920s. He is one of only two members of that team (Hunk Anderson) that is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Professional Football Researchers Association
inducted him into their Hall of Very Good in 2005.
The editors of Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League
listed Dilweg as one of the 300 Greatest Players of All-Time, stating, “Lavern Dilweg, by nearly all contemporary accounts, was the best end in pro football almost from his first game in 1926 until his last in 1934.”
In The Hidden Game of Football: The Next Edition
, authors Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer, John Thorn and David Pietrusza developed a rating system used to rank early players based on total number of years played, number of championship seasons and all-pro selections. Dilweg was in the first group of players, which the authors commented, “the first group represents those players who would seem to have all the necessities for Hall of Fame selection.”
Of the three ends in the first group, Dilweg was ranked below Don Hutson and ahead of Bill Hewitt, both members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Hall of Fame ends Guy Chamberlin, Ray Flaherty, Red Badgro and Wayne Millner did not make the first group.
Fred ‘Duke’ Slater
1922 Milwaukee Badgers, 1922-25 Rock Island Independents, 1926-31 Chicago Cardinals
As one of a small number of African-Americans who were playing in the National Football League at the time – and with the overt discrimination against African-American players – to receive the recognition that Duke Slater received from his peers, coaches and sportswriters is truly an accomplishment.
In 1927 and 1929, he was the only African-American player in the NFL (by 1933, all African-American players were gone). It was not until 1946 before African-American players were back on the pro gridiron.
Slater was named consensus all-pro twice (1926 and 1930). He was named to a major first team all-pro five times (1923, 1925, 1926, 1929 and 1930). No tackle had more nominations during his time. Slater was named second-team all-pro twice (1924 and 1927).
In a December 22, 1963 release from United Press International, six people were mentioned as strong candidates for induction into the second class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame: Ken Strong, Steve Owen, Sid Luckman, Bulldog Turner, Duke Slater and Art Rooney.
Of this group, only Slater is not in the Hall of Fame. He was a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1970 and 1971. The Professional Football Researchers Association
inducted him into their Hall of Very Good in 2004.
He blocked for Rock Island when they rushed for nine touchdowns against the Evansville Crimson Giants in 1922, an NFL record to this day.
He also blocked for the Chicago Cardinals when Ernie Nevers set an NFL record with six rushing touchdowns in a single game (November 28, 1929 vs. Chicago Bears). That record has never been broken.
“Duke Slater, the veteran colored tackle, seemed the dominant figure in that forward wall which had the Bear front wobbly," wrote the Chicago Herald and Examiner
about that record-setting game. "It was Slater who opened the holes for Nevers when a touchdown was in the making.”
Wilfrid Smith of the Chicago Tribune
– a former NFL player himself – said “Slater…is one of the best tackles who ever donned a suit. His phenomenal strength and quickness of charge make it almost impossible for his opponents to put him out of any play directed at his side of the line.”
Elmer Layden, one of Notre Dame’s immortal Four Horsemen and later commissioner of the NFL, said Slater was “the greatest tackle I ever saw.”
Slater was named by the authors of Total Football
, the official encyclopedia of the NFL, as one of the 300 Greatest Players in history. He was also selected by noted football historians Dan Daly and Bob O’Donnell to the all-decade team of the 1920s in their book The Pro Football Chronicle
"What Jackie Robinson was to baseball, at a much earlier date Duke Slater was to collegiate football,” wrote Chicago Sun-Times
columnist Dick Hackenberg on December 13, 1960.
In college, Slater was All-Big 10 three consecutive years, second-team All-American in 1919 and first-team All-American in 1921. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in its inaugural class in 1951 (he was the only African-American inducted into that class).
He received his law degree while he was still an active player. After retirement, he became an assistant district attorney and was elected a municipal court judge with over one million votes. Quite an accomplishment for an African-American man at the time.
1946-52 Cleveland Browns
Speedie has a tougher time, given that his professional career only lasted seven years. However, since Dick Stanfel was put forth last year, that opens the door for Speedie. Stanfel played 73 games over his seven year career, while Speedie played in 86 games over the same time span. If Stanfel is qualified to be a finalist with his short career, one cannot deny Speedie, who played in more games.
