Packers Top Rookie: 1931

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1931 begins a great stretch of Packer rookie classes. In the nine years from 1931-39, 21 of the players who began their NFL careers in Green Bay later would be elected to the Packer Hall oF Fame. Each year, Curly Lambeau brought in a host of new talent that helped make the Packers a powerhouse four-time champion in the decade. By contrast, only six rookies from the 1940s have gained entry to the Packer Hall, and the depreciation in the team was obvious by the late 1940s.

Five of the nine 1931 rookies would have little impact on the team, all vanishing from the NFL after just one season. USC fullback Russ Saunders played in nine games and scored one touchdown, but is more famous as a model for the Tommy Trojan statue at his alma mater. He was an assistant director and production manager for 150 films at Warner Bros. from 1932-1964. Drake center Waldo Don Carlos appeared in 12 games and was the first Hispanic Packer. Hardin-Simmons halfback Wayne Davenport, South Dakota State tackle Roy Jenison and Northwestern end Frank Baker all lasted just two games, although Baker did catch a touchdown pass.

The other four Packer rookies had more success in Green Bay. Michigan State’s Roger Grove was primarily a blocking back and wingback for the Pack. He played in 14 games as a rookie and would score 7 touchdowns and 16 extra points during his five years in town. Marquette fullback Chester “Swede” Johnston appeared in just two games as a rookie, bounced around for a couple of years and then returned to Green Bay as a part-time player from 1934-38. Despite playing in just 26 games over his six-year Packer tenure, he is in the team’s Hall of Fame.

The remaining two rookies fully earned election to the Packer Hall of Fame. Wisconsin end Milt Gantenbein would take over at right end from Tom Nash over the next couple of years and would make a nice receiving complement to Lavie Dilweg and Don Hutson, winning some All-Pro notice from 1936-38, during his 10-year Packer career. Northwestern back Hank Bruder was an all-around performer who excelled at defense and blocking throughout his nine years in Green Bay. He played in 13 games and scored three touchdowns in his first season; Hank Bruder was the Packers’ top rookie in 1931.

1929fbaker  1929crsaunders

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1929cwdavenport2  1929ccsjohnston

1929cmgantenbein  1929chbruder

All custom cards colorized.

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Replacing Curly

March 28 marks the birthday of a man given one of the toughest jobs in sports, replacing a legend. Gene Ronzani played and coached under one legend in Chicago, George Halas, and replaced another, Curly Lambeau, in Green Bay. Born in 1909 in Iron Mountain on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Ronzani went to college in Wisconsin at Marquette where he was the first athlete to win nine letters from 1930-1932. Ronzani played basketball and track, but starred on the gridiron as an All-American back. Halas signed Gene for the Bears in 1933 and he was a steady performer for Chicago over the next six years. In 1939, he retired from playing to become head coach of the Newark Bears, Chicago’s farm team. From 1939-1941, he led Newark to a 14-13-2 record. Newark shut down for the War, and Gene was recalled to Chicago as a player in 1944 and 1945. After the War, the Bears reconstituted their farm team in Akron in 1946, again with Ronzani in charge. Akron finished the year 8-3, and Gene moved back to Chicago as an assistant coach for the next three years.

When the Packers ousted Lambeau in 1950, they turned to their chief rival, the Bears for his replacement. Ronzani was a highly respected assistant in the league, and he hired a coaching staff of all former Bears. His biggest legacy in Green Bay, though, was the hiring of Chicago native Jack Vainisi as talent scout. Vainisi’s drafts ultimately would provide Vince Lombardi with a nearly ready made championship team when he was named head coach at the end of the decade. Ronzani was not so fortunate.

The Packers were a very weak team in 1950, and Gene’s efforts to rebuild the talent base were only partially successful. When he was fired with two games to play in 1953, he told the Chicago Tribune, “If I was the cause of our failure, they now can prove it. I’m glad to be out of it.” He added, “All one has to do is compare us man for man with other teams to discover it is not a great club. Maybe next year or the year after, with a few additions, it will be.” Being more specific, he noted, “We have no powerful fullback, no real break away runners in the backfield and lack experience in some spots. Also the Packers are not a big team. It is, however, a much better team than the one I took over in 1950.” Ronzani used 32 rookie starters in four year, and his teams gave up 8.4 more points per game than they scored.

