Literally and figuratively, Mel Hein was a giant of the gridiron, at Washington State and then as a New York Giant.
In 1999, the Walter Camp Foundation picked him to its college football all-century team. We’re talking the best who ever set foot on a college field anywhere.
And before that, in 1969, a panel of sportswriters from across the nation voted him one of the 11 best players -- college or pro -- to ever strap on a pair of pads. We’re not talking just the best in the Pac-12. We’re talking one of the 11 best in the HISTORY of the entire game.
Hein was a two-way star at WSU, playing center and linebacker, and led the Cougars to the 1931 Rose Bowl. He was a first-team All-American who then played 15 NFL seasons, earning All-Pro recognition in eight of them and leading his team to seven title games and two championships. Techniques he pioneered at both center and linebacker are still used today.
And his durability is the stuff of fairy tale: He played every single minute of every New York Giants game for all of those 15 seasons. He was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player in the 1938 season. Think about that. A center/linebacker voted MVP!
The passage of time dims memories, so the only way to truly get a handle on the old-timers is through thoughtful research. Era prejudice is the only possible outcome otherwise.
And the argument that players today are bigger and faster, and therefore better than the old guys, is doubly ignorant. Why? Because the only true way to compare people of different eras is to compare each against the competition they faced in their own era. How'd they stack up against their peers?
And by that measure, Hein was dominant.
Yet the Pac-12’s All-Century team ignored Hein and every other old timer. Indeed, only two of the 50 selections played prior to the 1970s: defensive back Mel Renfro (Oregon 1961-63) and offensive lineman Ron Yary (USC 1965-67). That’s pretty much 50 percent of the century they simply wrote off.
I also find it mind numbing that the conference didn’t break out the center position -- by far the most challenging spot on the line (and especially so when running the single-wing). They simply chose seven offensive linemen: Yary, Jonathan Ogden, Tony Boselli, Anthony Munoz, Lincoln Kennedy, Brad Budde and Randall McDaniel.
Four of those seven, by the way, are from USC. Perhaps if the selection panel had been informed that Hein was an assistant coach at USC for many years they would have seen fit to include him.
The one and only gratifying part of the Pac-12’s All-Century selections was seeing old Cougar Jason Hanson penned in at kicker. A two-time All-American and two-time all-conference choice at both punter and kicker, he set conference records for most field goals of 50 yards or more (20), most of 40 yards or more (39) and he also booted the longest FG in league history: 62 yards. In short, the guy was other-worldly.
Paul Sorensen played safety for the Cougars from 1980-81, earning first-team All-America honors as a senior. He then spent two seasons in the NFL on the Bengals' and 49ers' practice squads and later played in the USFL. From 1985-98 he was the color commentator on radio broadcasts of Cougar football and has been the color analyst for Eastern Washington University broadcasts for many years since then. He also was a long-time assistant coach in the Greater Spokane League. Paul has been writing periodically for CF.C since 1999. His columns here are labeled SLAP! The acronym stands for Sorensen Looks At the Program. The word also aptly describes the way Paul played safety and the way he does color commentary: in-your-face, nothing held back.