When Hall-of-Fame receiver Lance Alworth was asked in 2016 to choose one player for Canton who was not already enshrined, he couldn’t. So he named two.
Safety Johnny Robinson and quarterback John Hadl.
Three years later, Alworth got his wish. OK, half of what he asked for. Robinson was elected as the senior inductee for the Class of 2019. But Hadl? Nothing. He’s never been elected, never been a finalist and never been a semi-finalist.
Sadly, he passed away last week at the age of 82 after a magnificent football career that had him chosen to the College Hall of Fame and the Chargers’ Hall of Fame but not the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
So how good was John Hadl? For that answer, we turned to San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and former Hall voter Nick Canepa, a lifelong resident of San Diego and frequent spectator at Chargers’ games where Hadl was the quarterback and Alworth his favorite receiver.
Alworth is a familiar name to most of today’s NFL crowd. But Hadl? Not so much. Which is why we consulted Canepa.
“I don’t think he was a very good player,” he said on the latest “Eye Test for Two” podcast. “I think he was a great player and a great athlete.”
The record supports him.
At the University of Kansas, Hadl played running back and defensive back his sophomore season before moving to quarterback for his last two years. How good was he? You make the decision.
- Good enough that he was an All-American running back in 1960 and All-American quarterback the following year.
- Good enough that in 1959 he led the nation in punting with an average of 45.6 yards per kick.
- Good enough to still hold KU records for the longest punt at 94 yards and the longest interception return at 98 yards.
- Good enough to be one of only three KU football players to have his jersey number retired.
- Good enough to quarterback KU to its first-ever bowl victory (Bluebonnet Bowl).
- Good enough to be named MVP of the East-West Shrine Game and College All-Star game.
- And good enough to be chosen the Jayhawks’ Player of the Century.
Then it was on to the AFL and NFL, where he was good enough to be elected to six Pro Bowl teams – including four in the AFL …good enough to lead his league in passing yards three times and touchdown passes twice … good enough to be a 1973 first-team All-Pro and NFC Player of the Year … good enough to win a 1963 AFL championship … and good enough to rank third all-time in passing yards when he retired following the 1977 season.
“He was an iconic figure here … and in the AFL,” Canepa said. “The AFL epitomized wide-open offenses, and (the Chargers) were the most wide-open of all the offenses … because that’s what Sid Gillman did.
“(Hadl) could run. He could throw it. And if they needed him at safety, he could do that, too. And he was a great punter. “
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The Pro Football Researchers Association named Hadl to its Hall of Very Good In 2006, the same year it chose linebacker Chuck Howley to the class. Howley is one of three senior candidates for the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s Class of 2023. Hadl, however, has never had his case heard by Hal voters, and you don’t have to look far to understand why. Numbers. He doesn’t have enough to interest voters, and in a numbers-driven world, that’s a no-can-do.
He threw more interceptions (244) than touchdowns (268). He completed 50.4 percent of his passes. He had a passer rating of 67.4, was 82-75-9 as a starter and lost his only two playoff starts.
But here’s the biggest problem: Pro football then barely resembled today’s NFL. It was more violent and physical, with quarterbacks flattened by head shots, receivers pushed, shoved and wrestled as they left (or tried to) the line of scrimmage and clothesline hits a constant threat to anyone crossing the middle of the field.
Remember “The Violent World of Sam Huff,” a TV documentary about the Hall-of-Fame linebacker? It was appropriately entitled.
If you didn’t follow the game then or haven’t studied it since, you can’t appreciate how much easier it is to play quarterback today. But you might if you saw footage of Hall-of-Fame linebacker Chris Hanburger when he was elected to Canton in 2011. Every quarterback hit was to the head and shoulders.
They were ferocious. They were brutal. And they were legal.
“It’s different eras,” said Canepa. “If John Hadl were playing today with Lance Alworth, I’d hate to even think about it. All we think about now are people with one-handed catches and nobody touching each other at the line of scrimmage. If you ever saw (the Raiders’) Willie Brown playing Lance Alworth, he was beating the hell out of him all the way down the field … or trying to.”
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For years, former San Diego Union Chargers’ reporter Jerry Magee, who preceded Canepa as San Diego’s Hall-of-Fame voter, tried to interest the board of selectors in Hadl as a candidate. They weren’t interested. When Magee stepped down, talk of Hadl’s candidacy left with him.
“Are there quarterbacks in the Hall who aren’t as good as John Hadl?” said Canepa. “Absolutely. He probably is never going to make it. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a great player.”