RANCHO MIRAGE — On an early-spring day in the California desert, an all-time all-pro named Don Hutson, 76, is playing gin rummy in the locker room of the Thunderbird Country Club, much as he has for 30 years.
He used to be more active. A half-century ago when employed by the Green Bay Packers, Hutson invented pass receiving. Or so it seemed. He was the first of the National Football League's great receivers.
What's more, time has stood still for Hutson in two respects. Incredibly, 45 years after retiring, he still holds 11 National Football League records. And at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, he still would fit comfortably into his old Green Bay uniform.
But his is an inside game now. And in Thunderbird's windowless locker room, which looks like a basement cafeteria at an old high school in the Midwest, Hutson is just one of 45 or 50 gray-haired millionaires spending the long day at several long tables, humped over playing cards.
A retired car dealer from Racine, Wis., Hutson said he only occasionally takes time out for golf, lunch or televised football. But he added that he's heading into one of the big years of his life--the year that Steve Largent of the Seattle Seahawks presses toward the Hutson record that has often been called unbreakable: most touchdown catches, career, 99.
In the 70-year history of the NFL, Largent, with 97, and Hutson are the only two with more than 90, and no other active receiver is close.
"I love to see my records broken, I really do," said Hutson, whose neighbor on the desert is Largent's coach, Chuck Knox. "You get a chance to relive (a part of) your life, the whole experience."
He expects to relive this one on TV.
"The other day, Chuck (invited me to) come up and see Largent get the record in person," said Hutson, who wouldn't be caught dead that far from a card table.
"I told him, 'I will be glad to come up--if you'll just let me know when he's going to get it.' "
Last year, Largent scored twice. At Green Bay, Hutson had scored at least six touchdowns a year in an 11-year career, 1935-45.
Indeed, in his time, Hutson was such a dominating football presence that by the 1940s, he held--among other NFL records--14 of the league's 15 pass-catching records.
The 14: most seasons leading league, eight; most consecutive seasons leading league, five; most receptions lifetime, season and game; most yards lifetime, season and game; most touchdowns lifetime, season and game; most consecutive games, pass receptions; most consecutive games, touchdown catches, and shortest touchdown catch, four inches.
Curiously enough, his longest touchdown catch, 90 yards, wasn't long enough to get him in the book.
The league now has 31 officially recognized pass-catching records--and Hutson's name still appears 14 times. Of the 11 NFL records he still holds, seven were set as a receiver, two as a scorer--in competition with kickers as well as runners and receivers--and two as a touchdown maker, in competition with running backs as well as receivers.
A two-way, 60-minute player in the NFL's iron-man era, he played safety on defense in each of his 11 seasons, which, conceivably, might be compared to 22 years for one of today's NFL specialists. This will be Largent's 14th season as a specialist receiver.
One of the finest athletes the game has known, Hutson, who was never injured, also kicked field goals and extra points.
Two of his records will probably last forever--or at least another century or two:
--He was the NFL champion in total touchdowns in each of eight different seasons. The real question is whether anyone can surpass the joint runners-up, Jim Brown and Lance Alworth, who each led three times.
--As a pass receiver, Hutson was first in the league nine times. Again, the question is whether anyone can catch the runner-up, Alworth, who led the league three times.
Hutson would still hold 12 NFL records if Commissioner Pete Rozelle hadn't taken one of them out of the book--possibly to save space--most points, one quarter, 29.
In his final game, at Detroit in a wind storm in 1945, Hutson scored on four long pass plays and added a field goal and two extra points, all in the second quarter.
Had he also missed two extra points?
"Not me," he said. "In my day, we didn't have a designated kicker. We just got in the huddle, looked around, and asked: 'Who wants to kick this one.' I only volunteered once in a while.
"I'd never kicked a football anywhere until I got to Green Bay."
ATHLETE In his first NFL game, the season opener in 1935, the Packers, after the kickoff, were on their 17-yard line against the Chicago Bears with Hutson split left.
"Our wingback, Johnny Blood, was wide to the right," Hutson recalled. "And our right end lined up as what you'd call a tight end today. The Bears had never seen that (formation) before. Nobody had.
"Our coach, Curly Lambeau, dreamed it up the night before.