Jordy

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Among Packers, May 31 marks the birthday of two failed quarterbacks (Jim Del Gaizo and Chuck Fusina), a pretty solid cornerback (Tyrone Williams) and fan favorite receiver Jordy Nelson. Aaron Rodgers told Sports Illustrated that Super Bowl XLV against the Steelers was Nelson’s coming out party, “Since that [game], he’s been our best receiver.” Three times he has surpassed 1,000-yards receiving thus far, with a high of 1,519 yards in 2014. Ted Thompson thought highly enough of Nelson to sign him to a $39-million four-year extension in 2014, despite Jordy turning 29. Then he got hurt, and the 2015 offense struggled.

The 6’3” 215-pound Nelson was a second round pick out of Kansas State in the 2008 draft after having caught 122 balls from Josh Freeman in his senior year. Although he had been a track sprinter, his 4.5 40 time was very ordinary and Nelson has been fighting the stereotype of being a slow white receiver throughout his career. Somehow, he keeps running away from people, though, so that speed must be deceptive. After a three-year apprenticeship, he began to emerge during the 2010 postseason, and became a full-fledged starter the next year.

His position coach Edgar Bennett described to Sports Illustrated Nelson’s top qualities as a receiver, “First, great strength and combative hand technique to get off the line of scrimmage. Second, he’s fast.” Former teammate Greg Jennings added, “You’ve got a quarterback who can throw any receiver open at any given time if the receiver understands what he’s supposed to do. And Jordy understands what he’s supposed to do. Combine that with Jordy’s skills, and what you get is a joy to watch.”

It is clear watching Nelson and Rodgers that they are in sync at almost all times. Nelson’s biggest failing is that his hands are inconsistent. Generally, he is excellent at snatching the ball out of the air, but he seems to go through periods where he loses concentration or confidence and will start dropping easy ones. Jordy cracked the team’s all-time top ten in receptions and touchdown catches in 2014. It is likely that he will be fourth or fifth in receptions and third or fourth in touchdown catches at the end of the 2016 season.

(Adapted from Green Bay Gold)

Custom card in Topps 1960 style.

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The First Black Packers

While recent research reported on by Cliff Christl on the Packers’ web site indicates that tackle Walt Jean may have been an African-American passing for white when he played for Green Bay in 1925-26, the team’s color barrier wasn’t officially broken until after Curly Lambeau left.  On November 25, 1950 the Packers claimed end Bob Mann from the New York Yanks, and a day later he became the first black to play for the Packers in a league game against the 49ers at City Stadium.

However, Mann was not the first black player to try out for the team or appear in a preseason game. Two Ohio State Buckeyes and World War II veterans beat him to it a few months before. Fleet halfback Jim Clark (born 5/17/1923) and stout guard James “Shag” Thomas (born 8/11/1924) both starred for the 1950 Rose Bowl champions from Columbus, Ohio and then signed with Green Bay on July 21st as free agents. Two days later, the Toledo Blade ran the photo below depicting Clark, Thomas and another former Buckeye also getting a tryout with the Packers, Ray DiPierro, as they looked at a road map for the route to Green Bay.

Although Clark and Thomas played in preseason games for the Packers, both were cut on September 7, just three days before the final exhibition game. Neither would ever play in the NFL. According to the Tod Maher’s Pro Football Archives site linked on the right side of this page, the 6’ 185-pound Clark spent the 1950 season playing for the minor league Erie Vets alongside former Packers Tom O’Malley and Lou Ferry as well as future Boston Patriots quarterback Butch Songin. The 5’7” 225-pound Thomas would try out unsuccessfully for the Montreal Alouettes, but would find his greatest success as a wrestler.

Shag “King Toby” Thomas was known for his headbutting in the wrestling ring, so much so that promoter Dean Silverstone joked in The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: Heroes and Icons by Johnson and Oliver (ECW Press, 2012), “We used to say that he played football without a helmet and that’s why his head was so hard.” The goateed Thomas was prominently featured in the Northwest circuit in the 1960s, while he finished his education at the University of Oregon, opened a bar called Shag’s Arena and worked as a high school teacher in Portland for several years before his death by heart attack in 1982.

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Clark and Thomas custom 1950 Bowman cards are colorized.

