This is the second in a two-part series on the Milwaukee Badgers, the only NFL team ever to call Wisconsin’s largest city home. Part 1 focused on the team’s fading legacy, and today’s story centers on LaVern Dilweg, who played his first NFL season with the Badgers before spending eight more years with the Green Bay Packers. His son Bob is continuing the fight to see LaVern inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
MILWAUKEE — Bob Dilweg’s memory of his father begins, rather fittingly, with a football game.
LaVern Dilweg, Bob’s father, had just retired from the Green Bay Packers a few years prior. But he loved to return to City Stadium, the site of his three NFL titles. And on this day in 1937, he would bring his 4-year-old son to the stadium to watch his former team for the first time.
Bob Dilweg can remember only bits and pieces of those moments today: his father talking to Don Hutson — the future Hall of Fame end who had replaced Lavvie — and Hutson looking down at him and handing him the game ball, blood and dirt staining the leather. The toddler responded with a curt “No, thank you.”
It’s memories like this that keep Lavvie Dilweg’s career alive in the heart of his son 75 years later. He winces, disappointed that he gave the ball away. He would do anything for that kind of memento now.
Lavvie, who started his NFL career with the Milwaukee Badgers in 1926 and moved on to Green Bay for eight more seasons, rarely discussed his playing career with his son — or anyone for that matter. A lawyer in Green Bay through Dilweg’s youth, he was a stern, strict man — a classic, rough-and-tumble football player typical of the 1920s and 30s.
“He was always so tough,” his son remembers, “that’s what stood out about him.”
Ten years after that first game and that hazy memory, Lavvie handed his son his first helmet. He had talked Hutson into letting Dilweg borrow one of his old leather helmets for the season. “It was a little big for me,” Dilweg admits today. But he treasured that helmet — another memento he had lost years ago.
It wasn’t until much later that Dilweg realized the gravity of his upbringing. His father had been an All-American at Marquette, a three-time NFL champion, six-time All-Pro and one of the best ends of his era. In 1942, Lavvie was even elected to House of Representatives, the first former professional football player to ever to hold the position. When he asked, sometimes Dilweg could coax his father into disclosing a little bit more about his football career. Sometimes stories came from strangers. But when Lavvie died of lung cancer in 1968, his son would regret that he hadn’t asked for more of his father to hang on to.
Thirty-nine years had passed since Lavvie’s death when Bob Dilweg sat across the table from Joe Horrigan, the vice president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2007. This lunch in Canton, Ohio, had been a long time in the making.
Year after year had gone by and his father had barely even been considered for the Hall of Fame. Bob had long been intrigued with his father’s legacy in the sport, and he always assumed the selection would come. But his father’s absence from the Hall started to wear on the younger Dilweg. And one day, on a whim, he finally got in touch with Horrigan.
Dilweg was straight to the point.
“Should he be in here?” he asked.
“You know, Bob,” Horrigan responded, “There’s probably half a dozen players who played in the 1920s and 1930s who are not in the Hall of Fame now who should be in there. Your dad is one of them.”
Horrigan explained the process to Dilweg — how players from as far back as his father were being grouped in with any other candidates from the following 60 years of professional football. A Seniors Committee, comprised of nine veteran members of the overall selection committee, had been established to consider nominees whose careers had been finished for at least 25 years. No one with a vote in the process had even seen his father play. At the very least, he would need someone credible to vouch for him, Horrigan told him.
Not even Dilweg, by then 73 years old, had ever seen his father play football. He knew there weren’t many people alive who had. But he knew his father’s stories like the back of his hand. He was determined that his father belonged.
So he started his research. He called Hall of Fame selectors and made more lunch appointments. He spoke with anyone who would listen. This would be his crusade, he decided. He would continue to try passing on the memory of his father’s legacy, even if it took till the day he died.
“It’s giving back to my family in exchange for what they did for me, for what my father did for me, for giving me a wonderful life,” Dilweg said.
He searched through old scrapbooks and newspapers for shreds of evidence about why his father deserved a vote. He dug up stories about his dad that painted a more complete picture of the man who had raised him.
One particular article had provided an interesting, previously unknown version of one of Dilweg’s favorite stories from his father. He remembered once asking Lavvie who the best running back he ever played against was. Lavvie answered Bronko Nagurski, who played for the Chicago Bears.
“I hit him head on the first time I played against him and never again,” his father joked.
But the Milwaukee Journal article’s account had detailed a different exchange between the two. Lavvie Dilweg had broken through the Bears’ offensive line and knocked the 6-2, 225-pound Nagurski out cold.
