It was the last Sunday of 1957, but despite the season it was an absolutely perfect day to play football. The sun was shining, the air was almost balmy and the seams of Briggs Stadium in Detroit were near to bursting with the 55,263 people who were willing to pay up to $10 apiece to watch their home-town Lions play the Cleveland Browns for the national professional football championship. As these once shunned and unwanted Lions racked up touchdown after touchdown, it seemed that Briggs Stadium could hardly contain the civic joy, but that is getting ahead of the story....
Two days earlier on a cold, blowy midnight, a line of people on Michigan Avenue in downtown Detroit stretched off into the darkness. One man was wrapped in an old multicolored quilt and another had a brown Army blanket draped tastefully over his shoulders. It was a good-natured line, and when a radio announcer asked the man in the quilt if he thought the Lions had a chance to win the following Sunday, the man said at the top of his voice, "We'll kill the Browns." The line cheered and continued to wait patiently to buy tickets to the game....
Governor G. Mennen Williams wired the commissioner of the National Football League and earnestly asked that the Lion-Brown championship game be put on television since it was a sellout. Bell refused (see page 22). Representative Thaddeus Machrowicz, of Detroit, wired the commissioner and pleaded passionately that the game be put on television. Bell refused. A filling station operator spent $200 to have an outsize aerial put on his service station and entertained his customers with the telecast of the game, picked up from 75 miles away; he too watched and didn't sell any gas....
That was Detroit before the Lions entertained the Browns. Like San Francisco the week before, when the Lions played the 49ers for the right to be in the championship game, Detroit was a hysterical city. Quarterback Tobin Rote was bigger than General Motors. Coach George Wilson was more important than the new Fords and Chryslers, and a ticket to the championship game was about as valuable as a Cadillac....
Detroit has always liked professional football. Detroit is a lusty, thriving, vigorous city and it has found a soul mate in the lusty, thriving, vigorous game. This year's Detroit Lions have endeared themselves to Detroit for a number of reasons, some of them logical.
Maybe the biggest reason was the innate American love of the underdog; the Lions fulfilled the role of underdog to a T. They, started the season by losing a coach. Buddy Parker, the moody, intense man who had guided the club to two world championships, announced as the season was about to begin: "I have a situation here I cannot handle. This is the worst team in training camp I have ever seen. The material is all right, but the team is dead. I don't want to get involved in another losing season, so I'm leaving Detroit football. I'm leaving tonight." He said this at a Detroit Lions boosters banquet, then stepped down from the podium and left. So the Lions had one big strike against them, and quite a few football fans figured the second strike followed immediately when the club named George Wilson as head coach to replace Parker.
Wilson was a very pleasant chap. He had played end on the great Chicago Bear teams of the early '40s, but he had never been more than a part-time coach for the Lions. He coached the ends and backs during the football season and then, during the rest of the year, he sold mill supplies and played golf and stuck pretty close to home and his five children. He was a big, dark man, quiet and gentle, and no one knew very much about him. Most people liked him, including the Lion players. But only a few people had any confidence in his ability to handle a head coaching job in the tough National Football League.
The team which had prompted Parker to quit was a rowdy, gay, tough team. It didn't take kindly to the strictures of training camp. It was led and typified by Bobby Layne, a chunky, blond quarterback who was arrested on a charge of drunken driving early in the season and acquitted later because the arresting officer (by then the most unpopular man in Detroit) admitted that Layne's Texas drawl might have sounded like the slurred speech of a man in his cups. The Detroit trainer reacted to this odd bit of judicature by manufacturing a sign which read, "I'm not drunk. I'm just from Texas." The team thought that was very funny, and so did everyone else in Detroit. No one blamed Bobby Layne, because, after all, Layne was the incomparable leader of the Lions, who performed miracles under pressure and who was certainly entitled to a little off-field recreation.
So, going into the season, Detroit's Lions probably held the NFL record for adversity and perversity. But they won three of their first four games, and then, on the heels of crippling injuries, they began to lose. Finally Layne was injured in the next to the last game of the regular season, just when the Lions were moving along again, and everyone—except the Detroit fans—gave up. But Tobin Rote, last Sunday's hero, took over Layne's duties with quiet competence, and the underdog Lions beat the Chicago Bears and the San Francisco 49ers and wound up in the championship game. Layne was out with a broken ankle; and Charlie Ane, maybe the best tackle in the league, was out with a bad knee; and Jim David, a key defensive back, was a doubtful starter; but the Lions were in the championship game anyway. No one conceded them much of a chance except the Detroit fans.
