Walling: Hal Patterson - one of the greatest

Alex J. Walling
12/1/2011 10:58:43 AM
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Hal Patterson died over a week ago and not much was written about him.

Oh, there was a paragraph or two in some newspapers, but I didn't see much about what could be called - arguably - the very best receiver that played the game. Or at the very least, the best receiver of his era.

He was 79 when he passed away and I think it was very fitting that he died during Grey Cup week as that's what he reached in his first three years in the league.

The Grey Cup games of 1954, 1955 and 1956  (when Willie Mays made 'the catch' off Vic Wertz in the World Series, when the Dodgers - with Johnny Padres - won their only World Series against the Yankees and when Don Larsen was throwing a perfect game) featured the Montreal Alouettes and the Edmonton Eskimos. And Edmonton won them all.

The first game was the closest - a 26-25 win that featured the Chuck Hunsinger fumble.

Edmonton had a superstar in Jackie Parker who played just about every position (running back, quarterback, defensive back and kicker) and a backfield of Johnny Bright and Normie Kwong. You think Jerome Messam had a good year rushing for over 1,000 yards? Kwong - a standout Canadian - did the feat three times (including one season in which he rushed for 1,437 yards in only 14 games).

Those were the days of the 'triple' or 'full house' where three men would line up behind the quarterback - and Parker, Bright and Kwong all played in the same backfield. No wonder they went to three straight Grey Cups. In fact, Patterson, Kwong, Bright and Jackie Parker are all among TSN's Top 50 players of all time (Patterson made it to No. 13 on the list and his quarterback Sam Etcheverry came in at 26).

And in those years, teams played 12 to 14 games a year.

Now Hal Patterson was the first great receiver I remembered. He was also one of my three or four childhood heroes - joining Etcheverry, Patterson, Johnny Unitas and Jean Beliveau.

I was 10-years old in 1957 and every Saturday afternoon I watched the Sam and Hal show. Yes, it was in black and white and living in Quebec it was in French because there was no English television. 

Our streets were the playing surfaces in my hometown of Quebec City. It is there we played ball hockey, threw baseballs and tossed around a white football with black stripes. And when we played, my good friend Donald Dawson was Hal Patterson.

Patterson was born in Garden City, Kansas and went to university there. He was a star in football, basketball and baseball and was drafted by Philadelphia Eagles of the NFL and Minneapolis Lakers of the NBA.

But Patterson preferred the Canadian Football League with its wide open game and its longer and wider field.

During Patterson's time in Montreal, he and Etcheverry were just as revered as the Montreal Canadiens names of that era - including Maurice Richard, Jacques Plante, Beliveau and Doug Harvey.

It was a glorious time for Montreal sports, as the Als were dominating The Big Four (Eastern Conference) and the Canadiens were rattling off five straight Stanley Cups. That's a lot of winning.

In football, it was always 'quarterback Sam Etcheverry to receiver Hal Patterson.' The Rifle to Prince Hal. And it still may be the best tandem in the history of the game. In 1957 - when I started to follow Big Four football - the Als and Patterson had gone through three straight Grey Cup appearances and he was the top receiver in the league.

In 1960, both Etcheverry and Patterson were traded by the Als to last place Hamilton and it was front page news on the Montreal newspapers - both the Montreal Star and Gazette. I remembered it well as I delivered both papers in my newspaper routes.

Etcheverry had a no-trade clause and went to the NFL, while Patterson reported to the Tiger-Cats.

Patterson's effect on Hamilton was immediate as the Tiger-Cats made the Grey Cup in 1961 - losing in overtime to Winnipeg. He then won the Grey Cup with the Tiger-Cats in 1963, 1965 and in his final year in 1967.

As for his individual achievements on the field, there were plenty and they were marvelous.

In 1956, he was the first to combine with Etcheverry to click on a 109-yard pass and run, which has since been tied twice. "I just threw it up and Hal came down and ran with it," Etcheverry once told me at a sports dinner in Halifax. "He was by far the best athlete I've ever seen."

He holds the record for the most receiving yards in one game - one that has lasted 55 years and may never be broken regardless of the passing game these days.

Would you believe the 338 yards in 1956?  He and Etcheverry combined 11 times for the yardage! That game took place against Hamilton in the 1956 season - where Patterson was the league's Most Outstanding Player. No wonder the Sam-to-Hal combo was so deadly!

When he retired some 14 seasons later (seven with Montreal and seven in Hamilton) he had almost 3,000 yards over the next guy. 

He was first in touchdown receptions at the time with 64.

He held the single-season for receiving yards from 1956 to 1982 at 1,914 yards and it's still is the fourth best total of all time.

And let's never forget that in the 1950s, teams played 12-game schedules before going to 14.

And Patterson then set the 1956 record by playing 14 games! Imagine an 18-game season? Can you say dominant?

And despite retiring more than four decades ago, he still ranks 22nd all time with 9,473 yards.

But another aspect not often talked about in Patterson's career was his play in his early years. He played both ways and as a safety from 1954-59 - picking off 27 passes (including eight in one season).  That's not all - he also returned kickoffs!

One story taken from the Montreal Gazette involves an exhibition game with the Blue Bombers, as coached by Bud Grant in 1959.

Patterson took a kickoff back 100 yards, but his team was offside. The Bombers kicked off again and this time he returned it 110 yards. Grant had never seen that in his lifetime.

He was no slouch in that department - taking returns for 94, 95 and 104 yards in three successive years for touchdowns.

It appears the only thing he didn't do was throw the ball. But he rushed it! One season he got the ball. Probably on endarounds - 21 times for an average of 8.6 yards per carry.

His life-long average per catch was an incredible 20.6 yards over 14 seasons. Simply mindboggling.

With Montreal, he set a record of 100 yards receiving games in 1956 with 11 games in a 14-game season.

And that record stood until this year when Jamal Richardson got 12 in an 18-game season.

Patterson was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 1971 in his first year of eligibility and the Montreal Alouettes retired his No. 75.

Sam to Hal. To me, it's still the greatest passing combo and always will be.

Both Sam and Hal are gone now, but their memories live on in the record books.

For, I'm Alex J. Walling.

Alex J. can be reached via email at:

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