The Packers’ practice field alongside South Oneida Street, west of the Don Hutson Center, couldn’t be more aptly named.
A young player hoping to make the Packers roster today couldn’t pick a better all-time great to aspire to be like than Clarke Hinkle. Viewed as a gentleman away from the field, Hinkle was all football, all the time on the job.
“Oh, man! He was about the greatest football player I ever saw,” the late Bill Lee, a former teammate, Packers captain and former college teammate of Don Hutson, once said of Hinkle. “He had more determination, more grit, more guts than any player I ever saw.”
Packers fans have many things to thank Ron Wolf for and one of them was his deep and abiding appreciation for Packers history. When he finally christened the team’s previously unnamed practice field in 1997, it had been more than 50 years since Hinkle last played.
It might have been a more popular choice if Wolf had named it after a Lombardi-era player. What’s more, most people in his position as general manager would have known little about Hinkle and given little thought to honoring someone who had played during the medieval days of pro football.
He was a student and steward of pro football history, not someone who made willy-nilly decisions about it.
When others had relegated Hinkle to the dustbin of ancient Packers history, Wolf named a field after him. And with that in mind, Hinkle gets the nod here as the greatest fullback in Packers history.
Curly Lambeau might have been biased, but he probably wasn’t alone among NFL coaches when he said he’d take Hinkle over Bronko Nagurski and Ernie Nevers, two larger-than-life, legendary fullbacks over the first 35 years of the NFL.
“The greatest of them is Hink…,” Lambeau once said. “Nagurski was a terrific runner who could hit you like a truck. Nevers, a great all-around boy, played his heart out whether the Cardinals were ahead, 40-0, or behind, 40-0… But no fullback ever played all-around football like Hinkle. No guy ever gave more to his team. No guy, not even Nevers, loved it more.”
Current Packers weren’t considered; nor were Gerry Ellis, Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens, all of whom played fullback early in their careers but made their names as running backs.
Also, Hinkle and Fritsch were from an era when players played both ways, and Hinkle, in particular, was considered a great defender. Hinkle and Fritsch also stood out as kickers. But they were ranked here strictly on how old-timers talked and wrote about them as fullbacks.
1. Clarke Hinkle, 1932-41 – When he retired following the 1941 season, he held the NFL record for career rushing yards with 3,860 and it wasn’t broken for another eight years. Many of today’s pundits tout Hutson as the greatest Packers player ever. Go back and read the daily newspaper accounts of the 1930s and ’40s and also what their contemporaries later said about them, and one comes away with the impression Hinkle might have been considered by many more valuable than Hutson, as great he was. In 1989, Sports Illustrated’s widely acclaimed pro football writer and former college football player Paul Zimmerman went back and looked at film of Nagurski and Hutson in a quest to determine how they’d perform in the modern game. “As I was watching the early footage of Hutson, another figure kept emerging, Hinkle,” wrote Zimmerman. He later told me in an interview, “Bronko was a great name, and Nagurski was bigger. But Hinkle…he was an iron man. He played like a maniac.” Better yet, if Nagurski was the toughest Bear ever, even some of his teammates said Hinkle might have been tougher. “It’s hard to explain, but when Nagurski hit you, it was 240 pounds of power and then there was a big surge forward,” said the late Bob Snyder, former Bears quarterback. “But, old Hink, he’d sting you.”
2. Jim Taylor, 1958-66 – He rushed for 8,207 yards, more than twice as many as Hinkle, and held the Packers’ career record for 43 years. His toughness was legendary, too. But it’s generally misleading to compare stats from different eras in pro football, and Hinkle seemed to draw more praise for his speed and blocking in his day than Taylor did in his. Still, picking a one and two here was a close call.
3. John Brockington, 1971-77 – First runner in NFL history to rush for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, but then he never did it again. Still ranks third in Packers all-time rushing. Taylor is second; Hinkle, seventh.
4. Ted Fritsch, 1942-50 – He might not have looked it at 5-foot-10 and 210-plus pounds, but he was an exceptional athlete. He played in the old National Basketball League and also a year of minor league baseball in the Chicago Cubs’ farm system. A native of Spencer, Wis., and a product of what is now the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Fritsch scored both touchdowns when the Packers beat the New York Giants, 14-7, in the 1944 NFL Championship Game, led the NFL in scoring in 1946 and still ranks 15th on the Packers’ list of all-time rushers.
5. William Henderson, 1995-2006 – Maybe the best blocking fullback in Packers history and more like today’s prototype at the position, but in 12 seasons he rushed for 426 yards.
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