Norbert

May 26 marks the birthday of Norb Hecker, who was the direct connection between two dissimilar Super Bowl coaches — Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh. Hecker won three NFL titles coaching the Packers’ secondary for Lombardi and two Super Bowls coaching the 49ers’ linebackers for Walsh. As a head coach, though, Hecker won fewer games than he won championship rings under those two great coaches.

A native of Berea, Ohio, Norb spent two years in the Army after graduating high school. After the War, he lettered in football, baseball, basketball and track at Baldwin-Wallace College in his hometown. Norb was a two-time Little All-American and was selected in the sixth round of the 1951 NFL draft by the Rams. Hecker played safety for Los Angeles from 1951-1953, picking off 11 passes. He spent 1954 with Toronto of the CFL and then the next three years with the Redskins, for whom he nabbed 17 interceptions. Norb also was involved in organizing the NFL Players’ Association before returning to the CFL in 1958 as a player/assistant coach for the Hamilton Tiger Cats.

Hecker then joined Lombardi’s first Green Bay staff as defensive backfield coach in 1959 and stayed through the 1965 season. In that time, the Packers won titles in 1961, 1962 and 1965, with Green Bay finishing first three times and second two times in fewest passing yards allowed. Hecker went from first to worst in 1966 when the expansion Falcons named him as their first head coach.  Hecker’s brief tenure was dominated by poor personnel decisions, and three games into the 1968 season with an overall 4-26-1 record, Norb was fired and replaced by an old Ram teammate, Norm Van Brocklin.

Hecker subsequently served as the defensive coach for the Giants from 1969-1971 before jumping to Stanford in 1972. Hecker coached for five years under Jack Christiansen in Palo Alto and then was retained on the staff when Bill Walsh took over in 1977. Two years later when Walsh moved to the 49ers, Hecker came with him. Norb coached in San Francisco from 1979-1986 and then worked in the front office until 1991. Four years later, he briefly came out of retirement to coach and manage the Amsterdam Admirals of the developmental World League. He passed away in 2004.

(Adapted from NFL Head Coaches: A Biographical Dictionary, 1920-2011.)

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Packers Top Rookie: 1986

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Forrest Gregg decided to blow up the team in 1986, parting ways with many Packer veterans, including Lynn Dickey, Paul Coffman, Greg Koch, Mike Douglass and George Cumby. Gregg brought in 20 rookies in 1986, and five of them moved right into the starting lineup. On the flip side, half of the 20 appeared in fewer than 10 games for Green Bay.

Gregg’s last draft class was weakened because he had traded his first round pick to the Chargers the year before for Mossy Cade in another disastrous personnel move. The 1986 draft produced TCU runner Kenneth Davis in round two, Memphis linebacker Tim Harris in round four, USC defensive end Matt Koart in round five, Tulane linebacker Burnell Dent in round six and Utah State defensive back Ed Berry in round seven. Gregg also selected BYU quarterback Robbie Bosco in round three, but the college record-setter spent two years on the injured list and then was released. Another quarterback, Joe Shields of Trinity, was a 12th round selection in the 1985 draft.

Five more players came from the dissolution of the USFL. Gregg had drafted defensive back John Sullivan in the USFL supplemental draft the previous year. Sullivan joined USFL free agents linebacker Mike Weddington, wide receiver Nolan Franz, tackle Greg Feasel and fullback Paul Ott Carruth in Green Bay in 1986.

Of the nine other free agent rookies, cornerback Elbert Watts had been cut by the Rams and defensive end Kurt Ploeger by the Cowboys. The seven undrafted free agent rookies consisted of tackle Alan Veingrad from East Texas State, guard Tom Neville of Fresno State, linebacker Miles Turpin of California, wide receiver Mike Moffitt of Fresno State, guard Rubin Mendoza of Wayne State, center Bill Cherry of Middle Tennessee State and punter Bill Renner of Virginia Tech.

As noted above, five rookies became starters: Davis, Harris, Carruth, Veingrad and Neville. The one who clearly stood out, though, was 6’6” linebacker Tim Harris, a precursor to Jevon Kearse in both body type and pass rushing ability. As a rookie, not only did Harris gather eight sacks, but he also would drop back in pass coverage to present an expansive obstacle to throw over; Tim Harris was the Packers top rookie in 1986.

