State Your Case: Ace Gutowsky
The NFL's most productive fullback in the 1930s
(Published February 2019)
There wasn’t a more productive fullback in the NFL in the 1930s than LeRoy “Ace” Gutowsky.
The NFL was a running league back then and Gutowsky was the definition of the term “power” back. He rushed for 3,279 yards in the decade, helping the Detroit Lions win an NFL championship in 1935. The Lions set a league rushing record in 1936 that would stand for 36 years and Gutowsky himself set a franchise rushing mark that would stand for 24 years.
Gutowsky was one of the three best fullbacks in the NFL that decade along with Clarke Hinkle and Bronko Nagurski. But Gutowsky didn’t arrive in the NFL in 1932 with the same college fanfare of Hinkle and Nagurski, nor did he play for an iconic NFL franchise like his two fellow fullbacks.
Hinkle became a College Football Hall of Famer at Bucknell who went on to play professionally for the Green Bay Packers. Nagurski became a College Football Hall of Famer at Minnesota who went on to play professionally for the Chicago Bears. Hinkle rushed for 3,084 yards in the 1930s and Nagurski 2,694.
But when it came time to pick the 1930s NFL all-decade team, Hinkle and Nagurski were elected. Gutowsky was passed over. And when the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened its doors in 1963, Nagurski was a member of the charter class and Hinkle was enshrined a year later. And just as he was passed over for the all-decade team, Gutowski has been passed over by the Hall of Fame. His wait is now at 56 years and counting.
A Russian immigrant, Gutowsky played his college football at Oklahoma City and then signed to play professionally with the Portsmouth Spartans in 1932. When the franchise moved to Detroit in 1934, Gutowsky’s career took off. He was named second-team all-pro in four of his five seasons in Detroit.
Gutowsky scored the opening touchdown in a 26-7 romp over the New York Giants in the 1935 NFL championship game, then put together his finest season in 1936. He led the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 857. He finished second in the NFL in rushing yards that season to Hall of Famer Tuffy Leemans and second in rushing touchdowns to his teammate and Hall of Famer Dutch Clark.
Gutowsky rushed for 827 yards that season and the Lions 2,885 yards. His 827 rushing yards remained a franchise record until Nick Pietrosante rushed for 872 yards in 1960. Detroit’s 2,885 rushing yards remained an NFL record until the Miami Dolphins rushed for 2,960 yards in their perfect 1972 season. But the Lions achieved their yards in a 12-game schedule. The Dolphins broke the record in a 14-game schedule.
The physicality of Gutowsky’s game was not restricted to offense. He played both ways for the Lions, starting at linebacker on defense. The same season that he led the NFL in rushing attempts (146) in 1934, the Lions allowed a league-low 59 points in 13 games. Detroit opened that season with seven consecutive shutouts. The Lions added three more shutouts on the way to their first NFL title in 1935, then added three more shutouts in both 1936 and 1937.
The Lions won 66 percent of their games with Gutowsky in the lineup (51-25-6). He finished his career with one final season with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1939, when he was reunited with coach Potsy Clark. He had coached the Lions to their 1935 championship but left in 1937 to coach the Dodgers. During that 1939 season, Gutowsky set the NFL career mark in yards from scrimmage – long since broken, obviously.
Gutowsky served in World War II, then went into the oil business in his native Oklahoma. He also became a world-class bridge player and dabbled in coaching at his alma mater in the 1940s. But Gutowsky passed away of cancer in 1976 without his career ever discussed for a bust in Canton.
This Ace deserved better.