Terrell Davis’ induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite having had only three memorable seasons before a devastating knee injury effectively ended his career has brought into play a number of players not previously considered likely for Hall-of-Fame consideration.
List halfback Beattie Feathers among them.
Feathers was the oddest of “one hit wonders,’’ a runner so devastating for the 1934 Chicago Bears that he took the ball out of Bronko Nagurski’s massive hands and turned Red Grange into an end most of the year until a severe shoulder injury changed the arc of Beattie’s career. Yet such were his accomplishments over a very short span that Feathers was named one of five halfbacks on the NFL’s 1930s’ all-decade team.
Now that was an accomplishment.
Feathers’ rookie season was like nothing the NFL had ever seen. In just 11 games he became the first runner in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards, gaining 1,004 yards in only 119 carries. His 8.44 yards per carry average remains the highest ever recorded by a running back, topped only by scrambling quarterback Michael Vick’s 8.45 in 2006.
Rushing for 1,000 yards in those days was like running the four-minute mile. It was considered an impossibility until Feathers did it. It would be 13 more seasons before it would happen again, when Steve Van Buren piled up 1,008 yards for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1947. Yet Feathers might have done even more that season had cruel fate not intervened on November 25, 1934 and changed his career.
It was on that blustery afternoon that Feathers broke his shoulder against the Chicago Cardinals two games before the end of the regular season. He would sit out the next two weeks and then, with his arm strapped to his side in a shoulder harness, try to play the championship game against the New York Giants … but to no avail.
Feathers’ running had powered the Bears to an undefeated regular season (13-0), but they were beaten by the Giants, 30-13, that December 9 day in the ice-filled “Sneakers Game’’ when the Giants switched from cleats to sneakers at halftime because of poor footing. They scored 27 fourth quarter points to win the league championship game. Feathers was not a factor.
Had he stayed healthy, Feathers’ season would have been even more remarkable than it had been. Averaging 91.3 yards per game, had Feathers simply maintained his norm over the final three games he likely would have added another 250 to 270 rushing yards to his already remarkable total.
Feathers was averaging five yards a carry the following season on only 56 carries when he was reinjured four games before the end of the year. He returned again in 1936, wearing an immobilizing shoulder harness under the thin veneer that passed for shoulder pads, and played the entire season. He rushed only 97 times for 350 yards.
He would play the rest of his career hobbled with that bad shoulder, never again reaching the heights he’d known in 1934 when Bears’ coach George Halas called him “the greatest halfback in pro football and one of the best that ever stepped on the field.’’
Feathers played diminished and in pain five more seasons for the Bears, Brooklyn Dodgers and, finally, the Green Bay Packers, but he would never again approach the heroics of that phenomenal rookie season.
Nagurski, who along with Grange would himself reach the Hall of Fame, once said of Feathers’ running style, “Watching him run reminded me of watching a jackrabbit in a cornfield with a hound chasing him. He would change his pace and his direction all the time. Beattie would stay with you as long as you could do him some good; then he’d make his cut and go off on his own. ”
Like a comet shooting across the night sky, Beattie Feathers — like Terrell Davis — burned brightly and then was gone. He made history in 1934. And so did the Bears, whose perfect 13-0 record was the NFL’s first unbeaten and untied regular season. Yet, like Feathers, the ending was marred by defeat after injury made Feathers only a shadow of what he’d been all season.
Hall-of-Fame worthy? Hard to say really. But the Hall felt he was at least all-decade worthy after averaging 5.2 yards per carry during his aborted career, rushing 378 times for 1,980 yards. Red Grange once said that if Beattie Feathers had not have been so badly injured in his rookie season he could have been a Hall-of-Fame running back.
For 11 games in 1934, he was.