Wolf treasures his permanent place in NFL lore

Pete Dougherty
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It’s safe to say that everyone elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is incredibly appreciative of what is the ultimate honor for anyone who has worked in the game.

At right, Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson visits with former Packers general manager Ron Wolf and Eliot Wolf, director of player personnel, during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2015.

It’s also safe to say that Ron Wolf is even more appreciative than most.

The former Green Bay Packers general manager will be inducted into the Hall on Saturday and take a permanent place among the football greats that include the players he read about and sometimes watched live while growing up in New Freedom, Pa.

Wolf treasures the honor because he first immersed himself in football and its history beginning at an early age. That includes traveling to Baltimore to watch the Colts of the All-American Football Conference as a pre-teen in the mid-to-late 1940s, and poring over the weekly issues of Pro Football Illustrated, a publication that ultimately would get his foot in the door of professional football.

This is a man who in 1997 named one of the two Packers’ practice fields after Clarke Hinkle, the Hall of Fame fullback who played from 1932-41. Though Hinkle’s name remains obscure to even serious fans of the NFL, he might be among the three or four greatest players in Packers history . Only someone steeped in NFL history would have known that Hinkle was as respected at his time as the Packers’ other great of that era, Don Hutson.

“From the moment (Wolf) got in (to the Hall of Fame last February) until now, his excitement hasn’t worn off at all,” said Eliot Wolf, Ron’s son and the Packers’ current director of player personnel.

“It’s really cool to see. I’ve seen him look through the Hall of Fame book and keep looking at the names. Obviously it means a lot to him, but more so (than most). He knows who most of those guys are. He knows how important they are to the history of the game. And now he’s part of that.”

Wolf’s journey to the Hall of Fame, where Eliot will be his presenter during the induction ceremony Saturday, started in the small farming community of New Freedom, which is just north of Pennsylvania’s border with Maryland and about 38 miles from Baltimore.

Wolf didn’t grow up on a farm – his father was a plastics engineer – but did farm work for extra money. He also played sports and followed them closely, especially baseball and football, and at a young age began an autograph collection that numbers in the hundreds.

“He’s got a couple Babe Ruths, he’s got Civil War generals, he’s got a World Series Yankees ball, the whole team, from the ‘50s,” Eliot said. “It’s pretty impressive. Jackie Robinson. Back then you could just write the players and they’d write you back. So he has a lot of them legitimately from when he was a kid.”

At Susquehannock High School, Wolf played baseball and football – he says he was a much better left fielder and first baseman in baseball than a two-way end in football. After graduating from high school in 1956 he decided to make a career in the Army – he’d spent one year of high school as a cadet at a prep school, the McDonogh School in Owings Mills, Md.

“Second day in (the Army) I realized I made a serious miscalculation,” Wolf said.

After basic training Wolf was assigned to the XVIII Airborne Corps at Ft. Bragg in North Carolina, and from there to the Army’s intelligence office in Berlin. He was a sergeant working in the office as support staff. Sometime before he was honorably discharged in 1959 he started thinking he’d like a career in football.

But while in Berlin, Wolf also saw that many of the intelligence officers he met were college graduates, so he decided that after finishing his commitment to the Army he would go to college. Wolf first attended Maryville College, a Presbyterian school about 20 miles outside of Knoxville, Tenn. He made the baseball team as a singles-hitting shortstop with good speed. He also went out for football his final spring there but then transferred to Oklahoma to finish his degree in history.

“I was a horse(-expletive) football player,” Wolf said.

Despite being better at baseball – he remains a devout fan of the game – Wolf always was drawn more to football. Part of the reason might have because the Colts were the closest professional team to New Freedom when he was young, so he was able to see them live a couple times a year. The Orioles didn’t return to Baltimore until 1954, when Wolf was a junior in high school.

But mostly, something about football appealed more innately to Wolf, especially when the Colts returned to the NFL with the Dallas Texans’ move to Baltimore in 1953. The AAFC Colts had lasted only one season after being absorbed into the NFL in 1951.

“I just had tremendous respect for people that played the game and admired the competitive nature of it,” Wolf said. “I had an opportunity early on to watch the Colts grow from a very bad football team to emerge as a championship team, how that happened and the dedication. I went a couple times to their (summer) training (camp) in Westminster, Md., guys like (Gino) Marchetti, Jim Parker, and obviously (Johnny) Unitas and (Raymond) Berry and Lenny Moore. That was a big thrill for me.”

By the time Wolf transferred to Oklahoma for financial reasons, he’d determined he probably wouldn’t get his foot in the door in football, so he planned to join the CIA. But his years of reading Pro Football Illustrated and being a stickler for details paid off.

Over the years Wolf had regularly written Pro Football Illustrated’s editor, Ted Elbert, to point out factual errors in that publication’s stories, and the two developed a correspondence. In or around 1962, Elbert needed a copy editor and subscription manager, so he offered Wolf the job.

Wolf accepted because he saw it as a possible route to scouting – besides covering the league directly, the magazine’s headquarters were in Chicago, which was the de facto headquarters of the NFL for a couple years in the early 1960s because, Wolf said, Bears owner George Halas essentially ran the league and hosted the NFL draft.

Then in 1963, Elbert was in San Francisco to attend his sister’s wedding and scheduled an interview with new Oakland Raiders coach Al Davis. During their discussion, Davis said he needed a scouting assistant with a good memory for names and strong work ethic, and Elbert recommended Wolf.

Wolf had returned to Oklahoma by that time, but took the job when Davis called. Thus was launched a Hall of Fame scouting career.

He learned the craft from the bottom up. Davis was a big believer in comparing players, so in offseason meetings he and his coaching staff would watch game film and rank the players at every position for the eight-team AFL. They’d watch two games of all the left tackles, then the left guards, and so on. Wolf watched and listened.

“You’d see who was better, who was the worst,” Wolf said. “That old adage a picture’s worth a thousand words, that applied. You could sit there and actually see why, and you’d listen to what the other guys were saying, as to why a guy is so good or so bad. So through true comparison, suddenly you have a wealth of knowledge.”

In 1966, Davis was named AFL commissioner and brought Wolf to set up a league-wide scouting combine. When the AFL and NFL announced their merger in June of that year that would unite the leagues in 1970, Davis decided not to remain as the AFL’s a lame-duck commissioner. He returned to the Raiders as part owner and head of football operations, and the 28-year-old Wolf was his top lieutenant.

Thirty years later, Wolf would win the Super Bowl as Packers GM. And now, 14 years after selecting his final draft class for the Packers, Wolf will become one of 295 members with a bust in Canton, Ohio, home of the Hall of Fame.

“It’s incredible,” Wolf said. “It’s all those adjectives you can jumble in there. I wish I had a Roget’s (Thesaurus) in front of me so I could give you more adjectives. Growing up a fan like I was and watching the Colts come back in football and rebirth of that team, and they go on and win the title for two years with John Unitas. Having seen all that and witness the wonderful job Al Davis did with the Raiders, five decades of real excellence. Then have an opportunity to come here. This is the ultimate place, Green Bay, Wisconsin, in professional football.”

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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