115 years ago today, Verne Lewellen was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. Were it not for an arm injury, he might have become a star pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and never have come to Green Bay. How different Packer history would have been had that occurred. Lewellen was one of the most intelligent, talented, and versatile men ever to work for the Pack, and his influence was felt on the team for decades both on and off the field.
At Lincoln High School in Nebraska, Lewellen played on two unbeaten football teams including the 1918 state champions, starred on the 1920 state basketball champions, and led his school to two track championships. In college, Verne would graduate with a law degree from the University of Nebraska. While there, he displayed enough pitching talent to interest the Pirates in baseball and captained the football team that delivered the only two defeats Knute Rockne’s “Four Horsemen” would suffer in their three years together. One of the key elements of Nebraska’s victories over Notre Dame in 1922 and 1923 was Lewellen’s running, passing, punting and defensive work. One of the Horsemen, Jim Crowley, recommended the skilled Lewellen to his old high school coach in Green Bay, Curly Lambeau. Curly signed Verne in 1924, and the Nebraskan would spend nine years as a Packer, pacing the team in scoring five times.
Verne could do everything well on the football field. At the halfback position, the 6’1″ 180 pound Lewellen was one of the best runners in the league and was also a skilled pass catcher in addition to being adept at throwing the fat football of the day. On defense he was a sure-tackling defensive back. Above all, he was known as the finest punter of his time. In the community, he was so popular that he was elected District Attorney for Brown County as a Republican in 1928 and was reelected in 1930.
There are virtually no official statistics for the period in which Lewellen played, but unofficial press counts provide a partial statistical picture of Lewellen’s talents. In over 100 games Verne ran the ball 708 times for 2,410 yards and 37 touchdowns. He caught 84 passes for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns. He completed 122 of 335 passes for 2,080 yards and nine touchdowns and punted the ball 681 times for a 39.5-yard average. It should be noted that in the 1920s, punting was a more vital function than today. Teams played a ball control game and would punt from anywhere and on any down. One reason his punting average stands at 39.5 yards is that teams would often punt from inside the opposing teams 40-yard line and would aim the ball for the sidelines, the coffin corner kick that would bury the opponent near his own goal line. In defense of Lewellen, it should also be noted that his total of 681 punts is hundreds greater than his nearest contemporaries; he was the punting king of the 1920s.
All good things must end, and in 1933 Lewellen lost both his jobs. Lambeau urged him to retire from football, just as the voters had urged him and many other Republicans throughout the nation to retire from political office in November 1932. He focused on his law practice and then took a position as personnel manager for Standard Oil in town. For a brief time, he coached the Long Island Indians of the American Association, a minor league team with whom the Packers had an arrangement. In 1950 he was asked to join the Packer executive committee. Four years later, he was hired as the first general manager of the team. When Vince Lombardi was hired in 1959 as coach and general manager, Lewellen was shifted to business manager. He retired in 1967 and died in 1980. When he left the game in 1932 he was the leading touchdown maker in NFL history with 51 and was the leading Packer scorer with 307 points. He was elected to the Packer Hall of Fame in 1970 and remains one of the most qualified players not elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
(Adapted from Packers by the Numbers.)
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