Layne 31, Unitas 27

Well, I finally got to ‘see’ one of my all-time favorite Lions games the other day.  With my own aging eyes.

That the game took place nearly 53 years ago, and at the time it was played the NFL was enforcing its infamous home “blackout” rule, forbidding the local telecast of home games, made my recent viewing of that classic contest especially fascinating and rewarding to me.  I remember that game — as the useful cliche goes — like it was yesterday … even though it was played in October of 1957 (a vintage year for wine and Detroit Lions fans).  And it evolved into living history before 55,764 astounded onlookers … on a downtown parcel of scarred and forgotten local land that today is covered with weeds and littered with rocks and debris of varying sizes and sources.

An odd location for one of the greatest National Football League contests of all time, yes?  Yes.
When I say I recall that game played at Michigan and Trumbull with remarkable clarity, I ain’t lyin’.  Practically every Lions game of the 1950s, even those played during the franchise’s rare down years of the decade, featured drama and high excitement of one sort or another.  And in 1957, the last championship year of the Lions golden era, our guys in silver and blue played an amazing brand of football that featured phenomenal comebacks and last-second heroics on what seemed like almost a weekly basis.  It’s no exaggeration — and I’m normally capable of exaggerating my ass off — to say that fully five of the regular season and championship playoff games of that phenomenal Lions year could be described as being among the greatest Lions games in team history. 
Indeed, the Lions versus Baltimore Colts game played on October 20, 1957 was ranked as the Fifth Greatest Lions Game of All-Time in 1993, as part of the team’s 60th anniversary observation, by a select group of football writers and broadcasters.  I can vouch for their selection, as I sweated, strained, and screamed in accompaniment to the radio transmission of that beautiful match, as the Lions and quarterback Bobby Layne pulled out a dizzying 31-27 victory over young Johnny Unitas and the Colts.  Yes, I did my duty, staying at my post (on my bed next to the old dial radio in my second floor room in our home on the east side of Detroit) even though we trailed the up-and-coming young Colts 27-3 late in the third quarter.  That’s right … think  of it … 27 to 3.  (Yes, those were your grandfather’s Lions … God love ’em.)  I was all of ten years of age then, but I’d been following the team since 1953, and I knew enough to never give up hope as long as Layne was out there calling the shots.
Rookie sensation Steve Junker caught a touchdown pass near the end of the third to bring the Lions to 27-10, still a long way out against a strong Baltimore squad that would claim world titles in 1958 and ’59.  Layne, shaking off the lethargy that had plagued the offense earlier in the game (shaking off lethargy or a hangover, take your pick) went to work and drove the Lions to three touchdowns in the final eight minutes of the game, with the last two coming within 89 seconds of play.  Old 22 (Layne) hit back Hopalong Cassady twice (yes Virginia, there was a Hopalong Cassady), to bring the Detroiters back to 27-17 and then 27-24, but there was only 90 seconds left on the clock … as Johnny Unitas took the field.
And that was when Lion defender Carl Karilivacz (yes Virginia, there was a … well, you get it), Yale Lary, and I went to work.  On a Statue-of-Liberty delayed handoff from Unitas, All-Pro halfback Lenny Moore slipped and slid his way up to the Lions 29, where he was spun around by Karilivacz, then belted hard by Lions safety Lary.  The ball squirted free! … (I can still recall Van Patrick’s radio description of the play) … and Lary pounced on it as the Briggs Stadium crowd went into a frenzy.  (As I mentioned, I went to work myself at that point, screaming downstairs to my father to put on the radio … the Lions were about to dot the “i” in “miracle.”)  Layne hurried the excited offense onto the field, immediately faded back to pass, and hit Cassady again … this time as he flew up the left sideline, splitting two Colt defenders, and roaring untouched into the south end zone of that beautiful old stadium.  The Lions had, improbably, incredibly, astonishingly … capped a 28-point second half comeback, stealing a huge one from the Colts at 31-27 with only 46 seconds left on the clock.
The Lions, of course, went on to win the World’s Championship that year, bopping Cleveland 59-14 in the title game in late December.  I never forgot that amazing Colt game, and was rewarded for my patience when I came across a rare item on eBay recently … the sale of a 16 mm color highlight film of the Lions ’57 campaign.  The eBay seller of that film chose to make a four-minute You Tube highlight clip of the Colts game available for viewing by anyone interested in the historical film.  Interested?  I was absolutely transfixed, as I sat  … now an old duffer in his 60s (his young 60s, but yes his 60s) … at my computer and watched every important moment, in beautiful living Honolulu Blue and Silver color, play out across my computer screen.  What a delight. 
They don’t make Lions like that anymore….
And two final notes:  The eBay highlight film ultimately sold for $220.26 … which was about $219.26 more than my bid.  And I well remember later reading — in his autobiography — Bobby Layne’s description of that memorable Sunday at Michigan and Trumbull, and the excitement the miracle game engendered.  Years later, as a journalist, I interviewed Layne at length, and he was notoriously haphazard in recalling old scores and situations from the storied games of his career.  But in his book, he correctly pointed out that the Lions had indeed overcome a 24-point deficit with a late 28-point onslaught on that fabulous afternoon. 
Yet that accomplishment, Bobby maintained, faded into relative obscurity when compared to his claim that the team party that erupted after the victory … went on for 30 hours.