Speedie was in the Army from 1942-46 and missed four potential seasons. He was 26 when he played his first pro game and his 4+ years of service time is one of the reasons his career lasted only seven years. Hall of Famers Doak Walker, Arnie Weinmeister, Ace Parker, George McAfee and Steve Van Buren all played fewer games than Speedie’s total of 86, while Hall of Famers Jack Christiansen (89), George Connor (90) and Bob Waterfield (91) played in a comparable number. Speedie’s service to his country during a world war should be viewed as a plus – rather than as a minus – for the way it shortened his career.
As a receiver, Speedie led the AAFC three times (1947-49) and the NFL once (1952) in receptions. He finished first in receiving yards twice (1947, 1949). He was the top receiver in three of his six Championship Game appearances. Speedie caught more passes during his three NFL seasons than all players during that same time, except Hall of Famer Tom Fears. He is ranked second all-time in career receptions and receiving yards at the time of his last NFL game, behind only Don Hutson and ahead of Hall of Fame contemporaries Tom Fears, Elroy Hirsch, Dante Lavelli and Pete Pihos. His average of 800 yards receiving per season over an entire career was the best all-time until it was broken 20 years after his last NFL game by Lance Alworth. Speedie’s average of 49.9 receptions per season over an entire career was the best all-time until it was broken 25 years after his last game by Charley Taylor. Speedie caught 4.06 passes per game both in the AAFC and in the NFL.
Speedie was named first team all-pro in six of his seven seasons (1946-50, 1952). He was a consensus choice all six times including three unanimous selections (1947-49). Of the 10 combined all-NFL/AAFC teams selected from 1946-49, Speedie was named to the first team on eight of those teams, more than every other player in both leagues except Hall of Famer Steve Van Buren (who was also named to eight) including 15 Hall of Famers who played all four of those seasons. He was named to the Pro Bowl in two of his three NFL seasons.
During his tenure, Cleveland finished first in all seven of Speedie’s seasons and posted the greatest seven-year winning percentage of all time. Cleveland also won five consecutive Championship Games (1946-50), finished first in yards three times (1946-47, 1952), were first in passing yards four times (1946- 47, 1949, 1952), and were first in points scored twice (1946-47).
Many football historians consider the AAFC the equal of the NFL. Cleveland’s dominance of the NFL from 1950-55 is one piece of evidence. Speedie’s continued greatness in the NFL is another.
Speedie was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s all-decade team of the 1940s. He was also named by the Professional Football Researchers Association
to their very first class of the Hall of Very Good in 2003. Speedie was named one of the 300 greatest players ever by the authors of Total Football
, the official encyclopedia of the NFL. In a 2002 article, football historian Andy Piascik called Speedie “the best receiver of his era and the best senior candidate for the Hall of Fame.”
In his autobiography, Hall of Famer Tom Landry recalled being embarrassed by Speedie while a cornerback for the New York Yankees and the New York Giants. Landry cited that experience as “the beginning of the challenge to really learn the game of football.”
In The Hidden Game of Football
, esteemed football historians Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John Thorn developed a very important statistical analysis called Adjusted Yards per Game. Among receivers, Speedie’s AYG is seventh best all-time (Hall of Famers Don Hutson, Jerry Rice and Lance Alworth ranked first, second and third, respectively). The authors of The Hidden Game of Football
also analyzed the Hall of Fame credentials of hundreds of players and determined that of all players not in the Hall of Fame, Speedie was the third most deserving of enshrinement, behind Al Wistert and Lavvie Dilweg.
There is speculation that the committee wants to focus on cleaning up the 1960s this year. That would open things up for players like Jerry Kramer and possibly Mick Tingelhoff, even though Tingelhoff played until 1978. There is a huge push for Kramer this year to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. If they decide to make him a finalist, that probably diminishes the chances of Dilweg being the other finalist, since they would not want two Green Bay Packers players in the final two.
Even if the committee decides to focus on the 1960s, it is my sincere hope that they would at least select one super senior candidate. There is some support for both Wistert and Dilweg on the committee, so they stand the best chance at being selected. I think that Slater could gain traction over the next year or so, but might be a long-shot this year. Speedie was a long-shot – at best – heading into last year. However, with Stanfel being put forth by the committee last year, that helps Speedie’s chances. It depends on who of the nine-member committee will be doing the voting in Canton.
Ken Crippen is the executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association, a non-profit educational organization dedicated to preserving football history. You can follow him on Twitter: @KenCrippen.