The man in the multicolored quilt who shivered through the long, cold, blowy night in front of the Lion ticket office was right. The Lions murdered the Browns. George Wilson, the quiet man no one knew very well, outcoached Cleveland's Paul Brown, who is regarded by quite a few people in the business as the best coach in football. The crippled Lions battered the healthy, rested Browns into a state of shock in the first quarter and kept them there for the next three. They played with the tough insouciance which is a trademark of this team, and they destroyed the poise of an opponent which had played the whole season with such calm efficiency. The men whom Buddy Parker had deserted in disgust because they could not be handled played brilliant football under the direction of Rote.
The Detroit fans loved it. Two men in the bleacher seats stripped to the waist and danced in the aisles, deliriously. Joe Schmidt, the wide, blond young man who is probably the best linebacker in football and who is also a co-captain of the Lions, was waltzed around the field on the shoulders of the fans for 30 minutes before he could escape to the dressing room. The crowd tried to break down the door to the Lion dressing room and nearly succeeded.
Behind that door, the Lions took their overwhelming success with the tempered joy of old pros.
"Cleveland isn't a hard team any more," said Schmidt, carefully. "They're not as tough as they used to be when they had Graham and some of those other guys. They don't hit as hard."
Aldo Forte, who is the line coach of the Lions, was explaining the technique of victory. "We had four movies of the Browns," he said. "We had the last four games they played against the Rams, the Cardinals, us, and the Giants. You look at the figures, the Browns have got a great pass defense, but you got to consider that they don't have to look at any great passers in their division. Nobody like Tittle or Van Brocklin or Rote or Layne or Unitas. We noticed Van Brocklin hurt them pretty good in the Ram game. The Rams were picking on Don Paul and we figured we could pick on him or on Ken Konz. We figured we could throw short on Warren Lahr when we needed to, and we did. Then we set up the long ones over Konz. Konz plays back pretty deep, but he likes to come up quick to cover on inside stuff, so we faked inside and got open behind him."
Rote agreed. He was dressing in front of his locker, moving slowly, tired but unmarked. "Jim Doran told me he could get behind Konz on a first down pass," he said. "We had set it up with the short ones and Doran got loose. It helps when you're not getting knocked on your back all the time, too. We got a real solid line, offense and defense. That defense carried us a hell of a long way this year."
Rote knows about getting knocked on his back. He risked life and limb passing for mediocre Green Bay Packers for most of his pro career. The Lions traded three good offensive linemen and a good back for Rote in July, after an emergency meeting of the coaching staff, General Manager Nick Kerbawy and President Edwin J. Anderson.
"We played a defense like I never used before," said Buster Ramsey, a bulky, rugged man who plots the Lion defenses. "We figured from the movies that the guy on the Browns who kills you is Ray Renfro, so we put two men on him all the time. That let Darrel Brewster, their end, get loose a few times, but Renfro only caught one pass all during the game, and that one was only about 10 yards. And then our guys were really hitting in there and putting pressure on the passing of O'Connell and Plum."
By now the players were dressed and slowly filtering out. Wilson walked over to the washroom and bathed his face in cold water. He looked tired as he watched the players leaving.
"The big thing about them was they never quit," he said slowly. "I guess this is the fightingest team I ever saw. Maybe the layoff hurt the Browns some. I don't know. But they didn't play a game they had to win during the last month, and we had to win four in a row to get to the championship. These guys never let up. I told them at the half today, 'Remember last Sunday when you were behind 27-7 and won. The Browns can do the same thing. It's only 31-7.' And they didn't let up at all. That's the big thing about them."
He followed the players out of the dressing room, into the vast gloom under the stands. A few fans were still standing by the door, shouting at the players.
"Hey, coacher, you murdered 'em," one yelled. Wilson nodded and smiled and walked away behind his players.
Detroit was a happy city, and now the once-unwanted Lions seemed bigger than the whole motor industry.