Grover Conner Emerson joined the Portsmouth Spartans in 1931 because the NFL did not institute a draft until 1936. Emerson attended college at the University of Texas, but had to leave school before his senior year. He had participated in two plays as a freshman, which was against NCAA rules then. He is a member of the Texas Longhorns Hall of Honor.
Emerson signed a contract for $75 a week to play with the Spartans. He stood out immediately, where he was known for being excellent in run blocking especially. Emerson was also an exceptional defensive tackle, playing both ways like most players did back then.
The Spartans took on the Chicago Bears in a playoff game which took place indoors in 1932, the first of its kind for both an indoor game and playoff game in the NFL. Emerson was thought to have stopped Hall of Famer Bronko Nagurski's game-winning touchdown pass, but the controversial score was allowed.
This game led to the NFL adopting their own rules on the forward pass, instead of the college rules they had followed. The league then moved the goal posts, kept play within the hash marks, and divided the teams into two divisions because of the influence of this game.
The 1932 season was the first of six consecutive years that Emerson would be named First Team All-Pro. He was not only a bruising tackler, but he was a fast and athletic offensive lineman who could either use his strength or technique to overwhelm an opponent.
He blocked for Hall of Famer Dutch Clark, who had joined the Spartans the same year Emerson did. The team was a powerhouse during their careers, often placing at the top of the league in both offensive and defensive categories.
Besides Clark, the Spartans had other excellent running backs in Father Lumpkin and Glenn Presnell. The 1934 team moved to Detroit and renamed themselves the Lions.
That 1934 squad played 13 games because the fledgling Saint Louis Gunners went defunct after three games and the expansion Cincinnati Reds stopped play after eight games in their inaugural seasons.
The NFL's 12-game schedule was skewered over the Gunners and Reds departures, forcing several teams to alter their schedules. The Chicago Cardinals, Brooklyn Dodgers and Philadelphia Eagles played 11 games while the Lions, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers and eventual champion New York Giants played 13.
The 1935 Detroit Lions, led by the great play of Emerson on both sides of the trenches, won the franchises first NFL title. On that team was a rookie fullback named Buddy Parker, who would later become the Lions head coach and lead the team to a pair of titles in the early 1950's.
Detroit's 1936 season saw them set an NFL record by piling up 2,885 yards rushing that season. This record stood for 36 years until the undefeated Miami Dolphins surpassed it in 1972.
Emerson was named First Team All-Pro for the final time in 1937, then surprised the team by retiring at the end of the season despite being just 30-years old. He had taken a job to become an assistant coach for the Dodgers because Lions head coach Potsy Clark, the only head coach Emerson played under in the NFL, had just left Detroit to take the Brooklyn job.
The Dodgers had seven rookies starting, so Clark wanted to do a better job protecting Hall of Fame quarterback Ace Parker. Though Emerson had been teaching future Hall of Fame tackle Frank "Bruiser" Kinard the tricks of the trade, Clark asked him to suit up as well.
Emerson played the entire season while doubling as the line coach for the Dodgers. He then decided to retire as a player after that year. When Clark was fired after the 1938 season, Emerson and the rest of Clark's staff was let go as well.
While working with the Ford Motor Company, he also was an assistant coach at Wayne State University. World War II broke out in 1942, so Emerson enlisted in the Navy. He rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander on an aircraft carrier, which would be sunk by the enemy off the Canary Islands.
Emerson survived and returned to the United States to finish his services until discharge. He later decided to become a high school history teacher and football coach for over 20 years after having spent six seasons as an assistant coach with the Longhorns.
The six First Team All-Pro nods that Emerson accrued are the second most in Lions history, tied with Hall of Famers Jack Christiansen, Barry Sanders, Lou Creekmur and Dutch Clark. He leads all Lions guards in this category as well.
Not only is he a member of the Lions All-Time Team, Emerson is a member of the NFL's 1930s All-Decade Team. Of the 11 linemen selected on this team, just four have been inducted into Canton.
His exclusion for the Hall of Fame is a case of time passing and putting the memories of Emerson's greatness in the distance. While being a war hero and excellent coach, he was one of the best NFL players of his era.
It is most likely a fact that there aren't few Hall of Fame voters, if there are any at all, who know who he was. It is doubtful any were even alive when he played. Yet the seniors committee of the Hall of Fame has the lone job of not forgetting the past and reminding us of it.
There is no question that Ox Emerson is the greatest guard in Detroit Lions history, as well as one of their finest defensive tackles. Though he is no longer alive to enjoy his deserved induction into Canton, it is time to make him a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.