The holy trinity of Green Bay Packers quarterbacks, in the minds of most football fans, are Bart Starr, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers.
However limiting this elite group, within this franchise’s history, to just three men is disingenuous to the facts.
Rather than a trinity, an all-time foursome is a more accurate depiction of Green Bay’s success at the quarterback position. Or, to fit into the current sports-debate-zeitgeist, a Mount Rushmore.
The Packers’ unparalleled litany of success at football’s penultimate position since the 1960s has rendered the legacy of Arnie Herber shallow at best. An unknown to most, he was the first installment of football’s longest and most renowned line of quarterbacking success for one team. The Packers trail no franchise in all-time passing greatness.
But the story of the Packers’ forgotten quarterback is not told often enough.
Born in 1910, Arnie Herber grew up a fan of the upstart Packers of his hometown. The team came into existence when he was nine years old. By the age of 20, he was throwing a game-winning touchdown for his beloved team in his first professional game. Months earlier he was just a handyman in the Packers’ clubhouse.
At the age of 22 he led the league in passing yards and touchdowns, which happened to be the first year the NFL kept official stats — 1932. This was after his Packers were named World Champions in his first two seasons with the team (1930-31). He’d go on to lead the Packers to two more World Championships, with legitimate championship games, while under center.
A certain symmetry followed his statistical dominance over the league.
Three times each he led the NFL in completions, passing yards, passing touchdowns, longest pass, and passer rating. Three times he crossed the plane of the endzone as a runner and three times he was on the receiving end of a touchdown pass.
Herber’s 14.5 touchdowns per pass attempt are, by far, the highest in team history (obviously a different era), but not once did he lead the league in interceptions. Twice he led the NFL in completion percentage. No Packers quarterback has led the league in passing yards or completions more often than Herber, to this day.
He finished top-5 in touchdown passes in eight of the nine seasons in which he played quarterback for the Packers, when official stats were kept. In 1936 he led the league in touchdown percentage and just about every other statistic en route to a championship season.
The man called “Flash” was officially listed as a tailback, but make no mistake, he was this franchise’s first star quarterback. He was the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 1,000 yards in a single season (1936).
He was the foreshadowing of greatness to come in Green Bay.
Herber threw four touchdowns in his three career postseason games with the Packers. In 1939, he blocked two punts and in 1940, he intercepted two passes. He kicked two successful extra points in his career, scored a defensive touchdown, and also successfully boomed 37 punts for the Packers (his longest going 74 yards). Herber put together as full of an eclectic career as one could have imagined in those early, transformative, years of the NFL.
His toughness and ability to stay healthy should not be understated either, for there were few rules protecting quarterbacks (or anyone) in those brutal days. He was solidly built, at six-foot and 200 pounds, able to withstand the attacks from opposing defenses.
Herber, along with Verne Lewellen, Lavvie Dilweg, Johnny Blood, Cal Hubbard, Mike Michalske, Don Hutson, Clarke Hinkle and a few other standout teammates, helped the Packers thrive despite the grip of The Great Depression.
Herber is recognized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame (Class of 1966, the fourth class to enter the Hall). He was the seventh player selected to represent Green Bay for eternity, the first quarterback.
There can only be one first.
It would be the opinion of some that he was, primarily, included in the Hall of Fame because of his ample success with Don Hutson — the game’s first great wide receiver (yes, we know he was an “end”).
Hutson transformed the game of football, but he still needed someone capable of launching that ball to him so far down the field. However Herber amassed remarkable statistics and success before Hutson’s arrival; this objective fact should have served to protect his, relatively forgotten, legacy.
But Hutson had a way of overshadowing just about everyone in the league.
In his second career NFL game he caught an 83-yard touchdown pass from Herber against the Bears to seal the victory — Hutson’s first career catch. The two would combine for two scores against the Bears later in the year for a 17-14 win. The Packers had lost their previous six games to their rivals to the south.
The two would become the NFL’s first great quarterback-receiver duo. Together, they ushered in a new era of football.
Herber helped steer the league in a direction that would allow Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Bob Waterfield, Otto Graham, and even teammate Cecil Isbell to dominate while throwing the ball downfield in subsequent seasons.
Numerous black and white photographs have immortalized his unique throwing style. In what can only be described as his signature “jump-throw” — with his right hand and the ball raised far above his head, his right knee bent and elevated to his waist, his left leg straight with his toes barely off the ground, and his left arm extended straight to the left.
It was perfectly awkward and iconic; the image sums up the uncomfortable position he found himself in as a quarterback before his time.
