Pro football," a press box reporter observed during a San Francisco 49er-Detroit Lions game last year, "is getting like atomic war. There are no winners, only survivors."
This week, the 36th National Football League season got under way minus many stars who hadn't survived even the hazards of the exhibition games. Out of the lineups with injuries were Charley Trippi of the Cards, Pat Brady of the Steelers, Buddy Young of the Colts, Skeets Quinlan and Don Paul of the Rams, Al Carmichael of the Packers and four of the Lions' regulars: Doak Walker (except for kicking chores), Hunchy Hoernschemeyer, Harley Sewell and Dick Stanfel. The injuries were so well divided around the league that, save for the Lions, they probably didn't amount to much as far as the games were concerned.
There is little doubt that the results of the openers in past years would have been classed as upsets. Actually it is a case of the old pro theory of equitable distribution of the riches finally bearing fruit. The NFL teams are so closely matched that it will be weeks before any pattern of supremacy emerges from the murky melee of warring lines, split-Ts and looping defenses. At any rate, except for the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-17 victors over the Giants Saturday night and best of the exhibition teams with six straight wins, all the forces which were supposed to be shaded were out on top. Washington beat the world champion Browns 27-17; Baltimore, the Bears 23-17; Los Angeles, the 49ers 23-14; and Green Bay edged Detroit 20-17 in a series of remarkably close games.
The full-time presence of Doak Walker in the Detroit Lions lineup might have cast a different complexion on the Green Bay game. After it was over, Coach Buddy Parker snapped, "Absolutely not," at reporters, but it is hard to imagine that the absence of a performer of Walker's stature, along with the offensive guards, Sewell and Stanfel, and the breakaway Hoernschemeyer, did not have an appreciable effect on the final outcome—decided, by the way, on a sensational pass, To-bin Rote to Gary Knafelc, in the last 20 seconds. Walker is a marvelous, natural running back who has been just about the most effective operator in the NFL the past five years.
An All-America at SMU who enjoyed some of the most stunning publicity ever tendered an undergraduate, the Doaker became a professional and survived his notices. In his first year he scored 128 points, only 10 short of Don Hutson's record. A small man (he was 5 foot 10, 170 pounds and hasn't added anything since), Walker felt like a midget on a team that sported Les Bingaman, the defensive guard who weighed in at 350 pounds, and a defensive line averaging 245 pounds. "Everybody looked so big," he recalled, "I felt smaller than I was."
Whatever he felt, it was inevitable that the opposition would view him differently. In his five years Walker carried the ball 286 times for a remarkable average of five yards a try. He caught 130 passes, averaging 16¼ yards each, and scored 438 points.
This spring Walker thought seriously of retiring. A peddler's variety of business enterprises in Dallas beckoned, but it was also true that the Lions' famous line was aging along with the Doaker. The game for them this year is going to be a little harder and for Walker maybe a little more unhealthy. Not that Walker fears anything. "If you're scared you have no business in the game," he said not long ago when he denied vehemently that pro ball had gotten dirty. "It has to be rough," he said, "and that's the way we want it."
"Last year," Walker admitted, "was rougher. More fellows got injuries that were done on purpose. But in any year there are only three or four guys who have a brutal reputation. Once in a while there's a shady, off-color guy, but he doesn't last long."
Walker has been hurt seriously only once, in 1952, and that resulted from a slip in the open field when he tore a muscle. He doesn't know why he has been so lucky nor does he worry. "I don't ever think of survival. When you are on the field you are just too busy for that. Slowing up can be fatal, but speed isn't the answer. I'd like to think the good Lord is taking care of me."
The new injury is a pulled hamstring tendon in his left leg which Walker got two weeks ago in an exhibition game. Even hobbled he managed to score five points, although he was in for only five plays against Green Bay. That's why Detroit wants to keep the little man around, but the bad leg might in the end be decisive in persuading Walker to make good his decision to quit after this year. "You know," he says, "a linebacker can't be the politest man in town." With perfect decorum, the Doaker may get out of the man's way entirely.