Canton or bust
Is this the year John Hadl finally gets call to the hall?
Somewhere in a room in Canton, Ohio, a small gathering of men will sit around a table during the third weekend of August and discuss the Hall of Fame candidacy of a number of players who have been out of the NFL for at least 25 years.
Once again, John Hadl’s name will spark interesting conversation, the particulars of which will remain private.
The names of the following quarterbacks Hadl so often was grouped with during his playing career won’t be discussed: Len Dawson, Bob Griese, Sonny Jurgensen, Joe Namath, Bart Starr, Roger Staubach and Fran Tarkenton. There is nothing to discuss because they already are in and nobody should have a beef with any of those names.
Meanwhile, Hadl, Lawrence’s most famous football native, remains on the outside, the best of the rest, the first quarterback on the wrong side of the line drawn by veteran sports journalists who cast their votes every year.
Could this be the year Hadl finally joins the group of quarterbacks against whom he was measured and measured up quite nicely during his career? Maybe, which is another way of saying maybe not.
One elector, Jerry Magee, resides in San Diego and covered Hadl’s San Diego Chargers. Those who know Hadl best can attest to his quick temper. Magee is among them.
“We used to have kind of a rancorous relationship,” Magee said by phone from San Diego. “I think he thought I was trying to get him. I was just writing honest accounts.”
The relationship has improved over the years, as is often the case with sports writers and athletes once at odds. In recent years, Magee has become a passionate advocate of Hadl’s Hall of Fame candidacy.
“Last year, he received the most sympathetic hearing he had so far received,” Magee said. “I think he’s inching closer to maybe getting in. John should be in the Hall of Fame, but it’s tough to get in.”
Informal conversations with multiple Hall of Fame voters identified two primary hurdles that have stood in Hadl’s way when his candidacy has been discussed. When viewed in tandem, they contradict one another.
First, Hadl’s failure to lead a team to a championship is an issue. Holding this against Hadl presupposes that a great quarterback should be able to overcome all the deficiencies around him, even if, as in the case of the Chargers, the greatest were on the defense.
Second, many Hall of Fame voters appear to be on a mission to create more position balance among the enshrined. For example, offensive linemen and defensive backs, the thinking goes, are not well represented enough in Canton.
So No. 21 is in a Catch 22 of sorts. On the one hand, a quarterback is thought to influence so greatly his team’s fortunes that if he doesn’t take his team to a championship, he’s to blame. On the other hand, a quarterback’s influence on his team is so overrated that the Hall of Fame is oversaturated with quarterbacks.
Either way, Hadl loses, through no fault of his.
Hadl did play for an AFL championship team in 1963, but it was so early in his career he was the backup to Tobin Rote, brought in to show Hadl the nuances of the position.
As for being a quarterback at a time when the focus has shifted largely to non-glory positions, well, there is nothing Hadl, an All-American at both halfback and quarterback for Kansas University, can do about that.
“As time goes by, so few of the members of the selection committee have seen John play,” Magee said. “He was a guy you had to watch over an extended period to appreciate his skills. I never considered him a real stylist. He has a lot of amazing athletic skills.”
Magee points to someone other than himself as Hadl’s No. 1 advocate for reaching the Hall of Fame.
“He has the best guy he could possibly have in his corner in Lance Alworth,” Magee said.
A Hall of Fame receiver who broke into the AFL the same year as Hadl, “Bambi” Alworth was a phenomenally gifted athlete with extraordinary leaping ability, agility, and speed, and had the soft hands to finish the job. Hadl, who wore the No. 21, more common for a running back, and Alworth, whose No. 19 was more commonly worn by quarterbacks, teamed to make one of the most respected and entertaining tandems in football history.
All these years later, it still bothers Alworth, the first AFL player to get in, that the man who helped him attain greatness hasn’t joined him in Canton.
To hear Alworth talk at length about Hadl’s candidacy is to reach the conclusion this is not about one teammate wanting his buddy admitted to his exclusive club because he likes him and thinks it would make him feel good. Alworth talks about Hadl in a way that makes it clear he’s bothered by the exclusion because he thinks it’s unjust, plain and simple. Alworth is so passionate about what he perceives as an injustice that he suspends the great lengths he normally goes to in order to keep a low profile when the topic is Hadl’s Hall of Fame worthiness.
A multimillionaire who made it big in business by starting a storage business, Alworth lives in the San Diego area. He swiftly returned a phone message left to discuss Hadl’s candidacy.
“We had to score a lot of points,” Alworth said, kindly alluding to the Chargers’ defensive deficiencies. “It wasn’t like John had a Super Bowl team to work with, unfortunately.”
He did, however, have one of the greatest receivers in the game’s history. Still, Alworth emphasizes, he would not have been the same without Hadl’s help.
“John was the man on those teams,” Alworth said. “He might not admit it now, but he was the man. He was always in control. He never got excited. He never lost his composure. He was always, ‘Settle down. Let’s get this done.’ The receivers and backs might be saying (in the huddle), ‘Throw it to me.’ And John would say, ‘Shut up! We can get this done if you guys will be quiet.’ He had the respect of everyone in that huddle. He commanded respect and he gave his all.”
Alworth agreed with Magee’s assessment that Hadl was more a producer than a stylist.
“I played against Namath and Dawson and the rest, and I respected all of them, but John was my man,” Alworth said. “He put the ball right there where you wanted it. The balls didn’t always look pretty, but they were always right there, always very catchable.”
Said Magee: “I think what distinguished John was that he could throw the 50-yard pass as well as he threw the 10-yard pass.”
