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The Best Eagles I Never Saw: Bill Hewitt, the Eagles' First Star Player

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The Eagles couldn't produce any good players in the 1930s, so they went out and got a great one.

For the first decade of their existence, the Eagles were an awful team. They never had a winning record, three times they won just one game in a season. From 1933, their first year of existence, to 1936, they went 10-32-1, the worst in the league of the teams that played all four seasons in that time span. But in 1937 they bought themselves some relevance when owner and future commissioner Bert Bell purchased Bill Hewitt from the Bears.

In an era of two-way players, Hewitt was outstanding at both. Football was a very different game in the 1930s, with teams rarely passing the ball, and when they did a variety of players on the same team threw the ball. Running was far and away the primary method of advancing the ball, the league’s leader in pass attempts in 1933, Harry Newman of the Giants, threw less than ten times a game, the league averaged over 36 attempts a game. And they ran it fairly ineffectively, at a rate of around 3.3 yards per carry. On defense, Hewitt, an end, did his best to make those runs even more ineffective. In 1933 he was unofficially credited with over 300 yards in tackles for loss, thanks to his great ability to get off the snap. Defenses at the time lined up man to man against offenses, with seven-man offensive lines going one on one against seven man defensive lines. Defenses played what today we would call a two-gap defense, the line attempted to control and defeat their blocker, then descend upon the ball carrier or have the defensive backfield make the play. Hewitt was the best of his era at timing the snap and bursting past his man and making a play in the backfield. He was so good at this he was given various "Offsides" nicknames. Coupled with excellent speed to blow by blockers and long arms to ward them off, he was considered one of the dominant and exciting defenders of an era where defense was very much secondary to the offense. Lions coach Potsy Clark said that on defense Hewitt was basically two men at once.

On offense he was no less a star. Everyone ran the single wing offense, using misdirection and laterals to create space for runners to exploit. Trick plays were so common as to be expected, and Hewitt came up with a devastating one that would be his iconic play. In 1933 the forward pass, previously only legal from five yards behind the line of scrimmage, was legalized to today’s standards of anywhere behind the line of scrimmage. Hewitt was one of the first to really take advantage of this, against the Packers in the season opener he sprung a new trick play he thought of in the huddle against Green Bay. The play was essentially a more complicated hook and ladder. The passer, usually Bronko Nagurski, would fake a run to draw in defenders, then throw a pop pass to Hewitt, which he could now legally do with the new passing rules. With the defense then converging on Hewitt, he would pitch the ball to a teammate that was now left alone. It scored a touchdown against the title favorite Packers in a 14-7 win, Hewitt also blocked a kick for a TD. In the 1933 title game, the Bears scored the winning touchdown over the Giants in the NFL’s first true Championship Game wih it.

Hewitt executing his signature lateral. This photo is mistakenly believed to have been from the 1933 Championship, it was actually from a regular season game.

This wouldn’t be the only time Hewitt was a key part of a historical game. The next year the Lions began their tradition of hosting a game on Thanksgiving day. The Bears came to town with an 11-0 record, looking to end the regular season undefeated and continue their streak into a title game rematch against the Giants. Detroit got out to a 10-7 and led with minutes to play in the fourth quarter. With the Lions looking to extend their 16-13 lead, Joe Zeller intercepted a pass at the 50 and was hauled down at the four yard line. Nagurski faked a run and lobbed a pass to Hewitt to take the lead. Though the Lions lost, the game was a successful thriller and save for a break during World War II the tradition continued. The touchdown reception was Hewitt’s fifth of the year, good enough to lead the league, edging out Joe Carter of the Eagles, who had four touchdowns and led the league in receptions with 16. Chicago finished the regular season undefeated but fell to the Giants 30-13 a title game rematch. For his performances, Hewitt was named to his second consecutive First Team All-NFL by the league, he was the only player to garner unanimous votes.

1935 was considered a down year for Hewitt by contemporary reports, and the few statistics kept that season reflect that. He caught a career low five passes as the Bears slipped to a 6-4-2 record, their worst of the 1930s. He bounced back in 1936, setting career highs in receptions, touchdowns and receiving yards with a stat line of 15-359-6, good for seventh, third and second in the league respectively. He once again was named to the first team All-NFL team. The Bears too bounced back, finishing a game and a half behind the Packers for the Western Division title.

After the season he retired, wishing to go out at the peak of his career rather than be forced to due to poor play, and also because his wife pressured him to. Upon his retirement, the Chicago Tribune said that "he was generally considered to have been the greatest end in the history of football."

But Eagles owner Burt Bell, about to enter his second season as head coach and needing a star player to turn around the team, coaxed him out of retirement and acquired him in a trade. To entice Hewitt to come out of retirement Bell doubled his salary to $200 a game and lands him an off-season job, which players had during that time, as a service station repairman.

With Hewitt in the fold the Eagles were still terrible, winning only two games in 1937 after winning just one in 1936. But one of those wins was against the Redskins, who would go on to win the title that season, and Hewitt was a key factor. Using his trademark lateral he hit Johnny Kusko for 47 yards to bring the ball to the 10-yard line. On the next play he caught the first score of the game, the Eagles would go on to pull off the upset 14-0. Despite the Eagles woes, Hewitt was honored for a fourth time in his eight-year career with a place on the NFL’s All-NFL team, the first Eagles player to garner any type of first team post-season award.

In 1938 the Eagles improved to 5-6, their best season until World War II. Hewitt had another fine season as a pass catcher, finishing seventh in receptions, ninth in yards and fourth in touchdowns. In 1939 Hewitt had a down year, catching just one touchdown pass. But that one reception came in Hewitt’s third historical first for the NFL: the first game to be televised. In what would be an otherwise unnoteworthy game, the Eagles, then 0-3-1 visited the 2-2-1 Brooklyn Dodgers. The Dodgers won a fairly lopsided game, leading 23-7 in the fourth quarter. Hewitt closed out the scoring with a 22 yard reception, giving him at least a footnote in three landmark firsts for the NFL: the first title game, the first Thanksgiving day game and the first televised game. In the Eagles only win that season, Hewitt caught a pass from Davey O’Brien then lateralled to Jay Arnold, who ran in for the game-winning touchdown over the Pittsburgh Pirates.

After the 1939 season he retired, in 1943 he made a short comeback for the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh merged Steagles, appearing in six of the makeshift team’s ten games.

Upon his first and second retirement coaches, players and the press said he was the best end of his time. And he was as tough as nails. He refused to wear a helmet until they became mandatory in 1939. George Halas described him as a "happy go lucky guy" off the field, but an aggressive and fearless player on it. "He asked no quarter nor gave any."

After naming him to the 1930s All Decade Team in 1969, the Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrine him in 1971 alongside another Eagle who made most of his career on another team, Norm Van Brocklin. But like Van Brocklin, that makes him no less an important figure in Eagles history. He was the first star player the Eagles ever had, an important distinction considering the Eagles were the worst team in the NFL when he joined them. And he began what would become a long line of great defensive ends in Eagles history. The Eagles inducted Hewitt into their Hall of Fame in its inaugural year in 1987, he is the only player whose career started before World War II to be and should be so honored.

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