Shortly after Jerry Kramer was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, someone asked Packers’ historian and former Hall-of-Fame voter Cliff Christl to name the most deserving Packer not in Canton. His answer surprised me.
First of all, I hadn’t heard of him. Lewellen played in the 1920s and early 1930s, and he did it all. Not only was he one of the NFL's greatest all-around backs the first three decades; he once led the league in interceptions and was one of its two best punters.
Hall-of-Famer Sammy Baugh was the other.
Second, I thought Christl would go … well, more modern … with someone like Gale Gillingham, LeRoy Butler or Sterling Sharpe. He didn’t. Then again, he’s the team historian, so he covers a lot of ground.
Lastly, I thought he’d choose someone from the Packers’ glory years. Except he did. The Packers won three consecutive NFL championships (1929-31) when Lewellen was there. And the star of those teams was … you guessed it: Verne Lewellen.
“I believe Lewellen is one of a handful of players who deserves to be in the discussion about the greatest Packers’ player ever,” said Christl.
He didn’t say greatest Packers’ player not in Canton. He said the greatest Packers’ player … ever.
And here’s why: During the nine years that he spent with the Pack (1924-32), Lewellen was – at least, according to Christl – “arguably the most valuable player.” In fact, he said if the Associated Press were to name a league MVP then (which it did not) Lewellen might have won in 1929 and 1930.
In fact, Chris Willis of NFL Films and author of a Dutch Clark biography did name Lewellen the "retro" MVP of the 1929 and '30 seasons.
The problem, of course, is that much of what we know about Verne Lewellen is based on eyewitness accounts, mostly because he played in the NFL’s pre-stats era of 1920-31. So there are no numbers to underscore his impact on the Packers or the league, other than his scoring more touchdowns than anyone during that period.
But that’s where Christl becomes so invaluable. He not only compiled oral histories of great Green Bay Packers; he reviewed every edition of the Green Bay Post-Gazette from 1919 to 1962, going through play-by-plays.
So consider him an expert. And what he says about Lewellen is that he excelled in the two most important facets of football in the 1920s -- field position and scoring.
As a punter, he could kick for distance and placement and was so accomplished he sometimes punted on first, second and third downs. In 1928, for example, he punted 138 times … whereas the Packers' kicker, Harry O'Boyle, led the league that season with three field goals.
"No one who ever saw Lewellen kick could ever forget him," Arthur Daley wrote in the New York Times in 1962. "He was the finest punter these eyes ever saw."
But then there was this: Lewellen knew how to find the end zone. He had more touchdowns than anyone in his time, was second in the league in scoring with 307 points and set a career TD record (51) that wasn't broken until Hall-of-Famer Don Hutson did it in 1941.
Lewellen's greatest achievement, however, was his versatility, with the star running back taking over for injured quarterback Red Dunn in a 1929 game vs. the New York Giants. Lewellen played all 60 minutes, and the Packers won, 20-6, en route to an undefeated season (12-0-1) and their first NFL title.
He also punted seven times in that game, averaging 50.6 yards, including kicks of 75, 63, 43 and 65 on first downs.
"Next to the Ice Bowl," Christl told me Monday, "I consider that 1929 victory the greatest in Packers' history. Not only was it the game that won them their first NFL championship, but, more important, it was the game that established their credibility. It probably did more for the Packers' legacy than any game leading up to the Ice Bowl."
Lewellen was the star of that victory, just as he was the star of that era. In fact, when Curly Lambeau picked his all-Packers’ team following the 1948 season, he named Lewellen and Cecil Isbell as his two halfbacks over Hall-of-Famers Johnny Blood, Tony Canadeo and Arnie Herber.
Surprising? Not to Blood it wasn’t. When he was inducted into Canton in 1963, he said Lewellen should have been in the Pro Football Hall of Fame ahead of him.
Of course, he wasn’t. Worse, he’s never been a finalist.
Nevertheless, the Pro Football Researchers Association, which digs deep into the game’s history, named Lewellen to its Hall of Very Good in 2009 – citing his selection to five consecutive All-Pro teams, including four as a first-team halfback, and his contributions as a dominant punter.
But the clincher for Christl was what former Packers’ quarterback Charlie Mathys once told him about Lewellen. Mathys played for the Packers from 1922-26, was a Green Bay native and later served five decades on the team’s board of directors, retiring in 1980, three years before his death.
Which is another way of saying he had an historical perspective shared by precious few. And what he said about Verne Lewellen convinced Christl that the former Green Bay standout was more than outstanding. It convinced him that he was extraordinary.
“He was way ahead of his time in ability,” Mathys told Christl. “If he doesn’t get in the (Hall of Fame) it’s a joke.”
Well, he’s not in, and nobody’s laughing. But nobody’s pushing for Verne Lewellen, either. And, yes, based on what I know of Verne Lewellen now, that makes Mathys right.
It is a joke. And a cruel one.
Follow on Twitter @ClarkJudgeTOF