A blown knee, some broken bones, a few kicks in the tender regions. I always thought of Vince Banonis as the slightly creaking ghost of football past. The good-humored gridiron great never minded. Hell, play a dozen National Football League seasons when he did and see if your joints don’t resemble the door hinges on an old Packard.
“Today the players are bigger and faster, but we were more complete then,” he said. “A lot of guys now go through a whole season without throwing a block or making a tackle. You have specialists for everything—one guy does nothing but return punts, another plays only on third down. There wasn’t a lot of substitution back then. You hated to leave the game for any reason, even if you were hurt. For the most part, we were 60-minute men.”
Banonis, who died last October at age 89, was a cigar-puffing old-timer who never blew smoke about some of the legends he played with and against. For example, he dismissed all the stories of Bobby Layne playing drunk. Bobby’s passes may have wobbled, he said, but not Bobby himself—at least not during the game. As Banonis pointed out, he was Layne’s center for three seasons, including title-game wins over Cleveland in 1952 and 1953. “I would’ve been the first to know.” Off the field, of course, was a whole different story, he acknowledged with a knowing smile. Up-and-coming linemen like Lou Creekmur and Dick Stanfel respected Banonis as a teacher and as a person. Creekmur recalled him as “a steady ballplayer who never missed a block. Just an old, steady, Rock of Gibraltar ballplayer.”
I was always drawn to Banonis, in part because we shared a birth date (a silly reason, I know), in part because of his blue-collar roots, in part because he was a truly homegrown product who never left town. He was born and raised here, was a baseball and football star at Catholic Central and the University of Detroit, was a key contributor to two Lions championships, and stuck around these parts after retiring, starting a second career in the auto industry. His dad, a Lithuanian immigrant named Pete Banonis, worked 45 years at Ford’s and—as if to prove that Edmund Wilson’s depiction of industrial Detroit as the eight-finger city was spot on—lost two digits to a punch press. That’s the kind of made-in-Detroit cred you don’t get by buying a T-shirt at a Kid Rock concert. “My dad was from the old country,” Vince said. “He didn’t really understand the game. But whenever he’d hear my name on the P. A., he’d say, ‘That’s my boy!’”
Back in the day, Vince Banonis was a big deal. He centered the ball on offense and played linebacker on defense well enough to be named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1986. He was a big, strapping kid for his time, and faster than the average lineman. Few came any tougher. He made the All-American team in 1941 and in ’42 was named captain of the College All-Stars for the annual contest with the defending NFL champions. Banonis was given the honor of being introduced first. “That was my biggest thrill,” he told me. “Being introduced between the goalposts before 100,000 people at Soldier Field, and then running onto the field.” The Chicago Bears of Sid Luckman and Bulldog Turner won handily, but that didn’t diminish the magic of the moment.
Banonis was drafted by the “other” Chicago team, the Cardinals. Vince, who saw Navy duty during World War II, helped transform the perennial losers into winners. They beat Philadelphia for the championship in 1947, then lost to the Eagles in a title-game rematch the following season. “We must have had a foot of snow before the game,” he recalled. “The coaches came into the locker rooms and asked us if we wanted to play. We did, but then we had to roll the tarp off the field ourselves. We played in a blizzard. You could hardly see the ball. You’d punt it up into the snow and try to guess where it was going to come down.” The Eagles won, 7-0, as the great Steve Van Buren slashed through the ankle-high snow at Shibe Park for a late touchdown. It was a tough way to make a few hundred bucks. But it was all part of the game back in the days when dinosaurs named Tuffy, Bronko, Bulldog, and Crazy Legs roamed the earth. No artificial turf, no domed stadiums, no balmy southern locales for these guys. By the time Banonis joined the Lions in 1951, facemasks were just starting to appear, though most veterans of the smash-mouth era considered such protection about as masculine as a pink poodle skirt and refused to wear one.
The ’53 title game at Briggs Stadium closed out Vince’s career, during which time he had played on three NFL championship teams and never made more than $8,500 a year. He moved into automotive marketing and sales, raising four kids in what was then the bucolic, sparsely populated suburb of Southfield.
Vince, who outlived all three of his sons, displayed an admirable equanimity throughout his final years. It extended to any discussion of then vs. now. He felt many modern players could have played in his era and that many of his contemporaries could be superstars today. “Let’s face it,” he said, “players today are bigger and faster than we were 50 years ago. We never had weight rooms, mini-camps, any of that stuff. All we lifted in the off-season were a few beers.”