Strange Football: Memories from 1956 Lions and Beyond

Odd thoughts and strange remembrances engendered watching football on TV:

— If you’re acquainted with the highlights of Lions football history, both the famous and the infamous, you’ve heard of likely the most dastardly hit ever laid on a Detroit star … a highly questionable mugging that may have decided who represented the Western Division in the 1956 NFL World’s Championship game.

Layne, 22, (top right), watches Gene Gedman (lower left) run through the Bears line as Meadows approaches (head down, top) from behind. Layne's hands are clearly at his side, which was the hot issue about the hit.

Lions quarterback and leader Bobby Layne, league MVP and scoring leader that season, was clobbered in Chicago that December in the final game on the regular season schedule. The Lions and Bears entered the contest facing a winner-take-all scenario. With the Detroiters leading in the second quarter, Layne was slammed from behind by Chicago lineman Ed Meadows. The Lions #22 had handed the ball to Gene Gedman, and was watching the halfback make his way through the Chicago line when Meadows nailed him from behind.

Layne’s hands — game film showed — were clearly at his side, but Meadows claimed he was unsure whether Layne still held the ball when he picked the QB up on the run and fell atop him, driving his head into the turf. Layne suffered a concussion that knocked him out of the game and into a hospital. The Lions lost the contest after substitute Harry Gilmer took over for Layne, and the howls of outrage — and charges and denials concerning dirty play — echoed across Lake Michigan for months afterwards.

That hit came to mind recently when I saw a highlight clip of current Eagles quarterback Kevin Kolb getting kayoed in his team’s opening game, and suffering a concussion that knocked him out of Sunday’s game against the Lions. The hit on Kolb — though it hasn’t sparked a similar controversy or charges of illegal head-hunting — looked almost exactly like the attack on Layne, with a blitzing lineman picking up the QB and dumping him on his head in a tackle from behind.

I was struck by the similarity … though not nearly as severely as Kolb was.

— I watched the University of Michigan defense struggling against the Massachusetts offense Saturday. I taped the game, and in watching it back Saturday night, the amazing misses and almost comic pratfalls exhibited by would-be Wolverines tacklers reminded me of a movie I’d once seen.

I rewound the tape, and watched the plays — especially those at the ends of both halves — again and again, until the connection became clear. The feeble attempts at tackling UMass runners and receivers looked almost exactly like the fake defensive efforts made by actors in bad movies where extras roll-over for stars who make outlandish touchdown dashes up and down the field, and alleged defenders trip and fall all over themselves trying, seemingly, to stop them. Honest, it was that bad.

Ironically, the almost comic defensive screw-ups looked MOST like the scenes from Paper Lion, the 1969 movie in which Lions players pretend to be trying to tackle faux quarterback Alan Alda … an actor portraying a writer playing QB for the Lions. The real players throw themselves absurdly at the galloping thespian, grabbing at air, rolling away from the action, obviously letting the star run for a bogus TD.

The Michigan “D” looked nearly that bad Saturday … almost as if they were trying to let their opponents run past them, with receivers prancing into wide-open secondary areas. Watching the tape literally reminded me of that movie. It was disturbing to see.

— Finally — and back to the Lions, and to the Philadelphia Eagles — I saw an individual play Sunday from the game at Ford Field that also seemed to hint — at a great distance — of almost purposeful ineptitude in a football contest.

The Lions were waging a desperate — and ultimately unsuccessful — attempt at a miraculous comeback (the kind Bobby Layne used to pull off with surprising regularity) in the fading minutes of the fourth quarter. After pulling within three points of the Eagles at 35-32, they attempted an onside kick. The Eagles had their alleged “hands team” on the field, and Jason Hanson’s high bouncer flew straight at an Eagles rookie, Riley Cooper — #14 and an end from the University of Florida.

Cooper, although he was famous as a receiver for buddy Tim Tebow in his college days, obviously got no work on the UF kickoff squad as he jumped in the air and … looking like one of those beach boys who leap around in Speedo suits playing sand volleyball … met the ball with his hands extended and practically slapped it back towards the charging Lions, like he was trying to spike it for a winning score.

Of course, the Lions recovered. And equally of course, they failed to capitalize on Cooper’s gift.

Obviously you can’t fire the U-M defense. And in the 1974, Ed Meadows was found shot dead in his North Carolina home (make up your own comment here). But if Riley Cooper still has a job in football … I am one surprised television viewer.