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Sports Then and Now

What Would Clarke Hinkle and Bronko Nagurski Think of the Modern NFL?

Posted on April 10, 2011 by Dean Hybl

Clarke Hinkle played in an era before players wore facemasks and other protective padding.

If he were still alive today, you can bet that former NFL running back and Pro Football Hall of Fame member Clarke Hinkle would have some pretty terse things to say to both the players and owners in the current labor mess. Though Hinkle, who would have celebrated his 99th birthday on April 10th, passed away in 1988, words he wrote to me several years prior to his death are a great reminder of how different the NFL of today is from when he helped make the game popular in the 1930s.

As a teenager in the early 1980s, I sent letters to many former professional athletes expressing how much I thought of what they had done and asking for an autograph. Because this was in the days before autographs became such a big and lucrative business, I actually received many cards, pictures and letters back from former greats ranging from Otto Graham, Doak Walker and Bart Starr to Johnny Bench, Sparky Anderson and Happy Chandler.

In each letter I typically included a couple paragraphs talking about their career or something else that I thought was interesting.

In writing to Clarke Hinkle, I mentioned how I thought it was interesting that he had once been the NFL’s all-time rushing leader with 3,850 career yards. In fact, he held that honor from the time he retired in 1941 until being passed by Steve Van Buren in 1949. At the time I was writing to him, the record was held by Jim Brown with 12,312 yards and Walter Payton and Franco Harris were in competition to eclipse that total.

Usually what I received back from the athletes was a signed picture and occasionally a brief note or some other personal memorabilia (like a post card).

To my surprise, from Hinkle in addition to an autographed card I received a two page hand written letter in which he spent most of the time talking about how easy pro football players of the current era have it compared to players from his day. He said that the rushing records would be much less if those players had to play both ways (Hinkle played tailback and linebacker) and deal with players like Bronko Nagurski.

Bronko Nagurski was the most physical football player of his generation.

In case you aren’t familiar with Nagurski, he was the Dick Butkus or Ray Lewis of his era with a little Hulk Hogan thrown in for good measure. In addition to being a brutally physical football player, he was also a champion heavyweight wrestler.

Hinkle went on to talk about how the use of extra padding and other things have made it much easier for the modern athlete compared to when he and others were playing with little protective gear (their helmets didn’t even have facemasks).

While he was generally nice in his note, you could tell that he had been irritated by any unintentional suggestion that the game and players were better in the 1980s than during his era.

As I think of Hinkle and the other pioneers of the 1920s, 30s and 40s who helped make the NFL the $9 billion dollar business that it has become today, I can’t help but think of just how frustrated he probably would be today at what has happened to the game he gave his blood and sweat to help build.

While player safety is of utmost importance, Hinkle would probably find it funny that the players are now wearing all this equipment but yet get penalties for any kind of hit that is seen as being too violent. I’m betting he and Bronko Nagurski would have been racking up the fines if the game were treated the same way when they were playing.

As for the inability to split $9 billion, I could just see Hinkle and some of the other players from the early days trying to figure that one out.

The man who Hinkle passed to become the NFL’s all-time rushing leader, Cliff Battles, walked away from the Washington Redskins and the NFL following the 1937 season because team owner George Preston Marshall refused to increase his salary from $3,000 (his salary during all six of his NFL seasons) despite twice winning the NFL rushing title and leading the team to their first-ever NFL title.

While I suspect that Hinkle, Battles and others wouldn’t have much sympathy for the owners, I also suspect they wouldn’t be too pleased with the players either in this fight over control of a large fortune.

I suspect that there solution would be to get everyone into a room and make sure both sides recognized just how great they have it compared to the old days. The owners and current players have all become rich due to the sacrifices of those who have come before them.

Instead of squabbling over the golden goose, both sides would be much better served to remember that when Hinkle, Battles, Nagurski and others were building the NFL in the 1930s the most popular spectator sports in the United States were boxing and horse racing.

There is no guarantee that just because football is king today that it will always stay on top. Instead of fighting over how to split obscene amounts of revenue, they should be working together to ensure that the sport that was built on the backs of pioneers nearly a hundred years ago is on firm ground and ready for another hundred years of success.

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