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Shield custom card is colorized.

Big Boys

May 22 is a birthday shared by two big Packer tackles from different eras: Tiny Cahoon and Hawg Hanner. The 235-pound Ivan Cahoon hailed from Baraboo, Wisconsin and played collegiately at Gonzaga. He was a regular for Green Bay from 1926-29 and scored a touchdown on a blocked punt in 1927. His playing career ended when he suffered a knee injury in 1929. He went into coaching and coached high school, college, semipro and service ball for the next quarter century. He died in 1973.

Dave Hanner was an institution in Green Bay. When he retired after a record 13 seasons in the Green and Gold, Hanner had played in more games, 160, than any other Packer. That game total has been exceeded several times in the ensuing 50 years, but the only other Packer with more years of service to the team than Hanner’s 44 (13 as a player, 16 as an assistant coach and 15 as a scout) is Tony Canadeo.

In fact, when Hanner arrived in Green Bay as a fifth round draft pick from Arkansas, it was Canadeo who tagged him with his familiar nickname, “Hawg,” an especially apt moniker for a beefy farmboy from Razorback country who worked his family’s cotton and soybean farm with mules. Hawg moved right into the starting lineup as a rookie and was named to the Pro Bowl after the 1953 and 1954 seasons; he drew All-Pro notice in 1957 and 1959. It wasn’t until 1959, though, that Hanner took on a more defined role and got to play for a winning team.

At 6’2” and 260 pounds, Hawg was a muscular run-stuffing mainstay for the Packers throughout the 1950s. Under Lombardi’s defensive coach Phil Bengtson, Hanner took on the selfless role of the stay-at-home lineman who protected up-the-field penetrators Willie Davis and Henry Jordan by sniffing out draws and screens. Davis told the Milwaukee Journal, “He was very seldom caught out of position or vulnerable. Dave was one of the most difficult guys to trap because he played so low, and he never exposed much to a blocker.” Hanner did accumulate at least 21 sacks of his own according to Webster and Turney.

Hanner was so dependable that the only game he missed in his first ten seasons was on September 24, 1961 against the 49ers and that was because he underwent an emergency appendectomy five days before. A week later, he was back on the field against the Bears. A year later on November 18, 1962, Hawg was honored before the game against the Colts by Dave Hanner Day at City Stadium. From the proceeds of a sale of “Hawg Hanner” buttons, fans presented Hanner with a new station wagon and tractor. At the time, Phil Bengtson said of his diligent tackle, “Dave has shown no signs of slowing up. He’s always been a good player, and he has the attitude to play the game the way it should be played.”

Ron Kostelnik began to take over for Hanner in 1964, but Hawg reported to training camp in 1965 and did not retire until a week before the season. He declined an offer from the Rams to play for them that year and instead joined the Packers’ coaching staff, where he would stay until 1980 when Bart Starr fired him as part of a move to the 3-4 defense. Hanner was hired back as a scout a year later. A chaw of Red Man tobacco perennially in his cheek, Hanner was a class act for the Packers’ organization. Not a Hall of Famer, he was definitely Hall of Very Good.

(Hanner text adapted from Green Bay Gold.)

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Custom cards of Cahoon and the 1953 Bowman and 1961 Topps ones of Hanner are colorized.

Books with a Packer Tangent

Best Plays of the Year 1962 and Best Plays of the Year 1963 by Robert Riger (Prentice-Hall, 1962 and 1963). Riger was the preeminent photojournalist of the 1950s and 1960s, equally skilled at both photography and illustration. His most famous football book, The Pros, was published in 1960. Two years later, he produced the first of two annual “documentaries” of a season in the NFL. The 1962 volume begins with the 1961 championship game and then goes week by week in 1962, covering one game per week. Packer games include 17-0 over the Cardinals in week two, 9-7 over the Lions in week four, 49-0 over the Eagles in week nine and the Thanksgiving Day Massacre by the Lions. The 1962 title game is not included. In the 1963 volume, which starts off on opening day and ends with the 1963 title game, a week six 30-7 victory over the Cardinals and the week ten 26-7 loss to Chicago are covered. The photos and illustrations are accompanied by Riger’s text and interviews that provide excellent insight into the players, coaches and games of the time.

