December 15, 2009

1963: Don Hultz Recovers 9th Fumble of Season

The December 15, 1963 game at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field between the Eagles and the visiting Minnesota Vikings wasn’t a very meaningful contest. The Vikings won, 34-13, to end the season tied for fourth place in the Western Conference with a 5-8-1 record while the Eagles plummeted to 2-10-2 and their second consecutive last place finish in the seven-team Eastern Conference.

However, when Minnesota’s rookie DE Don Hultz grabbed a fumble by Eagles QB Sonny Jurgensen, it marked his ninth recovery of an opponent’s fumble of the season. This broke the previous record of eight held by Detroit’s Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt that was set in 1955. To date, no one has come closer than seven in an NFL season (four players, most recently LB Rickey Jackson of New Orleans in 1990).

In the obscure world of fumble recoveries in general, most of the record holders are quarterbacks, since they are most prone to having to fall on a failed snap or errant handoff; Houston QB David Carr holds the record for most such recoveries in a season with 12, all his own, in 2002. Other quarterbacks (Dave Krieg, Brian Griese, and Jon Kitna) have recovered nine of their own fumbles in a season as well. But Hultz holds the far more difficult mark, as a defensive player snagging footballs fumbled by the opposing offense.

Hultz had come to the Vikings as a free agent out of Southern Mississippi and moved into the starting lineup. He recovered his first fumble of the year in a Week 2 game against the Chicago Bears; the victim was HB Willie Galimore. They began to pile up after that, to the degree that his teammates referred to him as “The Magnet” and a local newspaper, the Minneapolis Tribune, commented that “his fumble recovery play is now an integral part of the Viking offense”.

The fumbles certainly did help. Six of them set up scores, including two touchdowns and four field goals. One against Detroit on November 24 came with under five minutes left in the game and led to a two-yard TD by HB Tommy Mason that won the game, 34-31. Three others came earlier in the respective contests and helped Minnesota to score first.

Hultz had no ready explanation for his record, saying “I don’t go hunting for the ball. I try to be alert, but you can say the same thing about anybody else on our defensive line” Upon further reflection he also said, “I’m proud of the record, but at the time it was no big issue. I was fortunate enough to create a few turnovers for my teammates and was able to recover a few myself.”

In the offseason, Hultz was traded, ironically enough, to the Eagles. Philadelphia underwent a major housecleaning, starting with a change of ownership, then coaches, and many of the players. Hultz arrived along with split end Ray Poage and defensive backs Chuck Lamson and Terry Kosens in exchange for HB Ted Dean and the rights to QB Bob Berry, an 11th round draft pick out of Oregon who lasted eleven years in the NFL (most notably with Atlanta).

At 6’3” and 235 pounds, he was light for a defensive lineman even in the 1960s, but he lasted for ten seasons with the Eagles, typically starting and eventually moving inside to defensive tackle; he played one last year with the Chicago Bears in ‘74. But in those 11 years, playing in 127 games, he recovered only three more fumbles.