By John Turney
Two of them were linemen—Grover "Ox" Emerson and Al "Big Ox" Wistert. Both Emerson and Wistert were All-Decade selections (both First-team), both were on NFL Championship teams, both were six-time First-team All-Pros, both were on teams that set statistical marks, some of which still stand to this day in team or NFL annals and yet neither were in the Hall of Fame which was the purpose of those dossiers—to inform Hall of Fame voters of a pair of NFL greats who fell through the nomination cracks.
Not only were the "Ox-men" on the First-team Hall of Fame All-Decade Teams for their respective decades, but they were also consensus choices for the "Combined" All-1930s and 1940s teams.
profile by Chris Willis a producer at NFL Films and author of many books from the relevant eras, had many excellent "testimonials" or "What they said" quotes about him.
Here are a few:
“I regard Emerson one of the greatest linemen I have ever seen perform on a football field. Having him out of our first five games hurt us more than anyone will ever know.”—Potsy Clark, former Spartans-Lions head coach, in 1935.
“(Ox) Emerson, the Detroit guard, according to Link Lyman of our Bears, is the fastest, ‘slicing’ forward and the hardest to block, he has ever met in football. And Link is almost a football line all by himself.”—Red Grange, former Bears Hall of Fame back, wrote in 1934.
“Emerson’s low charging made him one of the toughest guards to drive out of play, while he was fast enough to pull out and block on the Lions’ intricate reverse plays.”—wrote the UPI on Emerson when naming him to 1936 NFL All-Pro team.
Willis also mentioned that as he was a major part of the 1935 NFL Champion Lions, and that the "1936 the Lions set an NFL record for rushing yards in a season with 2,885 yards (in 12 games), a record that stood until 1972 when the Miami Dolphins broke it (in a 14-game season)"
Here are the team records as found in the Lions media guide. Three of the top five seasons for attempts are still listed. With a team that featured Barry Sanders on it, two of the top three rushing seasons are still part of the Emerson/Dutch Clark-era. Pretty impressive.
Clearly, the defensive charts are more misleading due to era, season length and so on. But the 1950s and 1960s Lions teams were known for defense...and the 1930s defense still was dominant. A deep look would be required to get more meaning, but it is fair to say it was a great defense and Ox Emerson was a part of that.
As far as NFL records, the Lions from that era are still in the NFL Record and Fact Book's pages.
They still hold the record for most yards rushing in a game and are second in consecutive seasons leading the NFL in rushing yards behind a pair of Bears teams—one was recent, even.
And there are still third in fewest points allowed.
As a defender, Allen added, "“He always played in perfect position and was seldom off his feet. He was a superb pursuit man and seemed somehow to get in on every play. He was a sure tackler. He was maybe best against the run, but he was among the good early pass rushers.”
In 2016 the Talk of Fame Network had this quote as well, "“Al was the greatest offensive tackle I’ve seen or played with,” said former teammate Bosh Pritchard.".
Steve Van Buren set the NFL's career rushing mark in 1949 (which he held for six seasons) Wistert was the most decorated blocker the Eagles had. And during the "Wistert era" the Eagles were at the top or near the top in rushing offense, scoring offense and were at or near the top of total defense and scoring defense as well, topping it off with the two NFL Championships.
Wistert was a quick-type in our view, would cut a lot, but that was common for the era. He was a good athlete for a tackle, not a big, slow power-type. As a pass rusher, he used his hands pretty well, which was unusual for that era when players would often lead with their shoulders. He was no Gino Marchetti (who advanced the use of hands in pass rushing in the 1950s), mind you, but he was very good at getting pressure. He was also excellent in pursuit in run defense.
Van Buren's accolades still dot the Eagles' recent Media Guides
And to this day the 1944 Eagles are second in fewest rushing yards allowed in a season. (Again, we get it's a different era, but the point is to highlight what the offenses and defenses of the "Ox" men did and that they hold up, not to prove said offenses and defenses played under same rules and circumstances, we know they didn't).
But the bottom line is this:
We feel confident there are plenty of players in recent eras and from eras gone by that don't check as many boxes as these two do.
Two oxen make a team and for them to work well they have to be yoked together, equally, or there will be an imbalance and the team will not be efficient. These two are so even it is impossible to separate them. Maybe it's time, with the expanded Centennial Class of 2020, to use two of those "Centennial" slots on these oxen. It would be fitting, fair and just.