Packers Top Rookie: 1954

Rookies1954mmcgee

Injuries and military service commitments decimated the 1954 rookie class for the Packers. Of the first six players drafted, four would leave Green Bay within two years to serve a two-year stint in the military, one (linebacker George Timberlake) was lost for the season with an injury and the last (fullback Tom Allman) left camp in August.

The Packers actually had two first round picks in 1954, but neither made a lasting impact in Green Bay. Art Hunter from Notre Dame started at tackle as a rookie but then went into the service and was traded to Cleveland. Halfback Veryl Switzer showed promise in his two years in Green Bay, but failed to make the team when he returned from the army in 1958. Second round pick Bob Fleck of Syracuse was even more disappointing. He signed a contract with the Packers in the spring, but then signed with Ottawa, requiring Green Bay to get a court injunction in July to keep Fleck in the U.S. Uncle Sam then intervened, drafting Fleck into the army in August. The Packers then traded him and quarterback Babe Parilli – also bound for the service – to Cleveland for quarterback Bob Garrett, halfback Don Miller, guard John Bauer and tackle Chet Gierula. Fleck served for two years, then tried out in Canada, but never played pro football.

As for the trade acquisitions who made the team, Garrett and Miller both lasted just one season in Green Bay and the NFL. Another rookie, defensive back Gene White, was signed as a free agent, but also lasted just one year in the league. Two future picks from 1953 made the team and were pretty solid performers, slotback Joe Johnson and guard Al Barry. Barry also had his time in Green Bay interrupted by a two-year military commitment. Tenth round pick Gene Knutson, a defensive end, made the team in 1954, spent 1955 in the army and returned to the Packers in 1956.

So of the 10 rookies in 1954, two lanky receivers were the only ones who had a significant impact in Green Bay, fifth round pick Max McGee and waiver acquisition Gary Knafelc. Knafelc was actually the 14th overall pick in the 1954 draft, taken in the second round by the Chicago Cardinal. After playing just one league game and making two catches in Chicago, though, he was waived with an injured hamstring and scooped up by the Packers. He would only catch three passes the rest of the season in Green Bay, but assumed a starting role in 1955 to replace McGee while Max was in the Air Force and caught a career high 40 passes and eight touchdowns. Gary would prove to be a reliable backup and sometime starter at both split end and tight end through the 1962 season.

McGee, of course, is the Packers top rookie for 1954. He immediately established himself as a formidable deep threat in the league by catching 36 passes for nine touchdowns and averaging 17 yards per reception and also served as the Packers punter. After two years in the Air Force, McGee returned in 1957 and became a local legend over the next decade.

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