Fifty years ago this summer, writer George Plimpton tried out as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions at their Cranbrook Schools training camp that formed the basis for his best-selling book Paper Lion. It was later made into a movie starring Alan Alda and players from the 1968 Lions.
Ten years ago this Wednesday, Plimpton passed away in New York just four days after he returned to Detroit to reunite with the 1963 Lions team.
In a fitting tribute to one of the most interesting figures of the last half of the 20th century, the critically acclaimed documentary Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself will make its Detroit area debut on Thursday, September 26th at 7:30 PM at the Maple Theater located at 4135 West Maple Rd. in Bloomfield Hills and on Sunday, September 29th at 4PM at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. The film is co-written, directed and produced by Luke Poling and Tom Bean. Following the screenings, Mr. Poling will participate in a Q&A session. Detroit Lion Hall of Famer Joe Schmidt is scheduled to participate with Mr. Poling at the September 26th screening.
Plimpton was a celebrated journalist, author, editor, and sometimes actor who co-founded the influential literary magazine The Paris Review and helped create the genre of participatory journalism. He of course had many other remarkable sports experiences which became the basis of some of his best books. He pitched against a team of all-stars at Yankee Stadium (Out of My League), boxed against Archie Moore (Shadow Box) played goalie for the Boston Bruins (Open Net) and tried professional golf (Bogey Man.) A close friend of the Kennedy family, Plimpton helped wrestle the gun from Sirhan Sirhan at the fatal shooting of Bobby Kennedy in ’68.
The film interweaves intimate interviews with Plimpton’s own narration, along with with rare archival footage and photos.
I had the pleasure of spending time with Plimpton on his very last weekend at the Paper Lion reunion in Detroit, an idea that I proposed to him out of the blue in July of 2002.
A few weeks before the reunion I was interviewing Mark Glenn, the Lions equipment manager, at the team’s headquarters in Allen Park for an article on the evolution of the Lions uniform. I mentioned to Mark that I was working on the reunion and said it would be nice if customized Lion throwback jerseys could be given to each player to wear on the field.
Mark led me into another room where there was a huge equipment trunk with the words stenciled on the side, “Briggs Stadium/Property of the Detroit Lions.”
The trunk was stacked with old jerseys, including five nameless and numberless white Durene jerseys from the 1960s.
A week later, Mark called me at home and said in an excited voice:
“You will not believe this – at the very bottom of that trunk I found Plimpton’s jersey.”
I raced down to the Lions facility and held the famous #0 jersey. It had first belonged to 1961 Lions back Johnny Olszewski, (“Johnny O”) and had been assigned to George by trainer Roy Macklem at the Cranbrook training camp as described in Paper Lion. The Honolulu Blue jersey, which had numerous sewn repairs, had obviously been hidden by Macklem all those years.
On the Saturday night of the reunion weekend, the Lions gave George his jersey just before the charity dinner. The astonished look on George’s face was priceless.
Following the dinner I was standing near the exit and George came up to me and said, “Bill would you like to join me for a drink back at the Dearborn Inn?”
I couldn’t believe it.
George had been dropped off at the event in a Detroit Lions-supplied limo. Now, he was going to be driven to his hotel in my 2001 Pontiac Montana minivan.
When we arrived at the Dearborn Inn, many of the former players were already sitting around having drinks so we joined them.
For the next hour and a half, the players, including Gail Cogdill, Dennis Gaubatz, Bob Whitlow, and Earl Morrall shared many funny stories and it reminded me again that it is the camaraderie of the locker room that retired players miss the most.
Cogdill confessed that he had taken notes out of George’s helmet at training camp to try and decipher what he was writing. I noticed that George did very little talking but was listening very intently and pulled a reporter’s notepad out of his jacket and began scribbling notes.
The next day at Ford Field, George and Alex Karras were the honorary Lions team captains and at halftime the Paper Lion players were introduced to the crowd. They lined up across midfield. The last three to be introduced, were Alex Karras – who had not been back to a Lions game since he was cut in 1971 – Joe Schmidt, “Mr. Detroit Lion,” and finally George, who received a great ovation.
That evening Plimpton invited me to dinner again at the Dearborn Inn.
As we walked through the lobby to the restaurant, I recognized former 1980s Lions offensive lineman Keith Dorney walking toward us. Dorney introduced himself to George, and stated that he was in town to promote his own book, Honolulu Black and Blue, about his experience playing in the NFL. With that, George introduced me to Keith and said, “Keith, would you care to join me and Bill for dinner?”
Of course Dorney jumped at the invitation.
Quite selfishly I thought, “Oh great, now I have this ex-jock that just wants to speak with George about football and I wanted to talk with Plimpton about everything but football.”
My thoughts on Dorney were quickly tossed away.
After we sat down, George asked: “Keith, tell me what you are doing now ?”
“I’m a high school English teacher in California.”
For the next two hours we peppered Plimpton with questions about his experiences and relationships with Ernest Hemingway and other famous writers he knew.When our dinner was over we walked back to the lobby and I waited while George and Dorney went up to their rooms to return and give each other inscribed books.
Four days later, I was working at my computer when I received a call from someone at Sports Illustrated who told me George had passed away. Two days later I received a handwritten note in the mail from George.
“Hoping you can show up so I can thank you again for a most remarkable weekend. . . . Very best, George.”
As you can imagine, the Paper Lion reunion and my brief time with Plimpton is something I will always treasure. He certainly did not have to take my original phone call, or give me the time that he did. But George had that openness and curiosity that must explain a huge part of his success. The man simply had class.
To say the least, the Plimpton film is a fascinating and delightful portrait of a most remarkable man.
Trailer from Plimpton! Starring George Plimpton As Himself