One More July: A Football Dialogue with Bill Curry by George Plimpton (Harper & Row, 1977). Plimpton befriended Bill Curry when the participatory journalist “tried out” for the Colts in 1971. In 1976, Plimpton drove with Curry from Louisville to Green Bay where he was slated to try to extend his playing career where it had begun in 1965. Along the way, the two men discuss the characters and events of Curry’s football career. Although Curry was only a Packer for two years, men like Lombardi and Nitschke figure prominently in his recollections but not always very positively.

Ten Men You Meet in the Huddle: Lessons from a Football Life by Bill Curry (ESPN Books, 2008). Curry had a second go at his football memories thirty years later. Now a motivational speaker following a long playing and coaching career, Curry is able to come to a much clearer view of the giant figures he encountered in his life. Four Packers – Lombardi, Starr, Nitschke and Willie Davis – earn their own chapters for imparting life lessons for Curry. This book abounds with brilliant and poignant insights.

The Ultimate Super Bowl Book by Bob McGinn (MVP Books, 2009). McGinn, the longtime, analytical Packer beat man for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, is known for having great sources and having the ability to write knowledgably about the intricacies of the game. He brings that in-depth analysis to each Super Bowl in this best book ever on America’s greatest game. Of particular interest, of course,  are the chapters on the Packers’ Super Bowl teams. A 2012 updated edition covers the 2010 championship Packers’ Super Bowl trip as well.

The Birth of Football’s Modern 4-3 Defense: The Seven Seasons that Changed the NFL by T.J. Troup (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014). This book is the apotheosis of film study of the game that was. Through his intensive examination of game films from 1953-59, Troup is able to write an informative chapter on each NFL team for each of those seven seasons as the defensive schemes evolved into the modern 4-3 defense. Along the way, the reader not only learns who played each year at every position, but how well they played. Dense with data, it’s a research tour de force that yields valuable nuggets on every page. The 1950s were not a golden era in Green Bay, but this book fully explains what was lacking.

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Custom Curry cards are colorized. I replaced the 1966 card that was originally here because my friend Bob Faber thought it might not actually be a shot of Curry. Upon reflection, I am inclined to believe him. I apologize for the error.

Packers Top Rookie: 1985

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In his second draft, Forrest Gregg made some nice picks of both starters and role players, but the 1985 rookie class is most remembered for an ill-fated trade.  In the draft, Gregg selected USC tackle Ken Ruettgers in round one, San Diego State guard Rich Moran in round three, Mesa slot receiver/return man Walter Stanley in round four, Arizona State linebacker Brian Noble in round five, Texas A&M tight end Mark Lewis in round six, Wisconsin runner Gary Ellerson in round seven, Wisconsin defensive back Ken Stills in round eight and Wake Forest defensive back Ronnie Burgess in round ten. Ruettgers, Moran and Noble all turned out to be very good players, while Stanley, Ellerson and Stills were decent role players.

The previous year’s USFL supplemental draft brought Auburn defensive back Chuck Clanton for three games.  Nose tackles Mark Shumate from Wisconsin and Tony DeGrate from Texas were both waiver claims who lasted five games combined in Green Bay. Cal-Poly’s Joe Prokop and Michigan’s Don Bracken both were undrafted free agents who punted for the Packers in 1985.

That leaves one rookie who Gregg thought so highly of that he traded away his 1986 first rounder and a conditional pick to obtain: defensive back Mossy Cade. Cade was the sixth overall pick of the Chargers in 1984 out of Texas, but signed instead with Memphis of the USFL, where he spent one lackluster season. In Green Bay, his ordinary performance on the field was overshadowed by his being charged with sexually assaulting his aunt following his first start. A character guy he was not, and the organization was stained by his odious behavior. He was convicted after the 1986 season and served two years in prison. After a three-day tryout with the Vikings in 1988, he disappeared from public view.

As for the worthwhile players in the class, Ruettgers would not earn his starting spurs for another year, but then would hold down the left tackle position for a decade. Moran and Noble both became starters as rookies, but the stalwart, hard-hitting Noble made the greater impact; Brian Noble was the Packers’ top rookie in 1985.

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