Hadl had a little Namath in him in that he loved to throw the bomb and wasn’t afraid to risk interceptions. Though Green Bay Packers fans would object to his being named in the same breath, Hadl also had a little Brett Favre in him. A mobile, rugged gun-slinger like Favre, Hadl said he never missed a game because of a football injury, though his sometimes contentious relationship with coach Sid Gillman led to a couple of benchings. Imagine the fuss that would be made over Hadl’s injury-free career in today’s mass-media world.
Hadl played 224 career games, Namath 140, but Namath had the Super Bowl victory, the guarantee, and was the single figure most responsible for the AFL being merged into the NFL. Namath certainly belongs in the Hall of Fame, but to assume Hadl doesn’t belong in Namath’s class would be to engage in voodoo mathematics.
Hadl had a higher completion percentage, threw 71 more touchdown passes, rushed for nine more touchdowns and 972 more yards, and had a lower interception rate than Namath.
The numbers mean nothing, Hadl detractors might argue. After all, Hadl had such a long career. Fair point, but for the sake of argument – and really, isn’t that the primary purpose of having sports Halls of Fame, to spur arguments? – shrink Hadl’s career to his first 14 seasons. That seems the most fair place to draw the line because that would give Hadl 176 games. The average career of the seven aforementioned Hadl contemporaries was 186 games long. Since they competed in Super Bowls and Hadl did not, penalize Hadl the 10 games to see where he rates among the all-time greats.
If his career had ended after 1973, his first season with the Los Angeles Rams after 11 with the San Diego Chargers, Hadl would have ranked third when grouped with the seven Hall of Fame contemporaries with 30,085 yards. His 223 touchdown passes (compared to 222 interceptions) would have ranked fourth.
While the argument can be made his surplus of games shouldn’t benefit his Hall of Fame candidacy when statistical comparisons are made, it wouldn’t make any sense to hold the length of his career against him. Was it his fault the Green Bay Packers, under desperate coach Dan Devine, unwisely traded five high draft choices (two No. 1, two No. 2, one No. 3) to the Rams to acquire Hadl? Should it be held against Hadl that he had the toughness to play hurt and to play into his later years when less rugged quarterbacks would have been watching the action from living room rocking chairs easing the pain one beer at a time?
Even though the numbers show Hadl belongs in Canton, that doesn’t mean he will be part of the next induction class. His most reachable path to induction is via the seniors committee, which each year nominates two candidates.
John Hadl’s career passing yards
Modern-era Hall of Fame QBs with more career passing yards
Modern-era Hall of Fame QBs with fewer career passing yards
John Hadl’s career touchdowns thrown
Average career TDs thrown per Hall of Fame QB
John Hadl’s career completion percentage
Hall of Fame QB Joe Namath’s completion percentage
John Hadl’s career games
Average career games played per modern-era Hall of Fame QB
John Hadl’s Super Bowl wins, combined Super Bowl wins for Hall QBs
Joe Horrigan, vice president of communications for the pro football Hall of Fame, explained the election process for candidates who played their last games at least 25 years ago: Nine of the 40 football writers who are electors form the seniors committee. By mail, the committee members fill out ballots and the list of 60-to-80 nominees is trimmed to 15 finalists. In the third week of every August, five of the nine members of the committee are invited to Canton and meet in a room. That’s where Hadl’s fate is determined each summer. Two Hall of Fame members are appointed as consultants to the seniors committee. The consultants join the five seniors committee members for a discussion of the 15 candidates. Copies of an abridged version of what has been said about the candidates in past meetings are distributed. The consultants comment on each of the candidates and then are asked to leave the room. After more discussion, the committee members have a first round of voting that pares the list from 15 to 10. The next round trims it from 10 to five, the next round from five to three, and then it’s whittled from three to two.
Even those two aren’t in the Hall of Fame yet. They are added to an existing list of 15 nominees, and three-to-six players among those 17 are elected each year. The voting is done at the Super Bowl, and the induction ceremony takes place the first weekend in August.
In the past four years, since two seniors committee nominees have been nominated annually when in the past it was just one, seven of the eight seniors nominees have gained election. The late Bob Hayes was the lone exception.
“If you’re in the room being discussed, you’re a pretty darn good player,” Horrigan said. “The difference is so slim, and there are so many great candidates.”
The list of electors is public, but lobbying them with letters, Horrigan hinted, isn’t necessarily such a good idea.
“They’re not excited about the buckets of mail they receive,” Horrigan said.
Not interested in anyone bombarding the electors with a mail campaign, Hadl takes a low-key approach to his candidacy, though friends of his have pushed hard to make it a public issue.
“I’d like to get in,” said Hadl, a six-time Pro Bowl selection. “It would be a lot of fun to get in. So many guys I know are in there, but by the same token, you can’t count on anything like that. I feel good for the guys who are in there. Good for them.”
The tendency is for players the age of Hadl, 67, to grow discouraged, thinking if it hasn’t happened by now, it won’t ever happen. Such feelings aren’t justified, Horrigan indicated.
“He continues to get support,” Horrigan said of Hadl. “He’s in a tough position. There are so many good candidates, and the wait can be so long. Sometimes, it’s not a question of if as much as it’s a question of when. Pretty much to a man, once players get in they say it didn’t really matter that it took so long.”
Electors in favor of filling quotas for non-glory positions might want to take a closer look at that strategy. Quarterbacks are the most influential players on the field, by far. To think otherwise is to ignore the NFL Draft. In six of the past seven years, the No. 1 overall selection has been a quarterback.
If Hadl doesn’t gain induction, his happy life in Lawrence, his birthplace, will move on at the pace he chooses. He’ll be at once the quiet presence and center of attention in every room he walks into in town. It’s the Hall of Fame that would change for the better should a space be cleared for his bronze bust. Then and only then could the evaluation book be closed on a magnificent era of quarterbacks. For now, it’s seven down and one to go.