A little over a year ago, I wrote about the 1958 NFL draft class of the Green Bay Packers. One of the members of that draft class, right guard and occasional placekicker Jerry Kramer, commented about that prodigious class.
When I wrote the piece, Kramer had not been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, like he was earlier this month.
Now with Kramer being enshrined, that means that three members of that draft class in 1958 are among the best of the best in the hallowed halls in Canton. Both Jim Taylor (1976) and Ray Nitschke (1978) preceded Kramer into the Hall of Fame.
In addition to those three, the 1958 draft class also had Dan Currie, who was a great pro in his own right until a knee injury hampered him throughout the rest of his career. The class also had a guard by the name of Ken Gray who was drafted two rounds after Kramer in the sixth round.
Kramer and Gray basically battled for one job in training camp and Kramer won out while Gray was cut. Gray soon ended up signing with the then Chicago Cardinals and ended up having a great career with the Cards.
While he was with the Cardinals (in Chicago and St. Louis), Gray was named to six Pro Bowl squads, plus was named first-team All-Pro four times.
Needless to say, the 1958 NFL draft class for the Packers was the best the team ever had in it’s history.
Back in the 1950s, the man who headed the scouting for the Packers was Jack Vainisi. A number of great players were drafted by Vainisi over that time. The list includes Billy Howton, Bobby Dillon, Dave “Hawg” Hanner, Bill Forester, Jim Ringo, Max McGee, Forrest Gregg, Bob Skoronski, Hank Gremminger, Bart Starr, Ron Kramer, John Symank and also the class of 1958.
Vainisi also played an important role in drafting the class of 1959 for the Packers. The team was undergoing a very strange set of circumstances. Green Bay was coming off the worst season in in team history, as the Pack went 1-10-1 under head coach Ray “Scooter” McLean.
Sadly, Vainisi died of a heart attack in 1960 at the young age of 33, just prior the championship run that the Packers had under Vince Lombardi, who had not been hired until after the 1959 draft.
Anyway, back in those days, the NFL draft was set up to have the early part of the draft in the latter part of the ongoing 1958 season (December 2, 1958), while the next part of the draft took place after the season had ended (January 21, 1959).
When the first part of the draft took place, McLean was still the head coach. But the writing was on the wall for “Scooter” to be replaced. At that point, the front runner to become the new head coach of the Packers was Forrest Evashevski, who was the head coach at Iowa.
Evashevski had turned the Hawkeyes into a powerhouse in the Big Ten in the ’50s and was on his way to his second Rose Bowl win in three years. Iowa was led by quarterback Randy Duncan, who guided the Hawkeyes to a 8-1-1 record in 1958 and a 38-12 victory over the Cal Bears in Pasadena.
Duncan was consensus All-American in 1958 and finished second in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.
So, when the 1959 NFL draft took place, the Packers sort of rolled the dice and selected Duncan with the first pick of the draft in the first round. I’m sure that Packers were thinking that Evashevski would soon be following. But that never happened.
Plus, Duncan never played for the Packers and went to the CFL instead to play for the British Columbia Lions.
Two other players were selected on that early December day in 1958 for the Packers. In the second round, Green Bay selected halfback Alex Hawkins of South Carolina and in the third round, the Packers selected flanker Boyd Dowler of Colorado, who actually played a number of positions for the Buffaloes. More on that later.
The early part of that draft lasted four rounds, but the Packers were done after selecting Duncan, Hawkins and Dowler, as they had traded away their selection in round four.
In the second stage of the draft, when by then McLean had resigned as head coach, and the team was still in the process of hiring a new one, the Packers selected 28 more players. Yes, you read that correctly. The draft lasted 30 rounds in those days.
Of those 28 players, only three made the team. Those players were guard Andy Cvercko of Northwestern (fifth round), halfback Bill Butler of Tennessee-Chattanooga (19th round) and halfback Timmy Brown of Ball State (27th round).
You probably have recognized two pretty well known players in this draft, who then went on to have pretty good careers in the NFL, but for other teams. I’m talking about Hawkins and Brown. More on them later.
A week after the second stage of the 1959 NFL draft was completed, the Packers hired Lombardi to become their head coach.
Lombardi obviously did not take part in the draft for the Packers in 1959, but he did make a number of trades that offseason after looking at film of the team he would now be coaching.
Here are the key trades Lombardi made:
- G Fred “Fuzzy”Thurston from the Baltimore Colts for LB Marv Matuzak.
- S Emlen Tunnell from the New York Giants for cash.
- QB Lamar McHan from the Chicago Cardinals for a 1960 third-round pick.
- HB Lew Carpenter and DE Bill Quinlan from the Cleveland Browns for WR Billy Howton.
- DT Henry Jordan from the Cleveland Browns for a 1960 fourth-round pick.
Between the 1959 NFL draft and the trades Lombardi made, that set up what the Packers had to work with going into the 1959 season. It’s also important to remember that Green Bay had not had a winning season since back in 1947.
So, with all that being said, I had another opportunity to speak with Dowler earlier this week. He and I talked about the 1959 draft and also one of the Lombardi trades that made his role even larger on the team in 1959.
Dowler first talked about the process he went through before the 1959 draft.
“I did not hear from very many people,” Dowler said. “I heard from the San Francisco 49ers, who drafted a few spots down from the Packers. I was picked with the 25th pick, which was the first selection in the third round. So I heard from the 49ers who said they would be interested in drafting me.
“As it turned out, the Packers took me with the 25th pick and the 49ers took my roommate Eddie Dove a few picks later at No. 29. Eddie was one of my best friends and teammates from college (Colorado).
