Although he easily could have second-guessed himself or had regrets about walking away from football at age 29, Bobby Dillon relished his life after leaving the NFL even more than he did while playing the game at the highest level.
His playing career took him from a starring role with the Temple Wildcats, to All-American notoriety for the University of Texas, to an eight-year, All-Pro career with the Green Bay Packers. But he returned to Temple for good to build a successful business career — at Wilsonart International where he eventually became the president and CEO — while letting scribes analyze his playing days.
On one hand, football brought Dillon great acclaim. On the other, though, was a case to be made that he was an underrated superstar.
A pair of childhood accidents cost Dillon his left eye, but the bespectacled defender still earned the nickname “Hawk” by his Packers teammates. It certainly didn’t deter his athletic accomplishments.
As a 1948 Temple grad, Dillon, who died last Thursday in Temple at age 89, stood out on a stretch of comparatively average teams during the transition of coaches from Les “Fats” Cranfill to Ted Dawson that didn’t win a district championship — the Wildcats fell in a 1945 league title game to eventual state co-champion Waco before an estimated crowd of 13,000 at Woodson Field — and parlayed that into a football scholarship at Texas.
It was at Texas where Dillon played for the most successful teams in his career under coaches Blair Cherry and Ed Price. Dillon, who earned All-American honors as a safety, was co-captain of the 1951 team. The Longhorns of 1950, the final season before Cherry’s retirement, won the Southwest Conference and reached a ranking of No. 3 before falling to Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl.
Dillon intercepted 13 passes in his three-year career at Texas and also was a member of a pair of SWC champion track and field teams. His speed and uncanny ability to pick off passes made him a certain NFL prospect. The Green Bay Packers took him in the third round with the 28th overall pick in 1952.
A handful of other former Temple Wildcats reached the NFL before Dillon, most notably Sammy Baugh and Ki Aldrich. Dillon distinguished himself every bit as much as his Wildcat predecessors. The only problem was that the Packers of the 1950s were an undistinguished team and Dillon was one of the few bright spots.
During the span from 1952-59, the Packers posted a dismal 33-61-2 record. Despite playing for teams that ranged from mediocre to bad, Dillon managed to be named an NFL first-team All-Pro four times and selected to five Pro Bowls. While he never led the NFL in interceptions in any one season, Dillon picked off nine passes in three different seasons and led the league in interception return yardage with 244 yards in 1956, averaging about 35 yards per return.
In the 94 games he played with the Packers — he missed just two games in eight years of 12-game schedules — Dillon intercepted 52 passes, still the team record 60 years after his final game. He held the return career-yardage record for decades. When Dillon retired, only future Hall of Famer Emlen Tunnell had more interceptions. He now is in a six-way tie for 26th all-time with Jack Butler, Champ Bailey, Mel Renfro, Larry Wilson and Jimmy Patton. All are in the NFL Hall of Fame, except Dillon and Patton.
Dillon played one season under Vince Lombardi, who took over the Packers in 1959 following a miserable 1-10-1 campaign. Dillon agreed to play another year and Lombardi turned the Packers’ fortunes around with a 7-5 record, the only winning season Green Bay had during Dillon’s tenure.
The allure of playing for a franchise on the upswing — the Packers reached the NFL championship in 1960 and won it the following two seasons — wasn’t enough to coax more football out of Dillon. In an era when NFL players had to get jobs in the offseason to make a year-round living, he was ready to return to Temple full-time with his wife Ann and two children.
Career accolades and inductions did follow. Dillon is in the Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame and their All-Century team, Texas Longhorns’ Hall of Honor and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.
Dillon’s lack of being a serious contender for Canton and the Pro Football Hall of fame is curious. Just as Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement at 29 from the Indianapolis Colts is costing him millions of dollars, Dillon’s retirement at the same age 60 years ago — alongside playing for lackluster teams — may have cost him a Hall enshrinement by its fickle voters.
I would submit those are more than ample reasons in his favor rather than disfavor. Truth be told, many of his interceptions came when quarterbacks were throwing away from him rather than toward him. To have retired with the second-most interceptions in just eight seasons is a resume-enhancer, not a turn off. The Professional Football Researchers Association named Dillon to the Hall of Very Good in 2011.
Dillon was often asked if he wished he had stuck around the NFL longer. He consistently shrugged it off by pointing to the enjoyable life he had with his family and career, and to have missed out on any more of that for a few more interceptions and other football accomplishments paled in comparison.
A life a satisfaction without regrets is what Dillon treasured more.