Eight years into his career and Bobby Dillon had been voted an All-Pro four times, had led the Packers in interceptions seven straight seasons and had just completed his first year under Vince Lombardi, who would become one of the game’s legendary coaches. Even at just 29 and as one of the NFL’s best defensive backs, Dillon decided to walk away from football and it’s a decision he’s never regretted.
In 1959, Green Bay finished 7-5, the only winning record of Dillon’s career. As a safety, Dillon had recorded 52 career interceptions, which at the time was tied for second in NFL history. He saw a bright future for an organization that had been aimless throughout the 1950s, with a tough-minded young coach and a budding roster that included Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and Ray Nitschke.
Dillon, however, was looking toward his own future. He had started working the previous offseason for a growing company, Wilsonart, which manufactured kitchen countertops in his hometown of Temple, Texas. The prospects looked good; something felt right. So with plenty of zip left in his legs and in the midst of a career that has seen him nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame since, Dillon retired.
“The money wasn’t all that good in the NFL in those days, the company was growing fast, and they wanted me to come and work for them full-time,” Dillon said this week. “It was something I couldn’t resist. It’s not a decision I’ve ever regretted, though I regret not playing on a championship team.”
Dillon’s instincts when it came to Wilsonart were good. He stayed 36 years, and the company, now known as Wilsonart International, expanded from the small town in Texas into a global leader for countertops, surfaces and adhesives, with facilities around the world. Dillon was president for his final decade with the company, was named chairman and chief executive officer in 1993 and retired in 1995.
Dillon’s NFL career almost never got started. After a stellar career at Texas as an All-America defensive back and kick-returner, the Packers selected him 28th overall. At the College All-Star Game, Dillon considered not playing pro football at all. He had a job waiting for him back home in construction and his wife, Ann, was expecting their first child.
“I was late for training camp already because of the all-star game, and I had decided I wasn’t going to play, so I called the Packers. (Packers scout) Jack Vainisi called me back and convinced me to play by offering me $500 a year more,” Dillon said. “My first contract was $6,500 a year, which was pretty high for a rookie. The top players back then made $10,000. I had a degree in accounting, so that sounded pretty good to me for five months of work.”
It was a wise investment for Green Bay. Dillon started as a rookie and picked off four passes, beginning a franchise-record streak of seven consecutive seasons when he would either lead or tie for the club high in interceptions. In ’53, he had nine interceptions in just 10 games, including a 49-yard touchdown return. In ’54, he was voted an All-Pro for the first time after picking off seven passes, including a 59-yard TD.
In ’55, he was named an All-Pro again and voted to the Pro Bowl for the first time with nine interceptions, and the following season he led the NFL with 244 return yards off seven interceptions. He reached nine interceptions again in ’57, earning All-Pro honors.
In a remarkable stretch from ’53-58, Dillon had 47 interceptions for 934 yards and five touchdowns. He was voted to four Pro Bowls during that stretch, and in ’58 he became only the second player in NFL history to reach 50 career interceptions.
“I don’t know how I got so many. It amazes me because we played 12 games and, back then, if a team threw 20 or 25 times, that was a lot,” Dillon said. “When I was in the middle of it, I didn’t know how many I had. Then they started writing that I had more than anyone who had played in Green Bay. My last year I only had one interception, but for the first six games no one threw a pass to a guy I was guarding.”
He ranks as the club’s all-time leader in interceptions with 52 – a total that is still tied for 25th in NFL history – and is also first in team record books with 976 interception-return yards. Dillon is tied for third all-time on the Packers with five touchdown returns.
Dillon also did it all with vision in only his right eye, the result of a childhood injury. It never proved to be a handicap.
“It’s just the way it was, so it never bothered me when I was playing. I returned punts when I was at Texas, so I think it happened at a young enough age that I made an adjustment without knowing any different,” he said.
When Dillon started his career with the Packers, he played without a facemask. He also played in the first game at City Stadium in 1957, which would later be rededicated as Lambeau Field in 1965.
“It was pretty nice, and that gave us a decent locker room,” he said. “For five or six years we played in old City Stadium, and those locker rooms were worse than the one I had in high school.
“There was a good nucleus on that team when I left. There were good players before Lombardi got there, but no leadership. We could have been 9-3 his first year, but we didn’t know how to win, yet. I could see they were going to get a lot better, quickly.”
It just wasn’t enough for Dillon to stay and put the rest of his life on hold. Maybe he didn’t quite know the scope of what was to come, but he was on the ground floor of a company that would eventually have annual revenues of over $1 billion, with his leadership being a key part of the company’s success.
“I had some calls from other teams after I left, but when I quit, I quit,” he said. “I didn’t look back on it.”
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