“Eddie was a safety and got picked to play in the Pro Bowl as a rookie, while I was named Rookie of the Year. Eddie and I played against each other for a number of years in the same division before he was traded to the Giants.”
I asked Dowler about the two players who were selected before him in the draft, Duncan and Hawkins.
“I was still in college at Colorado when the Packers took Randy Duncan first as a quarterback,” Dowler said. “Then they took me third, and I also played quarterback and I sort of shook my head and said, ‘What in the hell is going on here?’ It was pretty obvious that the Packers didn’t think of me as a quarterback.
“In terms of Duncan, I’ve never seen him in my life. I never met him. He went to the CFL instead of coming to Green Bay.”
But what about Hawkins and why was he eventually cut?
“Alex played running back as a rookie and for a number of years with the Colts, but he also turned into a good receiver with Falcons,” Dowler said. “Hawkins was sort of a free spirit. He also was on a roster that had quite few running backs. We had Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor. They traded for Lew Carpenter, who was also pretty good. Plus they had Don McIlhenny from SMU who was also a pretty good back.
“Plus they drafted Timmy Brown, who ended up going to the Eagles and had a good career there. But those guys were all on the team. The roster limit was 35 at the time, so it was tough for Alex to make the team, plus he fumbled in a preseason game which sort of sealed his fate.”
Hawkins went on to have a fine career in the NFL. In 11 seasons in the league, nine with the Colts and two with the Falcons, Hawkins rushed for 787 yards and 10 touchdowns, while he caught 129 passes for 1,751 yards and 12 more scores. Hawkins was obviously never a part of any championship teams in Green Bay, but he did strike gold early, as he was on the Colts in 1959 when they won the NFL title.
Dowler also talked about Brown.
“Tim opened the season with us in ’59,” Dowler said. “He fumbled a kickoff in the opener against the Bears and was cut on Tuesday the very next week.”
I checked the Packers media guide and that is correct. That one game was the only game Brown ever played for the Pack.
Brown had a great career with the Eagles, plus also won a NFL title with them in 1960, when they ironically defeated his former teammates 17-13 in the 1960 NFL Championship Game at Franklin Field in Philadelphia.
In eight years with the Eagles, starting in 1960, Brown rushed for 3,703 yards and scored 31 touchdowns. Brown also caught 231 passes for 3,346 yards and 26 more scores. As good as those stats are, Brown really made a mark as a returner, as he returned five kickoffs for touchdowns and one punt for a score.
Dowler then talked about a trade that Lombardi made which allowed him a real opportunity to get playing time.
“When Coach Lombardi traded Billy Howton, who was really their best receiver (four Pro Bowls), I was fortunate,” Dowler said. “That opened up a spot for me in the lineup. We did not have a lot of receivers then. We had Max [McGee], who was the only wide receiver on the team who had really played when I came in as a rookie.
“I didn’t start right away, but I played quite a bit. I got into the starting lineup against the Bears in Chicago and then had a breakout game against the Colts (eight receptions for 147 yards), who were the world champions that year, the next week in Milwaukee.”
Dowler and I also discussed the reason why Howton was traded. I had heard and read that Howton had rubbed Lombardi the wrong way with his clubhouse lawyer demeanor.
“Howton sort of felt like he should be helping out on who they were going to throw the ball to,” Dowler said. “And that he needed to get the ball more. I think they met up in Lombardi’s office. I think before Howton got in his car to leave that day, he was already traded.”
As it was, Dowler filled in quite well as a rookie at receiver, as he caught 32 passes for 549 yards and four touchdowns, plus rushed for 20 yards on one scamper. That led to Dowler being named Rookie of the Year by UPI in 1959.
That was a great accomplishment for Dowler, as he was not even sure what position he would play in the NFL because he had so many roles when he played at Colorado.
Kramer talked about that in a story I did about Dowler last year.
“Boyd was a very talented athlete,” Kramer said. “He led Colorado in passing, running, receiving and punting. But when you think about that, how the hell could you lead the team in both passing and receiving? You can’t throw to yourself! But Boyd told me that he played in a single-wing offense at Colorado and sometimes he threw the ball and sometimes he caught the ball.”
“When I was drafted, I didn’t really know what position I would play,” Dowler said. “I played quarterback at Colorado. I played in the slot in the East-West Shrine Game and caught some passes and punted. I actually looked pretty good, as we played both ways back then, playing pass defense. My senior year in college, I led the conference in pass interceptions with five. I had 10 in my career at Colorado.
“So I really didn’t know what position I would play. I kind of thought I would be a receiver. I knew I wouldn’t be a quarterback. I knew enough about how I played and how I threw the ball that I wouldn’t be a NFL quarterback.
“When I showed up with the other quarterbacks with the Packers in June, as Coach Lombardi brought us in early, it didn’t take Coach very long to figure out I was a flanker.”
Lombardi figured out a lot of things that year, as the Packers ended having their first winning season (7-5) in 12 years.
It led to the Packers winning five NFL championships in seven years, which included the first two Super Bowls. In addition to that, the Packers won three NFL titles in a row, a feat that has never ever been duplicated in the playoff history of the NFL.
Dowler was in Green Bay for all of that and he played a large role in a number of the championship victories, as he had 30 receptions for 440 yards and five scores in 10 postseason games.
In his overall career in Green Bay, No. 86 had 448 catches for 6,918 yards and 40 touchdowns. Dowler also punted for the Packers for four seasons and had a 42.9 average.
When Dowler retired, he was ranked 10th in receptions and ranked 12th in yards receiving in NFL history.
Not bad for guy who wasn’t sure what position he would play in the NFL out of college, huh?