Editor's Note: Chris Willis is head of the Research Library at NFL Films and is the author of the upcoming Red Grange: The Life and Legacy of the NFL's First Superstar.
He also authored 2014's The Man Who Built the National Football League: Joe F. Carr and 2012's Dutch Clark: The Life of an NFL Legend and the Birth of the Detroit Lions.
In 2017 he released Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe, and the Oorang Indians: How a Dog Kennel Owner Created the NFL's Most Famous Traveling Team and a decade earlier he wrote The Columbus Panhandles: A Complete History of Pro Football's Toughest Team, 1900-1922
In 2005 he wrote Old Leather: An Oral History of Early Pro Football in Ohio, 1920-1935'
Choosing the greatest of any position during the Pre-WWII period (circa 1920-1944) is always a daunting task, but resources used to put together this list was going through game footage; newspapers of the era; testimonies of players, coaches & executives, as well as sportswriters who wrote about the game; magazines and any individual honors, All-Pro teams, and greatest of all-time lists.
As for statistics, the NFL didn’t keep official stats until 1932, so that is taken into consideration when making these evaluations. Besides Total Football I and II, another great source used was The Football Encyclopedia, by David Neft, Richard Cohen and Rick Korch, who recreated stats for the NFL’s early years through play-by-plays and newspaper reports. It’s the closest thing we have to early numbers.
In 1920 the Rock Island Argus (sportswriter Bruce Copeland) choose the “first-ever” APFA-NFL All-Pro team (APFA in 1920)- he listed 3 teams. The Associated Press, UP and I.N.S., selected their All-Pro teams during this era. While newspapers such as Green Bay Press-Gazette (GBPG), Buffalo News and Courier, New York Daily News (NYDN), Boston Post, Detroit Free-Press, Milwaukee Sentinel, and Chicago Tribune would select All-Pro teams as well; while publications like Collyers’ Eye and Pro Football Illustrated magazines also listed All-Pro honors. NFL coaches, such as George Halas, Guy Chamberlin, Curly Lambeau, Leroy Andrews and Ray Flaherty also picked All-Pro teams during this era, as well as NFL players like Red Grange, Ernie Nevers and Lavvie Dilweg. NFL President, Joe F. Carr, selected an All-Pro team (two squads) in 1925 that was printed in Liberty Magazine.
Team success also contributed to the ranking, as well as combing through newspapers such as GBPG, Pottsville Republican, Canton Repository, Chicago Daily Journal, and more who would publish play-by-plays of early NFL games.
Other resources such as the Pro Football Hall of Fame, NFL teams (especially the Packers and team historian Cliff Christl), Newspapers.com, Pro Football Reference, and more contributed mightily to the rankings.
Pro Football Journal is pleased to present his picks of the best-ever Pre-WWII players—
The next and last installment of our Pre-WWII players list is the Top five blocking backs. Usually listed as the QB or BB spot in the starting lineups, these five players played a different role within their team’s offense, by being asked to be a lead blocker more than anything else. These players also made an impact on defense and, overall, stood out among the backfield players of this era.
1) Roy “Father” Lumpkin (1930-1937) Nicknamed “Father” or “Pop”, the 6-2, 210-pound Lumpkin was an absolute beast when coming to knocking opponents down- whether on offense or defense. Playing with reckless abandon, Lumpkin played 8 seasons (93 games) with the Portsmouth Spartans-Detroit Lions and Brooklyn Dodgers. (Played for Spartans in 1929 before they joined the NFL)…Had care-free attitude on field. “A character, an absolute character, Father Lumpkin. He was just always full of jokes and fun. I don’t think he had a serious thought from the time I was around him. Everybody loved him though and was tougher than a cobb,” said Ralph Kercheval, former Dodgers back, in a 2001 NFL Films interview…Usually played without a helmet…Would be listed in line-ups as halfback or fullback, but main job was to be a lead blocker in Potsy Clark’s single-wing offense…Very durable player, started 85 of his 93 career games…did score 5 career rushing TDs, all from short distances (6, 1, 2, 1, 6 yards)…had 2 receiving TDs and only threw 6 career passes (from 1932-on) and that was mostly with Brooklyn later in career…on defense, excelled at disrupting run game; also dropped back into coverage…in 1934 returned an interception 45-yards to help clinch a 9-0 win over the Giants…was part of that 1934 Lions defense that started the season with 7 straight shutouts…First-team All-Pro in 1930 by NFL players poll and in 1932 by NFL and UP…Second-team by GBPG in 1930…Third-team by NFL in 1931 and Honorable mention by Collyers in 1930…was a very successful pro wrestler at the same time as he was playing in the NFL.
