(Continued from yesterday)
NFL History, the Rewrite:
The Detroit Lions, three-time Super Bowl winners and six-time Super Bowl participants, have been one of the most stable, exciting, and successful franchises in all of American sports.
The Lions first captured the adoration of their blue-collar Motor City sports enthusiasts in the 1950s, winning three pre-Super Bowl “World’s Championships” in that decade, and they have never relinguished their hold on the hearts of their fans at home and around the country. A consortium of local backers sold the team to millionaire businessman Ralph Wilson in 1960, and he has overseen a half-century extension of their gridiron excellence.
Himself a young man as team owner at 42, Wilson ordered the hiring of Lions defensive coordinator, Don Shula, as Lions head coach in 1961, and Shula — at the tender age of only 32 — kept the team on the winning path. Shula and his staff coaxed two more championship seasons out of the sometimes ailing right arm of star ’50s quarterback Bobby Layne, bringing Western Division titles again to Detroit in 1961 and 1962, with another World’s Championship in ’62. Overseeing an aggressive defense that dominated the NFL under the direction of linebacker and team captain Joe Schmidt, the Lions introduced the ferocious “Fearsome Foursome” front-line defense and employed an All-Pro defensive backfield that was to make League history, utilizing such Lions legends as Alex Karras, Sam Williams, Bill Glass, Roger Brown, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Yale Lary, Johnny Robinson, and Dick LeBeau.
Lions offensive coordinator Chuck Knox worked under Shula to keep the team abreast of the Green Bay Packers, the other super-team of that time, and the two squads fought epic battles throughout the 1960s. Wilson saw to it that Shula and Knox were supplied with the top college talent of the day, out-bidding their burgeoning rivals in the American Football League to sign such future Hall of Famers as quarterback John Hadl and receiver Fred Biletnikoff to keep the team’s attack among the highest-scoring and most dynamic in the league. Hadl took over signal caller duties from Layne following the legendary Texan’s retirement in 1964. The team scored another NFL championship in 1965, and it was Shula’s nationally recognized “Motown Magic” that saw the Lions land their first Super Bowl appearances in 1969 and 1971. Though they suffered the indignity of becoming the first NFL franchise to lose to an AFL team in the Super Bowl (falling to the New York Jets in 1969), Shula and then-defensive coordinator Joe Schmidt brought the world title back to the Motor City with a memorable comeback victory in 1971.
In 1974, Wilson elevated Shula to General Manager of the team, deflecting an offer that would have taken Shula to the foundering Miami franchise of the AFC by granting the “old coach” a hefty part interest in the Lions franchise. As his first act, Shula subsequently promoted Schmidt to the head coaching position, and the old linebacker directed the Lions to three more Super Bowl appearances — in 1976, 1979, and 1984 — coming away victorious in ’79 and ’84, the year that saw Detroit once again “The City of Champions,” as the city celebrated victories in both the Super Bowl and the ’84 World Series.
The following year saw the massive renewal of Tiger Stadium, accomplished mainly under the financing, direction and leadership of Ralph Wilson. Maintaining always that football is “an outdoor sport meant to be played in a variety of conditions,” Wilson’s renovation of the old ballpark insured that the Lions and their baseball counterpart Tigers would continue to play in that “Shrine” of athletic competition. The historically unique ballpark at Michigan and Trumbull, renamed Kaline Stadium in 1986 via an agreement between the two professional franchises and a vote of Detroit sports fans, has been recognized as a “national treasure” around the country.
Through times difficult or celebratory, the Wilson-led Lions have maintained an aggressive approach to the pro game, changing with the times, and refusing to let onfield setbacks keep them down for long. The team’s trademark “Comeback” reputation, born in the 1950s, was never more in evidence than in 1995, when coach Dick LeBeau, former defensive coordinator who had acceded to the head post following Schmidt’s retirement three years earlier, utilized the running of back Barry Sanders to direct the Lions to their six Super Bowl appearance and third title of the modern age. Sanders’ performance in the famed “Snow Bowl” of that season is still counted among the NFL’s greatest single-game performances. (That game famously saw seven Lions fans, reported as “missing” following the NFC title game victory, still huddled under blankets in the centerfield bleachers, and down to their “last six pack,” when discovered eleven days before Tigers Opening Day in 1996.)
Though the team has not played its way to the ultimate game in the seasons since, the Lions have been regular participants in post-season play, maintaining the team’s historic aggessiveness and competitive edge. Tickets to Lions games have passed from family member to family member over the years, with the team playing to constant sellout conditions since the late 1950s. And owner Ralph Wilson, still active in directing the club, has vowed the team will not change its historically unique Honolulu Blue and Silver colors, with the Lions still sporting the exact uniform style that players wore when he purchased the club in 1960 ….. thus keeping “the good old days” as current and visible and exciting as ever in Detroit, the unofficial “Football Capital” of the pro football world ….