Pat Harder’s fullback play helped Lions to two titles in the 1950s

Pat Harder played for three teams that won the NFL Championship, two with Detroit.

Pat Harder played for three teams that won the NFL Championship, two with Detroit.

When it comes to recalling the players that made the Detroit Lions one of the dominant teams in the NFL during the 1950s, it’s easy to overlook Pat Harder. Yet Harder, a fullback-placekicker with borderline Hall-of-Fame credentials, added much needed savvy to Detroit’s young lineup in the early 1950s.

Standing 5-11 and 205 pounds, and sporting “educated elbows,” Marlin “Pat” Harder was a solid downfield runner and ornery blocker who starred at the University of Wisconsin. After serving in the Marine Corps in the last year of World War II, he joined the Chicago Cardinals, where he was instrumental in the team’s back-to-back title game appearances in 1947-48. They won the 1947 game, 28-21, at Comiskey Park, but lost the rematch against Philadelphia in a snowstorm at Shibe Park, 7-0. With the Cardinals, Harder became the first man in league history to score 100 points three consecutive seasons, 1947-1949, leading the loop each time. He was able to pile up the points because in an era of 30-to-32-man rosters, there was no room for specialists. Placekickers typically were every-down players.

Harder had a good enough year in 1950, his last in Chicago, to be named to the inaugural Pro Bowl. Buddy Parker, the new Lions coach, coveted a fullback for his up-and-coming team, which featured such young stars as Bobby Layne, Doak Walker, and Leon Hart. Prior to the ’51 season, then, Parker acquired Harder and center-linebacker Vince Banonis, a former University of Detroit standout, from the Cardinals. Both veterans would play three seasons with the Lions and be key ingredients in the revival of winning ways in Detroit.

As the starting fullback in 1951, Harder provided solid pass protection for Layne, blocked for fellow backs Doak Walker and Bob Hoernschemeyer, and ran often and well enough to finish second on the team in rushing. He also occasionally place-kicked. He caught a touchdown pass from Layne against Washington in his first game as a Lion, a 35-17 win at Briggs Stadium, then rushed for a couple more scores the following week against the New York Yanks.

The Lions went into the final game of the ’51 campaign needing just a tie at San Francisco to win their first division crown since 1935. Harder’s short TD run gave the Lions a 10-0 lead in first quarter, but SF rallied late to win, 21-17. Inside the somber Detroit locker room, players stewed in their disappointment for a full fifteen minutes before Harder finally stood on a bench and, waving a towel, yelled: “We’ll be back next year to lick the stuffing out of somebody!”

He was as good as his word. The Lions finished 9-3 in 1952, the same as Los Angeles, setting up a special tiebreaker. Harder, who had taken over placekicking duties when Walker missed much of the season, wound up second in the NFL in field goals, third in extra points, and fourth in scoring with 85 points. He was named to the Pro Bowl for the second time. Most importantly, he contributed a record-setting performance as the Lions whipped the Rams in the divisional playoff at foggy Briggs Stadium.

In the first half, Harder scored on 12- and 4-yard runs and kicked the extra points, giving the Lions a 14-7 lead. In the second half, the Lions went up 24-7, then withstood a furious Rams comeback to win, 31-21. In a postgame interview, Harder, slumped on a stool inside the locker room, attributed the win to the team’s esprit de corps. “We never worked as a unit before like that since I joined the Lions a couple years ago,” said the battered veteran, whose 72 yards on eight carries led all rushers that day. His 19 total points (on two touchdowns, four extra points, and a field goal) were a new NFL postseason record.

With Walker back to full health, Detroit went on to beat Cleveland, 17-7, in the championship game the following Sunday. Walker and Layne rushed for touchdowns. Harder contributed two extra points and a field goal to account for the rest of Detroit’s scoring. They were his last NFL points.

The following year injuries limited Harder to just five games. He touched the ball only nine times from scrimmage during the 1953 season and attempted no kicks. He was on the sidelines at Briggs Stadium as the Lions won a second straight championship over the Browns, this time by a 17-16 score. Harder retired after the game. He was only 31. In nine NFL seasons, he had been a member of three championship teams. He went on to officiate for more than two decades in the NFL, dying in his native Wisconsin at age 70 in 1992.