It seems a laughably impossible feat: 17 sacks in one game. Since it became an official statistic in 1982, a player has recorded 17+ sacks in an entire season only 38 times. But on October 26, 1952, Eagles defensive end Norm "Wildman" Willey claims he did in a 14-10 win over the Giants.
Did he? And if even if he didn't, why has he been forgotten?
Norm "Wildman" Willey came to the Eagles as a 13th round draft pick in 1950 out of Marshall. At Marshall he was a standout basketball and football player, in 2003 he was inducted into their Hall of Fame. Drafted as a fullback, Eagles coach Greasy Neale looked at Willey’s strength and speed and at his depth chart and moved Willey to defensive end. As an end he was, to put it mildly, raw. Needing to earn his roster spot, he flattened quarterback Tommy Thompson multiple times, prompting Thompson to say "somebody block that wildman." A nickname was born.
It was a fitting one. Willey played reckless but not dirty, using his speed to blow by and strength to overpower offensive linemen. At 6-2 and 225 pounds, he was very large for a player in his era, giving him a devastating combination of physical skills. Lions halfback Doak Walker said in a 1997 interview that Willey was "a terror, he was in our backfield on every play." Teammate Vic Sears said "he went full speed all the time. He didn’t always carry out his assignment, he’d just go."
In 1952 coach Jim Trimble tried to address this, coaching him to rush to the inside of the tackle when the guard and tackle were split wide. In the next game, Willey struggled with judging the distance between the offensive linemen and it threw him off. At halftime Trimble told him to scrap it and just play like usual, rushing the outside of the tackle no matter what. Willey’s lack of adaptation wasn’t for lack of effort. He got lip reading lessons to help him time his jump, which Willey said helped only a little.
Maybe it helped him in New York. Hugh Brown of the Philadelphia Bulletin colorfully described the day. "Willey awed inhabitants of the Polo Grounds by dumping Charlie Conerly 17 while he was attempting to pass. Eleven of the dumpings came in sequence, causing New York scribes to remark ‘He’s the greatest defense end we’ve ever seen and probably the greatest we’ll ever see." 17 sacks in one game is quite a claim, 11 in a row is even more wild, no pun intended.
However Paul Zimmerman was at the game and saw it differently. "Count me as one of those nonbelievers, because I happened to be at that game" he wrote in 2000. Zimmerman credited the Eagles with 14 sacks, eight by Willey. Pro Football Reference backs this claim, their box score says the Eagles had 14 sacks to the Giants one.
So did Willey have 17 sacks? Probably not. Willey backs his claim with the bonus he received for it. "To me the real highlight was when I got home. We had an incentive clause, $10 for each hit on the quarterback. It was illegal, but coaches did it anyway. They would look at the films and decide who got what. That week I got an envelope with $170 in it." But hits on the QB and sacks aren’t the same, and we know that even recently teams put a price on simply hitting the QB. If Willey had "only" eight sacks out of the team’s 14, it is reasonable that he hit Conerly, who was so battered he had to leave the game, and his backup Fred Benners, an additional nine times. Willey claims the Giants' chaplain complained to him after the game that they were abusing Conerly, hitting him late.
Unfortunately, we'll never know for sure. If footage of that game exists somewhere, it isn't public. Just finding photographs of Willey is difficult. Even if he didn’t get 17 sacks that day, eight is more than anyone has been credited with in a game, Derrick Thomas holds the single game record with seven. Willey had a great performance no matter what the total was.
And that doesn’t diminish his greatness, he wasn’t a one game wonder. Willey was a very good player and a key member of some very good defenses, from 1952-1955 the Eagles finished at worst fourth in the league in yards against and Willey was one of only four players to be starters in every one of those seasons. In the final game of the 1953 season, the Eagles ruined the Browns perfect season, with Willey and the Eagles defense giving the Browns one of it's toughest games of the season. After the game Otto Graham told Willey he was glad he didn't have to play he and the Eagles again.
Willey was a Pro Bowler in 1954 and 1955 and a First Team All Pro in 1953 and 1954, and Second Team All Pro in 1955 by UPI and AP First Team All Pro in 1954. In their preview for the 1956 season, Sports Illustrated called Willey and Tom Scott "two of the strongest defensive ends in the league." That season Willey would suffer a broken leg, it robbed him of his speed and after an ineffectual 1957 season he retired.
After his playing career he became a teacher and coach at Pennsville High School for three decades. On Sundays he was a staple on the Eagles sideline as a team ambassador, he was the opposing team's liaison when they went out on the field for pre-game introductions.
The Eagles have had some great defensive ends in their history, but none had a game like Willey’s 1952 effort against the Giants. Whether it was eight or 17 sacks, it was a historical performance by a very good and forgotten player.