Named Pro Bowler and First Team All-Pro during his career, he was regarded as the best long-distance passer in NFL history at the time of his retirement from the Packers in 1940. His 66 aerial touchdowns were tied for the most all-time.
What can’t be misunderstood here is that at the time of his retirement from the Packers he was also the NFL’s all-time passing leader with 6,741 yards. This is despite the fact that the stats from his first two seasons weren’t included and he was just 30 when he retired.
That cannot be taken away from him or his legacy in Green Bay.
He came out of retirement for a short time and led the New York Football Giants to the NFL Championship Game in 1944. Where he appropriately lost to his old friend, Don Hutson, and the Green Bay Packers. It was the worst playoff game of his career; the Packers intercepted him four times en route to another championship. He wouldn’t be the last Hall of Fame quarterback in Green Bay to come out of retirement to end his career in rival colors.
Herber may have lived in New York City for a time, but Green Bay was always home.
In high school he was captain of Green Bay West’s High School football team. As a local kid he embodied the culturally-rich community perfectly with his dual European and Native American heritage. With respect to Curly Lambeau, Herber was the first real “hometown hero” for the franchise out on the field.
He was born, played, lived, died, and was buried in Green Bay. All while representing, and bridging the gap between, both sides of the region’s predominate communities. Herber also suited up for the Wisconsin Badgers for a year, ensuring his status as a Wisconsin legend.
Off the field he was a loving family man often seen suited-up, sometimes with a fedora on, with a cigarette or cigar in his mouth. Hollywood even reached out to do a movie on him and his success on the field. They, understandably, filmed him throwing the ball as far as he could downfield; he went on to bump shoulders with celebrities. He was more famous than most people born in Green Bay, Wisconsin ever become.
Yet he is still not given his fair due, or stature, in the general consciousness of Packer Nation. Many factors including few highlights, the multi-generational divide between when he played and current day, and how different the modern game is to the one he played contribute to this peculiarity.
Herber’s era may seem like ancient history when compared to even Lombardi’s Packers of the 1960s, but keep this in mind: more years passed between Starr and Favre playing in Green Bay (21 years) than between Herber and Starr (16 years). The past isn’t quite as far back as many would like to think.
Starr was five years old when Herber won his final championship.
Arnie Herber died of cancer on October 14th, 1969.
His untimely death occurred just a couple months after being honored as a part of the NFL’s 50th season celebration. He was named one of the quarterbacks of the NFL All-Decade 1930s team. A parade through Green Bay was arranged for him.
Living in Green Bay, he got to see the Packers become a dynasty once more from 1961-1967 before his passing. Just like they were when he was out on that field. He, gladly, saw Bart Starr surpass his total of championship rings.
The final Green Bay football game that he was alive for was a 28-17 win over Detroit, which took place two days before his passing. That one final goodbye came in the form of the Packers’ top deep threat, Carroll Dale, catching two touchdowns from Starr; a nod to the team’s original glory days of Herber and his speedy receiver Hutson.
If only Herber had known of what was to come at his old position in Green Bay over the next fifty years of the NFL.
Starr got to live to see Favre and Rodgers reach new heights; who knows who they’ll get to see carry on this legacy.
In the early 1990s the Packers became synonymous with “strong-armed quarterback” and that reputation would no doubt suit the team for well over 30 years to come. In truth, the first strong-armed Packer played half a century prior.
Still, when most people think of the Packers’ success at quarterback they bring up just three names: Bart Starr, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers. I get it, they all played in the Super Bowl era. We have short memories, generally.
And despite the fact that this castle of World Champion, AP MVP-winning quarterbacks is strong and extraordinary to behold, the foundation of success at that position was undoubtedly laid by the player that wore No. 19 and, more notably, No. 38 for the Packers from 1930-1940.
Green Bay may have never been named “Titletown USA” without the contributions of Arnie Herber. It’s impossible to calculate how important he was to the genesis of this franchise’s, and fanbase’s, impossibly high self-esteem.
A relatively easy argument could be made that he’s one of the most underrated men in NFL history. Many Packers fans wouldn’t think about including him with Starr, Favre and Rodgers.
I mean, he’s led the league in passing yards and completions more than those three quarterbacks combined. Different time, we know, but just throwing it out there into the universe for whatever it’s worth.
If it seems like we’re really pushing his legacy it’s only because we know he’ll never have his number retired like the other three quarterbacks. He’ll never hold as much collective reverence in Green Bay–and will likely hold none outside of it–as years pass by.
We just hope every Packer fan appropriately chisels his face on their Packers Quarterback Mount Rushmore, if only in their minds.
Certainly though, no franchise has a Mount Rushmore of quarterbacks so astounding. Perhaps no franchise ever will.