Here’s a small holiday story; it’s about a local kid and his father. It took place on a Thanksgiving Day a long time ago, so long ago that John F. Kennedy was in the second year of his presidency and the Detroit Lions fielded a football team so good that many thought it to be the greatest in the entire National Football League.
It was 1962, and I was a new and naive teenager. We lived on the east side of the city of Detroit, sort of halfway between City Airport and the intersection of Gratiot and Six Mile Road.
Among the males in our family — my father, older brother and I –the Lions were the great passion of our lives back then. Led by one of the greatest defenses in pro football history, the team had finished second in two successive seasons to the now-legendary Green Bay Packers of coach Vince Lombardi. 1962 was to have been the season that the Detroit club would finally overtake the Pack; that was a common theory voiced all over town. Our guys would have their day in ‘62.
But the team suffered a horrible loss to the Packers in a showdown game, the fourth game of the season, in Green Bay. Our amazing defense dominated the world champion Packers through 59 minutes of play. We were up 7-6 when a numbing disaster struck. In an effort to surprise the Packers in a quest for a game-securing first down with a minute left to play, the Lions passed on third down from midfield on muddy ground. You likely know the story — receiver Terry Barr slipped on the turf, and Milt Plum’s brave pass, thought foolhardy forever after, was intercepted by the Packers and returned all the way to the Lions 18-yard line.
The final field goal was kicked, and the giddy Packers –outplayed all afternoon – literally skipped off the field with an historic 9-7 victory. The NFL played a 14-game schedule in those days, and the Lions returned home at 3-1 to the Packers 4-0 mark.
Both teams continued to maul their opponents the rest of the year, though the Lions lost one other game. They had dominated a strong Giants team in New York, but suffered another heartbreaker, losing 17-14, when a winning touchdown pass was slightly deflected and bounced off the shoulder-pads of Detroit’s sure-fingered Gail Cogdill in the end zone at game’s end. There was despair in our front room; I walked around the block ten times. Thus the Lions were 8-2 and the Packers 10-0 when the showdown of the two powers, the grudge match of the century, was scheduled for that year’s Thanksgiving Day.
The anticipation in town was electric; it was to be THE biggest game in years. Our guys were out for revenge; the entire football world would be watching.
My family rarely got the opportunity to attend Lions’ games. My father and I attended the Lions last Championship game when a friend camped out on Michigan Avenue to buy tickets for me in 1957. Dad and my brother and I went to a 1958 game against the Rams together when the team doctor, Richard Thompson, sent three tickets to my father, who yearly did the doctor‘s tax returns. We were all Lions fanatics — I learned how to throw a TV Guide at a television by studying at my father’s side — and on the rare occasions when my Dad got two tickets to any game, featuring the Lions or any local team, my brother and I would alternate as to who got to attend.
To my dismay in November of ’62, I had attended a PISTON’S game with my father (I had absolutely no interest in basketball and wandered around the Olympia all day, imagining I might wander into Gordie Howe on his day off) in 1958 or ’59, and thus it was my brother’s turn to go to the next game with Dad. That “next game” turned out to be the classic that was the 1962 Thanksgiving clash with the Packers.
Oh, the pain. Amazingly, Doc Thompson called my Dad on the Monday of that week with two tickets to spare. (Fans camped out all night Wednesday at the stadium in freezing conditions to get the final unreserved seats.) My brother was sympathetic, my father felt bad for me, but a deal was a deal. I was the odd boy out. I put on a brave face around the house — at least I think I did — but I was dying inside. When that cold Thanksgiving morning dawned, I felt like a guy on death row, watching my brother pull on the customary long underwear and three pair of pants and two pair of heavy socks and rubber boots (okay, galoshes).
But then something stirred. My father suddenly announced that he had “an idea,”; he promptly retired to the rear of our house to “make a phone call.” When he returned, he said that while he had been unable to secure another ticket, he had a plan, and that I should also pull on my heavy gear and come along “just in case.” He didn’t have to ask twice. But just in case what? And whom had he called on the phone?
On the drive downtown I was a wreck. What was his “plan”? What if we couldn’t get in? Was he going to try to bribe a ticket-taker? Oh, no. We never tried stuff like that. Dad repeatedly warned me not to be disappointed if his crazy idea didn’t work. I was absolutely frantic, unable to figure any way that one skinny kid without a ticket could be shoe-horned into that fabulous teeming stadium on the day of the biggest game.
We parked on the east end of downtown, and went on Dad’s customary long trek to Michigan and Trumbull, our heavy-corduroy pants swishing loudly as we walked. I felt like I was going to explode from nervousness and fear as we approached the stadium. Dad was in his three-pair of pants, two heavy sweaters and double socks and galoshes, along with a goofy cheap brown and yellow hat with ear flaps and a fake leather brim. As we slowly edged our way amid the sudden warmth of the surging and smoky crowd at Gate 1, I was beside myself with anticipation. How in the world could he get me in?
As we approached the ticket turnstile, with my pulse pounding, my father abruptly stopped. Handing my brother those two holy tickets, he turned to both of us and quickly said … “You guys have a good time, I’ll pick you up at this corner 15 minutes after the game. See you later.” And with that, he turned, and began pushing his way back through that monstrous crowd. As I recall, I was too stunned to speak.
My father was quickly swallowed up by the crowd, and within seconds all I could make out was that dopey brown hat of his; going in the wrong direction, defying the mad rush as it seemed like everyone in town was pushing past him, grinding onward to witness that game. Everyone but my Dad. The so-passionate Lions fan. He, and his hat, with ear flaps down, soon disappeared amid the crowd, consumed in the mad rush. Soon he was out of sight, and gone … walking away from Tiger Stadium, making his way back across the streets of downtown Detroit, alone, dressed and ready for a football game he had never intended to see.
That had been his plan.
History records that the Lions overwhelming 26-14 win that Thanksgiving afternoon was among the greatest, maybe THE greatest, victory in Lions annals. The score was 23-0 at the half, with the defense sacking the Packers vaunted quarterback eleven times. The 57,598 in attendance that day got a memory to last a lifetime.
And I received one that would last longer than that.