Legendary Detroit Lions: Buddy Parker and Bobby Layne

I heard/saw an interesting item on ESPN a couple of Mondays back, following the game in which the New England Patriots dismantled the perpetually puffed-up New York Jets of coach Rex Ryan in a game that had been advertised as the showdown match on the AFC side of the NFL.

The Jets, encouraged and led by their coach, had apparently intended to bluff their way through the 2010 season, presenting an in-your-face defiance to the fans and the rest of the league by declaring themselves Super Bowl favorites and challenging their opponents, week after week and game after game, to match their toughness and bravado in each contest. The Patriots apparently didn’t get the message, or at least chose not to be distracted by the Jets’ bullyboy tactics, and gave them the kind of ass-kicking they and their extra-large coach richly deserved in a 45-3 rout.

Following the blowout, analysts Steve Young and, yes of course, Matt Millen (and don’t you get the sense that some perverse TV executives are forcing him on us continuously, in games college and pro, because they know how annoyed he makes us, and they love being able to toy with our emotions?) discussed the Jets blustery style in light of their recent troubles. Former quarterback Young made the interesting (to me) point that the team was in trouble because their leader and inspiration has been their coach, Ryan, and not a player. And that constituted a strategic mistake over a season’s long haul.

Young said a coach could only provide so much inspiration and direction. A football team had to be led, he pointed out, by players on the field, guys that other players could rally ’round in moments of crisis or need. When the chips are down, a team is ill-served to be looking to their coach — even a 700-pound one like Ryan — to lead the way.

The observation reminded me of a famous situation that arose here in Detroit back in the glory days of the 1950s, when our town not only had a professional football team, but indeed had the most successful and colorful squad in the NFL from 1950-1962. That Lions team featured an inspiring coach at the birth of that era –1950-57– a strict and hard-nosed leader and disciplinarian named Buddy Parker. A former (1935-36) Lions halfback himself, Texan Parker was a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of boss, a guy feared by his players. He was the head of the team, beyond any doubt, the ultimate and only authority … except in one key regard.

Parker was smart enough to know he needed a thoroughbred representing him in the huddle, on the field. And he selected and nurtured fellow Texan Bobby Layne to be that guy … a character who defied even his own coach when it served the team’s interests.

Early in Parker’s reign, Layne had ‘forced’ his teammates to join him in a night of revelry at training camp. (‘Forced’ is not too strong a word; with that Lions squad you drank and partied when Layne felt the urge, or you got run off the team.) After this remarkable night of drinking and carousing, the players were in no shape to work out when they convened for practice the next morning at camp in Ypsilanti.

Outraged that his minions were hung-over and weaving around the field, Parker ordered them into a back-breaking and exhausting set of physical drills that would have floored a world-class infantry unit. Players were told to run, drop, run, roll, perform push-ups, run, roll, drop, and run some more.

Within minutes Lions players were falling out of the drill, vomiting on the sidelines and lying in the grass, gasping for air and pleading for sympathy. The enraged head coach only ordered more killing punishment, screaming over the moans of his prone players. The guys were in shock.

But one Lion, quarterback Layne, originator of the late-night escapade, would have none of their waffling ways.

Hung-over or fatigued as he must have been himself, Layne ran from player to player, line to line, ordering his fellows onto their feet, kicking them when they fell, demanding that they rise … in defiance of Parker and his punishing exercise. He made forceful demands on his mates, more strident even than the verbal lashings of their head coach, insisting they endure Parker’s murderous regimen. Layne just refused to have the team, his team, collapse in the face of the coach’s rage. The story goes that Layne kicked, pushed, and pulled his guys, one by one, across the finish line of the head coach’s grueling drill. And with that finish, accomplished by all of the exhausted and sick Lions players, Layne is said to have marched up to Parker to ask … “Okay, what now, coach?”

The story, that training camp confrontation, was legendary in the early days of the champion Detroit Lions. And though Parker was apparently furious with the defiant ways of his star-to-be quarterback, it was also reported that he was secretly delighted with his thoroughbred passer that day. He had to have known, as did his players, whom they could turn to, whom they would turn to, when the looming tumultuous NFL seasons would test the mettle of his team.

The results were World Championships in 1952, ‘53, and ‘57 and an additional divisional crown in 1954. Rex Ryan, the rotund and verbose leader of the New York Jets, could never — and will never — do so well.

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