“Lumpkin was an exceptional blocker. He played blocking back in our offense. He was a real good blocker and a very fine defensive fullback too. He was a real tough guy, a really hard-nosed player…He was one of the toughest human beings I ever saw. I remember seeing him wrestle during the off-season. He was just a very athletic individual. He was a great blocker, and he would say if he didn't take out two men on each play, then he wasn't doing his job. He meant putting them on the ground, not just bump them and go ahead.”—Glenn Presnell, former Spartans-Lions back and teammate
2) Larry Craig (1939-1949) The powerful Craig, listed at 6-1, 211-pounds, played 11 years (121) games) with the Green Bay Packers. Had a very unique skill set in Curly Lambeau’s offense. Listed in line-up as a blocking back on offense Craig played that role to a T. Very durable as he played in 121 consecutive games, Craig mainly blocked and was one of the best blocking backs in the league…“He was one of the most perfectly built human beings I’ve ever seen. He looked like Hercules. He was just tough,” once said Clyde Goodnight, former Packers teammate…he only had 10 career carries and 14 career receptions and never scored a TD on offense….excelled as a defensive end (scored on a fumble recovery), in 1939 allowed Lambeau to move Don Hutson from def. end to secondary, made the defense much stronger…member of 2 Packers NFL Championship teams, 1939, 1944…made 3 Pro Bowls, 1939, 1941, 1942…First-team All-Pro by the Chicago Herald-American in 1939…Named Honorable mention All-Pro in 1939 by Football Writers; in 1942 by the NFL, and in 1944 by the Detroit Free Press…elected to Packers Hall of Fame in 1973.
“Any time anybody asks me who gave me the most trouble when I was attempting to pass, I always say Larry Craig. We could never handle him consistently. We tried to keep our best blocker on him, but he still rushed me harder than anyone I ever played against.”—Sammy Baugh, former Redskins Hall of Fame quarterback.
3) “Tiny” Feather (1927-1934) Thick and stocky at 6-0, 197-pounds, Feather played 8 seasons (86 games) in the NFL with 5 different teams- Cleveland, Detroit, N.Y. Giants, Staten Island and Cincinnati. Played in the backfield with Benny Friedman and coached by Leroy Andrews on 3 teams; first with Cleveland (’27), Detroit (’28) and finally with the Giants (1929-1931)…known for provided holes and protection for Friedman…scored 8 career rushing TDs with six of them coming in 1928…had two receiving TDs and defensive score- a 56-yard INT return in a 12-0 victory over Frankford (1929)…11 total TDs…member of the 1933 Giants that won the Eastern Division (lost in Championship Game to Bears)…Second-team All-Pro by coach Leroy Andrews in 1929.
“(Coach) Andrews brought over many of his finest players from Detroit in ’29, notably Benny Friedman, one of the first and greatest forward passers. He also brought along a blocking back, Tiny Feather, who was as tough a man as I’ve ever seen. He was nothing short of hell’s fire on a block or tackle.”—wrote Steve Owen in his book, My Kind of Football (1952).
4) Frank Christensen (1934-1937) The 6-1, 199-pound Christensen was a compliment for a championship-winning team, playing 4 years (42 games) with the Detroit Lions. Playing in Potsy Clark’s single-wing, he helped Dutch Clark, Glenn Presnell and Ernie Caddell excel in a powerful and speedy, Lions rushing offense…helped the Lions win the 1935 NFL Championship. In that game caught 1 pass for 27 yards (the Lions only completed 2 passes all game) and helped with field position by punting 4 times for 157 yards (39.3 average) with a long of 62 yards, in a 26-7 win over the Giants…was part of a Lions offensive that lead the NFL in rushing twice (1936-37) and finish 2nd twice more (1934-35)…after backing up Pop Lumpkin as the BB in 1934, played next 3 seasons as the main blocker in backfield. After having 94 carries in 1934, had only 13 over the next 3 seasons…scored 5 career TDs (2 rush., 3 rec.); Lions were 5-0 when he scored…would threw a pass in Lions offense, 35 attempts…named honorable mention All-Pro by the NFL in 1934-1935.
*5) Hank Bruder (1931-1940) One of Curly Lambeau’s favorite players, the 6-0, 199-pound Bruder played 10 seasons in the NFL, one year with Pittsburgh and nine with the Packers (106 games). Very durable and reliable, Bruder was a little more involved in his team’s offense besides blocking than the other guys on the list. But his main role was as a blocker out of the backfield, being called a “blocking quarterback”…Member of 3 Packers team that won NFL Championships, 1931, 1936 and 1939…made 1 Pro Bowl, 1939…nicknamed “Hard Luck Hank,” Bruder finished his career with 778 rushing yards (265 carries) and 7 TDs; also caught 36 passes for 536 yards and 6 TDs…but in his last 5 seasons only had 21 carries (55 yards) and scored 1 TD…in 3 playoff games he only had 2 carries for 1 yard, mainly blocking and playing solid defense. Was known for being a hard tackler. In the 1936 Championship Game win over the Boston Redskins, had 1 interception on defense to help seal the victory…First-team All-Pro by the Milwaukee Sentinel in 1936 (as a halfback with Cliff Battles)…Named Honorable Mention by the NFL for 3 straight seasons, 1934-1936.
“Bruder is one of the slipperiest field runners. He has perfect body coordination, timing, rhythm and sense of distance. He is a great passer receiver, is smart on defense, a good punter, a smashing tackler, and a real hard blocker. He has no weakness. He is most valuable man on the team.”—said Packers coach Curly Lambeau during the team 1936 championship season.
*5) Tony Kaska (1935-1938) Rather burly at 5-11, 193-pounds, Kaska played 4 seasons (35 games) with 2 teams- Detroit and Brooklyn. He only played a few games with the Lions team that would win the 1935 NFL Championships…played last 3 years with the Brooklyn Dodgers…played in backfield with Ace Parker, trying to protect him- Parker would led the NFL in passing yards in 1938…had only 17 career carries for 49 yards and 1 TD; also caught 7 passes for 0 TDs.