The last time the Detroit Lions had an offense worth talking about, Cadillacs had fins, Thunderbirds had two seats and open tops and the real hot car in town was the four-door Edsel, which, coincidentally, was named after Edsel Ford, the father of the present owner of the Lions, William Clay Ford. This season, though, Detroit finally has produced another winner. No, not the moped. A running game. It's the Dexter and Horace Show. After the first three weeks of the season Dexter Bussey and Horace King were the second and third leading rushers, respectively, in the entire NFC and the reason why Alex Karras wasn't telling Lion jokes anymore.
Last Sunday Bussey and King and the rest of the Lions ran into an old nemesis, the Minnesota Vikings, whom they have beaten only twice in their last 19 meetings. The Viking defense held the two young Lions to a combined 36 yards rushing in a typical black-and-blue 14-7 win that gave Minnesota sole possession of first place in the NFC Central. The Lions, now 2-2, weren't the pussycats of old, however. Trailing 14-0 at the half they put together a 68-yard scoring drive early in the third quarter. King played a key role in that march when, on fourth-and-two, he blasted three yards for the first down to the Viking 33. Only a last-second interception kept the Lions from forcing the Vikings into overtime.
King has now rumbled for 275 yards this season; Bussey has rambled for 263. As both showed Sunday they are also capable receivers. King hauled down six passes for 32 yards while Bussey caught four for 21. King now has 18 receptions for 129 yards, Bussey nine for 112.
By their own admission, Bussey and King hardly qualify as superstars—not yet, at least—and neither of them will soon be seen galloping down an airport corridor in pursuit of a rental car, but for those who groove on nice folks, Bussey and King seem made to order, each a refreshing contrast to the athlete whose ego is larger than his paycheck. Teammates, running mates and Southern soul mates, they perform with much the same style and consider ball carrying the highest form of football art.
"It's exciting to have the ball in your hand," says the 25-year-old Bussey, a halfback from Dallas who came to the Lions in 1974 as a third-round draft choice out of the University of Texas at Arlington. "That's the way I get myself prepared for a game. I hold a ball and then go over in my mind the situations I might be in and think about how I would escape from them. When you've got the ball in your hand, you can see things you normally wouldn't see and you can feel and just sense the pressure."
"I just love carrying the football," says the 24-year-old King, a fullback from the University of Georgia who was drafted by New England in 1975 and traded to Detroit the same year for Running Back Leon Crosswhite. "Everything is into that one player who's carrying the football. Trying to maneuver and do things to get away, that's the exciting part of the game. Everybody wants that football, and you're the guy who's got it. You're the determining factor, the focus for all the people watching, the 11 guys chasing you and the guys blocking. That's excitement. Offense is me, I guess."
Bussey and King both were born in March and, unlike most running-back combinations, they seem to have come off the same assembly line as far as size is concerned. Detroit Coach Tommy Hudspeth calls them "pony backs," but the differences in their running styles make Bussey (6'1", 195) appear to be much bigger than King (5'10", 205). Bussey relies on quick, darting elusiveness and runs upright, "so I can see where I'm going." King, on the other hand, plunges through the traffic with his chin at his beltline, a knack he acquired in high school, where his coach made him run under a low-ceiling barrier constructed from planks and wire.
However they run, Bussey and King both have 4.6 speed and follow the same philosophy—make the defender move first, then break.
Bussey, whose 858 yards rushing led the Lions and made him the seventh-ranked ball carrier in the NFC last year, says, "I'd rather run toward a defender than away from him. I'd rather watch him make the mistake than have me make it. When you run toward the defender, he's the one who's in a sweat. When you run away from him, you give him the angle and leverage so he can catch you. I don't have the greatest speed in the-world, but I think I have quickness and instinct. I'm constantly cutting across the grain to where the pursuit catches up, and then stepping aside."
Bussey and King don't object to blocking for one another. "Neither one of them is on a trip for himself," says Hudspeth. "Each appreciates the other's ability and is willing to go along with whatever the game plan calls for. Neither one of them worries that 'he carried the ball 10 more times than I did.' "
Before the game at Minnesota, Bussey and King each had carried the ball 52 times in the Lions' first three games. Their finest combined performance came in the Pontiac Silverdome two weeks ago against New Orleans when the Lions ran for 306 yards, Detroit's highest total in 25 years. Bussey set a personal high of 150 yards on 24 carries, while King gained 87 in 14 carries.
"We talk it up and we know exactly what to expect from each other," Bussey says. "We run with the same idea. I prefer my blocker to throw on the defensive man—to make him move one way or another—so I can make my break. That's the same way Horace prefers me to do it for him when I'm downfield blocking and he's got the ball."
"They're a good tandem," Hudspeth says. "You'd hope, of course, that one would be a great big runner, but Horace is the type who gives you many dimensions. He's not going to run over many people, but he's quick getting into the hole, he can hit a little gap and he catches the ball well, so he does open your offense up."
Bussey and King have run together almost from the day King arrived at training camp in 1975 and the Texan made the Georgian feel at home. Off the field they play backgammon, take in concerts and watch movies together. Bussey's wife Kay and King's wife Mitzi also are close, and it is reasonable to expect that Atiya Bussey, nine months, and Kim King, six months, will be trading giggles soon. The Busseys, who also have a 6-year-old son named Cobey, picked the unusual Arabic name for their daughter when she failed to arrive, as scheduled, last Dec. 10. Atiya finally showed up on Jan. 9. She was a late Christmas present, so to speak, thus Atiya, which means gift.
"Their closeness is a real plus," says Wally English, who coaches the Lions' offensive backs. English believes that both Bussey and King can finish the season with at least 1,000 yards. If so, they will triple the membership of Detroit's 1,000-yard club, Steve Owens being the only Lion ever to rush for 1,000 in the team's 43-year history.
King also is intent on upgrading the image of the Lions, a team whose recent history has been fraught with feuds, dissension and second-guessing by Owner Ford. Indeed, being a Lion has not been easy. "Rigid" Rick Forzano, for instance, demanded that his players stand exactly on the yard-line stripes during calisthenics. Hudspeth, who succeeded Forzano after Detroit had lost three of its first four games last season, runs a looser ship but a more complex one. He has changed the Lions offense each week in an apparent attempt to remake Detroit in the Dallas image. To his credit, after the first three weeks of the season the Detroit offense ranked second overall in the NFC and first in rushing.
"When I got traded here," King says, "I asked myself, 'Who do I know who plays for Detroit?' I couldn't think of anyone. I'd never even seen Detroit on Monday Night Football. You think about it, you see the Lions on Thanksgiving Day and that's about the only time. It's a low-profile team. We want to turn that around. That's what I'm hoping for. This town deserves it. They fill up this stadium every Sunday."
"Yeah, they do," says another Lion, "but it's a funky kind of loyalty. They know we're supposed to be professionals, but they come out to see how we're going to screw things up each week. Somehow they get off on that."
King adds, "Sure, I feel good that I'm somewhere near the top. But I want to be on top at the end of the year. I want to help our team."
At last it seems that Detroit has not produced two more Edsels.