The minute details intrigued Bob Dilweg, and he continued to dig — learning more and more about his father that he had never known, stories he had never been told.
After Dilweg’s brother passed away, his sister-in-law brought over a chest that she had found in the basement of her house. It had been damaged by a flood, but some of the contents remained unspoiled. It was filled with rich evidence of Lavvie’s football career — scrapbooks, photos and records. Buried inside was an item of particular interest: a picture from legendary Chicago Bears owner George Halas with the words “To Lavvie Dilweg, a great end” inscribed to him. It was the voice Dilweg needed to reignite his hope in his father’s Hall of Fame campaign.
But for five years, Dilweg would fall short. And in that time, one selector’s voice rang inside of his head.
“To all of these people, the people who make these selections, your dad is just a name and some statistics,” the selector had told him rather honestly. The statement struck Bob Dilweg.
Bob Dilweg’s worst fear in all of this was that once he dies, his father’s legacy will be whittled down to the smallest common denominator, then slowly forgotten. So many players, even whole teams, have faded from consciousness already. Without a place in the Hall of Fame, there would be nothing Dilweg could do to keep his father’s NFL legacy from being lost.
Ken Crippen, the executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association, had gotten word of Dilweg’s mission and decided to help. He had already devised a ranking system for players in Lavvie’s era, and in five consecutive years, he was far and away the best end in the NFL.
“He was the best end of his time,” Crippen said. “He was a six-time consecutive consensus All-Pro. He made an all-pro team pretty much every year except his final year. That’s pretty much unheard of.”
So Crippen helped Dilweg garner support from the group he desperately needed to gain headway in the process: historians. Without the influence of a reliable historic voice, Lavvie would never be separated from the football players selectors had watched during their childhood.
The Hall of Fame process is one quick to shirk on pre-Super Bowl history. After all the obvious players from the early days of football had been selected, voters had essentially classified the period out of sight and out of mind, Crippen said. If Dilweg couldn’t put together a convincing campaign, his father would remain on the outside looking in.
The last person from Lavvie’s era to be selected was Fritz Pollard in 2005. Pollard was a pioneering African-American halfback who played with the Milwaukee Badgers a year before Lavvie arrived in the NFL. But Dilweg has convinced himself that 2013 will be the year anyway.
“I think this will be the best year we’ve had in the last six years,” Dilweg says. It’s because the historians are behind him. If it’s unsuccessful this year, I’ll find out who voted for him of the nine people and find out for those who didn’t. I want to personally have a chance to talk to them face to face to present my case.”
His determination is clear in his deep, smoky voice. It’s Hall of Fame or bust.
Not long before Lavvie Dilweg died, his son found him sitting on the porch of their family’s cottage, a home away from home north of Green Bay. Lavvie sat quietly, looking forward to the horizon. Tears were streaming down his face.
It was an image that startled Dilweg. He had never seen his father cry; Lavvie, he believed, was the toughest man he’d ever known.
“What’s the problem, Dad?” he asked him. His father paused before he answered.
“These injuries have caught up with me a little bit now, I suppose,” Lavvie claimed. He adjusted himself in his seat, wincing a bit.
“Would you do it again?” Dilweg asked. It was like he was a kid again, asking his father stories of his career.
His father paused again. “Oh yeah,” he said, “even if I knew what I’d be going through now.”
Dilweg can’t put moments like this in his presentation to Hall of Fame selectors —the images that convinced him his father’s legacy was worth fighting for. He can’t describe Lavvie’s everlasting stoicism or the look on his face while he closely dissected the Packers from end zone seats at City Stadium. Only he would remember his father for moments like this.
His presentation has been sent out to anyone willing to take a copy, filled mostly with statistics, quotes from historians and superlatives. “The best to play at his position,” it reads. “A recognized star. A tremendous competitor.” It’s a convincing laundry list of reasons to honor his father’s legacy.
But it’s this last moment, his father’s tears still clear in his mind decades later, that affects him today. Dilweg won’t admit it, but even he has a ticking clock. At 78 years old, he’s not exactly short in the tooth. As year after year passes — his father still on the outside of the Hall of Fame — the window grows smaller.
Dilweg is cognizant of this — just as he knows, deep down, that he’s fighting an uphill battle. But to let his father disappear from everything but the record books is not an option.
“I hope we’re getting closer,” Dilweg says, a touch of doubt in his voice. But his next statement rings with confidence. He knows his father would have remained undeterred. He has no choice but to continue his crusade.