Think of Cloyce Box as sort of the Calvin Johnson of the 1950s: a tall, rangy, touchdown-making machine from Texas prone to big plays and nagging injuries. Box didn’t have Megatron’s physicality or magnetic mitts, but he was the Detroit Lions’ deep threat during their run of three straight division titles during the Bobby Layne era.
Box, who served in the Marines during World War II and was recalled for a season during the Korean War, was a 26-year-old rookie in 1949. He’d been a standout back at West Texas A & M but was converted to end his second season in Detroit, 1950, the year Layne joined the club. That year he grabbed 50 passes for 1,009 yards and 11 TDs.
After spending 1951 in the service, Box returned for his only All-Pro season in 1952. That year he nabbed 15 touchdown passes in 12 games, including three in each of the last three games of the season as the Lions battled Los Angeles for the division crown. With opponents concentrating on stopping Box, Layne was able to utilize Doak Walker and Leon Hart to great effect as Detroit beat the Rams in a playoff and then defeated Cleveland for the title.
Box, who stood 6-4 and 225 pounds, lacked finesse and power. Despite his large frame, he wasn’t much of a blocker, either. His basic move was straight schoolyard. He would take off at the snap of the ball and run like hell, looking to out-leg defenders as he hauled in another deep throw. It worked well enough to make him one of the most productive receivers of the 1950s. During his five years in the league, one of every four catches went for a touchdown, and his career average of 20.7 yards per reception has been surpassed by only five other receivers in history.
The Lions repeated as champs in 1953. Box’s production was affected by age and injury, though he still managed to average a spectacular 25.2 yards on 16 catches. One of those was a 97-yard bomb from Layne that keyed the Lions’ second-half comeback victory against Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day. The pass play—at the time the longest in club history—turned out to be the last touchdown of Box’s professional career. It remained a team record until Karl Sweetan and Pat Studstill hooked up for a 99-yard touchdown against Baltimore in 1966.
Box caught only six passes in 1954, though he played in his third straight title game that December. He then retired, enjoying great success as an oil man, general contractor, and horse breeder. He was the most charitable of all the old Lions, donating $1 million to a fund to help down-and-out players. He once arranged for an expensive reunion of the ’52 champion Lions, where he presented each of his teammates with an expensive championship ring. He also owned the ranch that was used as the original Southfork Ranch in the popular primetime soap opera, Dallas.
Box, a man accustomed to having the roar of the crowd in his ears, died quietly in his sleep at home one autumn Sunday in 1993.