- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2007

It might help Art Monk and his bereaved fans to know that his Hall of Fame travails aren’t unprecedented — that, contrary to popular belief, he isn’t necessarily the Most Wronged Receiver in NFL History. You see, there’s another wideout who’s been excluded from Canton despite holding, for a spell, the all-time receptions record. In fact, the guy’s career was, in many respects, even more spectacular than King Arthur’s.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Billy Howton.

If anybody has a gripe with the 40 Angry Men who sit on the Hall’s jury, it’s Howton. Not only was he a fabulous receiver, a four-time Pro Bowler with the Packers in the ‘50s, he also fearlessly fought for his fellow players as president of the nascent players association. It was on Howton’s watch, in April 1959, that the union pushed through the first pension plan. The next day — the very next — he was traded to the Browns. How do you like them employee relations?

Did Howton’s labor activities hurt his immediate chances for the Hall — after which, over time, he was simply forgotten? Perhaps. The owners had a lot of influence over the selection committee in the early days. And Billy was always causing his bosses trouble; if he wasn’t calling them “dictatorial” at a Senate antitrust hearing, he was playing out his option so he could become a free agent (a rarity in that era).

What’s really bizarre is that he’s never been so much as finalist for Canton — even though, when he retired from the Cowboys in ‘63, he was the career leader in catches (503) and receiving yards (8,459) and was tied for third in touchdown grabs (61). (For the record, Monk never held the yardage mark and was tied for 20th in TDs when he hung ‘em up.)

It’s almost like there’s been a conspiracy to keep Howton from receiving his due. Heck, people can’t even get his name right. In “The ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia” and “Total Football,” he’s identified as “William Harris Howton” — even though his Texas birth certificate says, “Billy Harris Howton.” But that’s just a flesh wound. Much worse was what happened the day after the Colts’ Ray Berry passed him on the all-time receptions list in 1964.

“Berry caught five passes … to raise his career total [to] 506,” the AP reported, “three more than the career record held by Jim Howton.”

Jim Howton?

That’s the price you pay, I suppose, for spending seven of your 12 seasons in Green Bay — back when it truly was Siberia — and then finishing your career with an expansion Dallas franchise. For all his accomplishments, Howton played on only one team with a winning record and never reached the playoffs. (He tried to make up for it in the Pro Bowl, though, catching a 74-yard touchdown pass in his first appearance and a 73-yarder in his second.)

It’s hard to imagine nowadays — players being so visible, if not overexposed — how low-profile Howton was. When, in his final season, he broke Don Hutson’s all-time record of 488 receptions, it wasn’t mentioned in the Dallas Morning News’ story until the last paragraph.

And talk about star-crossed. Earlier that year, Billy shattered Hutson’s mark for career receiving yards (7,991), but he had to do it three times before it was official. The first time, his historic catch was nullified by an offside penalty. The second time, it was wiped out by offensive pass interference (against the Cowboys’ tight end). Finally, he caught one that counted.

By the time he left Green Bay, Howton had begun to slow down, but what years he had on the Frozen Tundra. His rookie season in 1952 might still be the greatest ever for first-year wideout. In addition to leading the league with 1,211 receiving yards — an average of 102.6 a game — he scored 13 touchdowns, establishing a rookie record that, the way I look at it, still stands. (Randy Moss finally broke it in 1998, but he had the benefit of four extra games. After 12 games — which is how long the season was in ‘52 — Moss’ TD total was 12.)

And get this: Six of Howton’s touchdowns that year measured 50 yards or longer. (Monk, on the other hand, had only six TDs of 50 yards-plus in his 16 NFL seasons.)

One more amazing Howton stat: In 1956 he had a 257-yard receiving day against the Rams, then the third biggest in NFL history. That’s not the amazing part, though. The amazing part is that he had 204 yards in the first half alone.

Early in Howton’s career, the great Hutson — who lost several of his Packers records to Billy — said, “There’s no limit to what Howton can accomplish in pro football.” But there were limits, of course. Berry spent his entire career catching passes from Johnny Unitas; Howton had to make do in his prime with Tobin Rote, Babe Parilli and a still developing Bart Starr. Big difference.

Against the best, though, Billy usually played his best. In 1952, the year the Lions won the title, he caught four touchdown passes in two games against them (one measuring 78 yards, another 54). In ‘56, he scored three times in two meetings with the Bears, who went on to play for the championship.

On top of that, Howton almost always ranked among the league’s leaders. He finished in the top 10 in receptions, receiving yards, receiving average or TD catches no fewer than 20 times. (Monk, on the other hand, did it eight times.) There’s no question, either, that, had he wanted, he could have kept playing after ‘63 — and added to his impressive numbers. If there wasn’t a spot for him in the NFL, there certainly would have been one in the rival American Football League. But Billy had his records (though they would belong to him only briefly). He’d also had enough hard knocks, physical and spiritual, to last a lifetime.

As he joked to Don Meredith, the Cowboys’ young quarterback, at a farewell luncheon, “I’ll always enjoy remembering our four seasons together. Of course, most of the good times you and I have shared have been off the field.”

To which Dandy Don replied: “Well, Bill, we also had some good times at the games — warming up.”

So the next time you’re cursing Art Monk’s fate, think of Billy Howton. Art, after all, isn’t the only receiver who’s been left out in the cold by the Hall of Fame. He might not even be the best one.

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