Hall of Fame halfback Tony Canadeo told Richard Whittingham for What a Game They Played, “Ronzani knew a helluva lot about football. He was trying desperately to rebuild the football team and that was a pretty tough job.” He tried to be innovative by installing a precursor to the Shotgun offense for running quarterback Tobin Rote. Ronzani also brought the first black players to Green Bay, with end Bob Mann being the very first in 1950, and changed the team colors from blue and gold to green and gold, a change that remains in place to this day. The team’s poor record in conjunction with coaching turnover and some player dissension led to his firing after a dismal Thanksgiving loss to Detroit in 1953 that involved a second half collapse. Gene spent 1954 as the Steelers’ backfield coach and then got out of coaching. Iron Mountain had a Gene Ronzani Day in 1969 to celebrate their favorite son; he died six years later.

(Adapted from NFL Head Coaches: A Biographical Dictionary.)

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Bowman Custom cards all colorized.

Kicking the Tires

March 26 marks the birth date of quarterback Bobby Thomason, who had a brief fling with the Packers in 1951. Thomason was the most successful of the four quarterbacks picked in the first round of the 1949 NFL draft, but the other three were all underachievers — John Rauch by the Lions, Frank Tripucka by the Eagles and Stan Heath by the Packers.

Thomason was drafted (seventh overall) by Los Angeles, but was outshone by another Ram rookie quarterback that year, fourth round pick Norm Van Brocklin. Considering they already had starter Bob Waterfield, the Rams dealt Thomason to the Packers in 1951 for conditional picks in the first and second rounds of the 1952 draft, but with the proviso that Green Bay could return Thomason to Los Angeles before December 31 and would owe LA nothing.

Thomason shared the quarterbacking with Tobin Rote in Green Bay and played well. The two combined to throw for 26 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. Thomason was much more efficient, completing a career high 56.6% of his passes to Rote 41% and throwing for 11 TDs and just nine picks compared to Rote’s 15-20 ratio. Packer Coach Gene Ronzani, however, decided that Thomason wasn’t worth that much and sent him back to LA at year’s end, completing the lend-lease without any obligation. Green Bay then drafted Babe Parilli with the fourth overall pick of the 1952 draft to share the job with Rote.

The Rams then traded Thomason and end Jack Zilly to Philadelphia for a number one pick and fullback Jack Myers. Thomason played for the Eagles for six inconsistent years before retiring. Three times he was named to the Pro Bowl but shared the starting job in Philadelphia with another streaky signal caller, Adrian Burk. Bobby recorded a high of 21 TD passes in 1953 and a high of 21 interceptions in 1956. He was named to the Pro Bowl in both seasons, despite tossing just four TDs in 1956. He retired after the 1957 season and fittingly was replaced as the starter by Norm Van Brocklin, who was obtained by the Eagles in the off-season.

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Custom Rote is colorized.

Packers Top Rookie: 1930

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On the heels of the franchise’s first championship, the 1930 Packers added six rookies to help defend their title. Nebraska guard Merle Zuver appeared in 10 games as a rookie and that completed his NFL career. Marquette end Ken Raddick appeared in four games in 1930 and just one the following year with Green Bay. Iowa halfback Oran Pape played for five teams from 1930-32, including two with Green Bay as a rookie. In 1936 as an Iowa State trooper, Pape was killed as he was apprehending a car thief. Both the Department of Public Safety Building in Des Moines and a bridge on U.S. Route 80 are named in his honor.

Three new players of significance joined the Packers in 1930. Regis tailback Arnie Herber did not make much of an impression as a rookie, but fashioned a Hall of Fame career later in the decade as the premier long-range bomber in the league. Purdue All-America tackle Red Sleight was a good-sized and steady performer whose career only lasted two seasons.

6’3” 190-pound Wuert Engelmann was a track star at South Dakota State and moved into the starting backfield for the defending champs. He scored three touchdowns during the season: on a 20 yard pass from Red Dunn against Frankford, on a 35-yard run versus Staten Island and on a 15-yard pass from Dunn in the season finale against Portsmouth. That third touchdown was the final score of the year for the team, enabling the Packers to tie the Spartans and clinch their second straight title; Wuert Engelmann was the Packers’ top rookie for 1930.

1929cmzuver  1929copape

1929ckradick  1929caherber

1929crsleight2  1929cwengelman

Custom cards all colorized.

Past and Present

March 21 marks the birthdays of several Packers including Paul Fitzgibbon, Junior Coffey, Larry Mason and Robert Hudson. Of most significance to Packer history, though, are Andy Uram and Bryan Bulaga.

Andy Uram was a 5’10” 188-pound shifty halfback from the University of Minnesota who was known for big plays, setting team records with a 97-yard run from scrimmage in 1939 and a 98-yard kickoff return in 1942. A sixth round draft pick in 1938, he averaged 4.5 yards per carry and 18.7 yards per reception for his NFL career. He also intercepted 10 passes while playing defense for Green Bay from 1938-43 before going into the service. He was elected to the Packer Hall of Fame in 1973.

