- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

The record Emmitt Smith is so doggedly pursuing used to belong to a running back named Ace Gutowsky. At least, people in the '30s and '40s thought it did.

Three games into the 1939 season, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that Gutowsky, the Dodgers' "powerhouse fullback," was 28 yards away from the NFL's career rushing record and "should complete this assignment within the next few weeks." After the Dodgers' 23-14 win over Philadelphia on Oct.22, the Eagle ran a headline that announced, in capital letters, "PRO FOOTBALL MARK BROKEN BY GUTOWSKY." The accompanying story read: "Another mark went overboard last Sunday, according to the official figures released yesterday, when Ace Gutowsky of Brooklyn gained seven yards to break Cliff Battles' all-time ground-gaining record by a single yard, 3,399 yards to 3,398. And he should add to that as the season moves along."

Gutowsky was, indeed, a fine runner, a member of the great Detroit Lions backfield in 1936 that averaged 240.4 rushing yards a game still the most in NFL history. He gained 827 yards that season, which stood as the club record for 24 years, and would have gained more if he hadn't been hobbled several weeks.

"National [Football] League coaches insist Gutowsky is the greatest spinner back in football today," the Eagle said. "This, on the technical side, is his greatest asset. He's a fair blocker, hard runner and a tremendous backer-up [linebacker]. His value also lies in the fact he's a good team man. His enthusiasm is infectious, on and off the gridiron."

Two years later, in a 23-0 victory over Detroit, Green Bay's Clarke Hinkle set "a new all-time ground gaining record for the professional league, with 3,500 yards as the new mark," according to the United Press. "His 33 yards gained today pushed him past Ace Gutowski, [sic] Detroit, whose record was 3,478."

There was only one problem: Gutowsky never held the record. And his career rushing total wasn't 3,478; it was 3,279. NFL statisticians were how shall I put it? not terribly exacting in those days. (In 1989, for instance, I discovered that Don Hutson's celebrated 95-game receiving streak from 1936 to '45 was a fraud, that he'd failed to catch a pass in the 45th game of the "streak." I'm sure there are other mistakes from that period that will eventually be uncovered, too.)

Gutowsky, it turns out, never did overtake Battles (whose career rushing yardage was 3,511, not 3,398 or 3,403, as it was listed in later league publications). Which means the mark Hinkle broke on Sept.14, 1941, was Battles', not Gutowsky's.

Unless, of course, Battles never held the record, either. The 1941 NFL Record and Roster Manual contains this intriguing note: "Bronko Nagurski, Chicago Bears, gained 3,947 yards in 856 attempts, an average of 4.6 yards per attempt, in eight seasons 1930-37 including the seasons of 1930 and 1931, two years before an official statistical bureau was established."

So maybe Nagurski was the real record-holder in those years. Or perhaps it was Hall of Famer Paddy Driscoll (Cardinals/Bears, 1920-29), whose entire career was pre-statistical bureau. There's just no way of knowing.

As you can see, the NFL's career rushing record has had an interesting life. By 1984, when Walter Payton claimed it by passing Jim Brown, it had become one of the most prestigious marks in sports. "There's been a lot of pressure," Payton said the day he assumed the throne. "I was so nervous, so very nervous, that I was shaking."

In 1958, however, the season Joe "The Jet" Perry became the league's all-time leading rusher, "there was no countdown or anything like that," he claims. "The newspapers weren't writing, 'Perry needs 87 yards Sunday to break the record.'" It wasn't high profile like it is today. And the record didn't have the aura it did after it had been pushed upward a ways by Jim Brown and later Walter Payton.

"[Steve] Van Buren, the guy whose record I broke, had less than 6,000 yards rushing [5,860 to be exact]. He isn't even in the top 20 all-time anymore. I just didn't keep up with that stuff. I couldn't tell you, for instance, who held the record before Van Buren. There just wasn't the emphasis on records back then. And there was no whoop-de-do about it when I broke it. I think somebody came over to me and said, 'You just got the record.' And I said, 'Oh.'"

He's not joking. In the local newspapers, his only recorded comment afterward was: "What difference does it make? We lost [33-3 to the hated Rams]."

Battles, who held the record (maybe) from 1937 to '41, retired after the '37 season because Redskins owner George Preston Marshall wouldn't give him a raise. He was 27 and had just led the NFL in rushing. Brown, who held the record (definitely) from 1963 to '84, retired after the '65 season because he was tired of football and preferred to make movies. He was 29 and, like Battles, had just led the league in rushing. And let's not forget Barry Sanders, who was closing in on Payton's record of 16,726 yards, probably a year away, when he stunningly decided to call it quits. I ask you: Has any other major record in any sport ever been regarded so casually?

And yet, other backs have lusted after the mark only to fall short. O.J. Simpson once reminisced about going up to Brown in an ice cream parlor across from Kezar Stadium after a game Juice was in his early teens and telling the great back, "Man, you ain't so tough. Look, you remember my name. I'm gonna break all your records one day."

Sure enough, Simpson broke Brown's record for rushing yards in a season, gaining 2,003 in 1973 (to Jim's 1,863 in '63). But he never bagged the Big One Brown's career mark of 12,312 missing by a little over 1,000 yards.

Franco Harris was another stalker of The Record. He got closer to it, in fact, than O.J. did within 200 yards at the end. Brown was somewhat miffed that Harris, a back he didn't think was in his class, might become the all-time rushing leader so much so that he talked about making a comeback at 47 and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in a Raiders uniform. Why, he groused, I could beat the guy in a race right now.

In January 1985 Harris accepted Brown's challenge and agreed to compete against him in four events over two days racquetball, one-on-one basketball and football and the 40-yard dash. The battle, held in Atlantic City, might have established a new low for television sports. In the much-anticipated footrace, Jim pulled up lame, and Franco chugged past him to win in a ketchup-slow 5.16 seconds.

And now we have Smith, just 234 yards away from relegating Payton to second place. Years ago, Brown was asked to put together a "composite greatest running back," combining the best attributes of the best runners. He chose Earl Campbell's power, Payton's heart, Simpson's speed and Gale Sayers' moves. It's hard to say whether, if given the same assignment today, he'd appropriate anything from Smith. (His vision, possibly?) Emmitt does share one quality, though, with all the previous record-holders: Mind-boggling durability (accompanied by the willingness to play through injury).

The indestructible Brown never missed a game, and Payton sat out just one in 13 seasons (when he was a rookie). Then there's Hinkle, who averaged a mere 3.3 yards a carry for his career almost a yard less than the others. Think he might have absorbed some punishment? And Van Buren, heck, he played hurt practically his entire time in the NFL.

"I was a blocking back for three years in college [LSU]," he told me, "and I had bad shoulders. They called it 'knock-down shoulder.' My left shoulder was the better of the two; I could drop that shoulder. That's why I only held the ball in my right hand, so I could use my left shoulder to take on the defender. Now, being a left halfback, I'd run right a lot, and running right wasn't a problem. But when I'd run left I'd still have to hold the ball in my right arm, and when you do that you can't stiff-arm.

"At the end of my career I had foot, ankle and rib injuries all on one side. I used to get 12 shots [for the pain] every game two in each spot before the game, and then two more at halftime when it wore off. It didn't do much good, anyway. You could still feel it."

Cliff Battles, Clarke Hinkle, Steve Van Buren, Joe Perry, Jim Brown, Walter Payton and currently in the waiting room, chewing up the carpet with his spikes Emmitt Smith. A pretty illustrious group, you have to admit. With or without Ace Gutowsky.

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