Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Cecil Isbell, True Blue in 1940

This rare color photo of Green Bay passer Cecil Isbell was published in the New York Sunday News on September 29, 1940, as part of a photo essay entitled "Pro Grid Aces Who Star Among Stars".
This 23-year-old Houston, Tex., wizard is the football players' football player and rated as one of the most polished performers in the business. He does everything well, but his forward passing is something the fans rave about—and so do his appreciative teammates on the champion Green Bay Packers. In fact this six-foot-one, 190-pound, former Purdue star blazed into fame when he paced an all-star college team and out-passed the famed Slingin' Sammy Baugh of the crack Washington Redskins in 1938. Last year, his second with the Packers, Isbell whipped 73 successful passes—eight for touchdowns—for a gain of 749 yards in 103 tries.

It seems strange to see a quarterback wearing #66, but this picture was obviously taken in the pre-season, when players seemingly wore whatever jersey the equipment manager had handy. Isbell wore #17 throughout his career in blue, as seen in this photo of Isbell and Hutson taken at the All-Star Game on August 29, 1940:

This is Curly Lambeau's classic blue and gold uniform, introduced in 1937. The sock stripes were removed after a few seasons, although it's hard to establish exactly when, as many players of the late 1930s/early 1940s seemed to have eschewed the full socks altogether (at least in the warmer months). In this photo from Wrigley Field, we have one Packer wearing striped socks and Isbell (with the ball) wearing no blue socks at all, only the low whites:

The bare-leg fashion seems to have passed by the mid-1940s, and when socks returned as a permanent part of the uniform they were solid navy, as seen in this 1947 photo:

The stripes would make an appearance on the 1994 throwbacks:

Isbell himself is an underappreciated part of Packers history. Drafted out of Purdue in 1938, he took the league by storm. As the caption notes, he led his team to a surprise win over the Redskins in the 1938 College All-Star Game (which at the time featured the best college athletes against the reigning NFL champions).

Isbell had just as much success in the pros, gradually taking the passer role over from Arnie Herber. He platooned with Herber for the first three years of his career in the "Notre Dame box" formation. This allowed Lambeau to use him as either a passer or a rusher - he led the Packers in rushing in 1938 and 1939, and the entire NFL in rushing average in 1938. As a passer, he led the league in attempts, completions, passing yards and touchdowns in 1941, and completions, yards and touchdowns in 1942.

The 1942 season was to be his last - Isbell only played five years with the Packers before retiring from pro football at 28. He later explained "I saw Lambeau go around the locker room and tell players like Arnie Herber that they were done. I vowed it would never happen to me." Having left on his own terms, Isbell returned to his alma mater as a coach. He has been selected to the NFL's 1930s All-Decade Team despite only playing his rookie and sophomore seasons in the 30s.

Although Isbell was inducted into the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame in 1972, his short career has led him to be largely, and unjustly, forgotten by football fans. Had Isbell continued to play in blue and gold, he may well have followed Baugh into Canton.

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