Bryan Bulaga followed Mark Tauscher who followed Earl Dotson, giving the team a 20-year string of solid right tackle work. Bulaga was the team’s top draft pick out of Iowa in 2010, moved into the starting lineup in October of his rookie season and became the youngest player to start in a Super Bowl that season. That year, he made the All-Rookie team, and then drew some All-Pro notice in 2011 despite missing four games with a knee injury.

A hip injury ended Bulaga’s 2012 at midseason, and then he tore his ACL during an intrasquad game in training camp and missed all of 2013, a season when he was slated to move to left tackle. Returning in 2014, he stayed at his original right tackle position and had a very sound season both in run and pass blocking. When he had to leave the opening game against Seattle, Packer fans got to see the difference between a quality tackle and a weak one when swinging gate Derek Sherrod stepped in and nearly got Aaron Rodgers killed. Bulaga returned the following week and solidified the line once again.

The 6’5” 315-pound Bulaga does his film study and has worked hard to gain strength. Line coach James Campen told the Journal-Sentinel, “He’s a big man who plays with power. Now it’s just a matter of refining those techniques and getting them ingrained in him.” A free agent following the 2014 season, he was seen as the top tackle in the pool, but re-signed with Green Bay right before free agency began. Left tackle David Bakhtiari, said of his line mate, “The biggest thing is consistent play. You know what you’re going to get with Bryan.”

(Bulaga adapted from Green Bay Gold.)

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1942auram  1943auram

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Uram custom cards are colorized.

 

 

Rich Moran

A lot of lesser Packers were born on March 19: Carl Barzilauskas, Mike Jolly, John Michels, Rick Mirer, Koren Robinson and Bob Summerhays, but there is one forgotten lineman from the dark days who deserves to be remembered, guard Rich Moran.

Moran’s father played defensive line for the Giants in the 1960s, and his brother Eric played tackle for the Oilers beginning the year prior to Rich being drafted in the third round by the Packers in 1985. Rich was by far the most successful player in the family, though, starting more games than his father and brother appeared in, combined, at the professional level. Rich also played on the same high school team as future Viking defensive tackle Keith Millard, and the two old friends had regular Central Division dustups in the late 1980s before Millard briefly joined the Packers in 1992.

At San Diego State, Moran was mostly a tackle, although he played some guard and center, too. Forrest Gregg drafted the 6’2” 275-pound Moran as a center, but when guard Keith Uecker injured his knee, Moran moved into the starting lineup at left guard as a rookie. In 1986, though, he injured the MCL in his knee and missed the last 11 games of the season. He returned as a starter in 1987 and helped form a strong left side of the line with Ken Ruetgers for the next three seasons, highlighted when Moran was named All-Pro for his very fine 1989 season. A 29-day holdout in 1990, though, caused him to lose his starting job to free agent Billy Ard, before he returned to top form as a starter in 1991.

Moran again injured his knee in the middle of the 1992 season and appeared in only three games in 1993 before retiring. When healthy, he was a consistent and productive guard who was known for his intensity. Teammate Brian Noble said of Rich, “He’s a nasty dude. He’s quick tempered. He snaps easily. I don’t think I’d ever want to tangle with him.” That passion added to his weight lifter’s strength and good speed to make an effective left guard. It was also his biggest downfall, though, as he was prone to getting out of control and being penalized at times. All in all, he was probably the team’s best guard in the long stretch from Gale Gillingham to Marco Rivera.

(Adapted from Green Bay Gold).

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1989trmoran  1991trmoran

Custom cards in late 1980s styles.

Slighted

We’ve all heard the story of how the undrafted Willie Wood wrote to all the NFL teams asking for a tryout in 1960, with only Vince Lombardi and Jack Vainisi expressing interest. Green Bay brought the short, black Southern California quarterback in for a look-see and a Hall of Fame safety emerged.

Last year, when I was touring the Packer Hall of Fame, I was interested to note in a Willie Wood display a copy of a brief scouting report prepared by George Dickson on Wood October 25, 1958 for the Packers. The scout commented on the 5’9” 173-pound junior quarterback/tailback:

He could have been a great prospect, but I doubt if he will by the time he graduates. Might be a defensive back prospect. Good competitor.

No indication is given as to why Wood was no longer considered a prospect. I always wondered why Al Davis, USC’s line coach, didn’t sign Wood for the Chargers when Al moved there as an assistant coach in 1960.

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Custom cards in early 1960s styles.