The Detroit Lions and the 1966 Snowball Rebellion

Fans dump snowballs on a Lions player after a 1966 game at Tiger Stadium.

There are advantages to playing football indoors.

In the interests of honesty and candor, I should point out here — early on — that I remain a staunch advocate of outdoor football, even though I bear the frostbite scars (imaginary wounds, actually) from years of attending late November Friday night Goodfellow Game contests played in below freezing conditions at the late and lamented Briggs (later Tiger) Stadium.
The annual Goodfellow games, which pitted the Detroit Public School football champions against the champions of the city’s Catholic League, were one of our city’s greatest athletic traditions. As the focal point of the Old Newsboys’ annual charity effort to see that Detroit would have “no child without a Christmas,” the Goodfellows game was a terrific spectacle. Played under the bright lights at Michigan and Trumbull, the contests brought 20,000 to 30,000 fans downtown for the city’s “civil war” showdowns. The factions were represented by such local football powers as St. Ambrose High School, Denby, Redford St. Mary’s, Redford High School, the University of Detroit High, and Pershing among many others. Future pro standouts like Bruce Maher, Jim Ninowski, Ed Budde, and Gary Danielson first appeared on the sacred turf of Briggs Stadium as Goodfellow game combatants.
My father and brother and I trudged to the stadium on those chilly nights — the games were played on the Friday following Thanksgiving — as part of our own family tradition. In fact, the word “trudge” was likely invented for outdoor football in Detroit in late November. There’s nothing like walking in freezing winds up Michigan Avenue attired in giant hand-me-down overcoats, two sweaters, sweatshirts, two pair of socks stuffed into oversized galoshes, cheap leather hats with ear flaps, and scarves you could wrap around your neck and head six or seven times. The dictionary defines “trudge” as “to go on foot … laboriously” and our outfits were perfectly suited for trudging first class.
As a kid it used to strike me that nothing seemed quite as cold as the concrete steps and outdoor walkways of Briggs Stadium in November. Still, it was a thrill to be there, under the gleaming lights, looking down on that glorious so-green field where Bobby Layne and his legendary Lions won so many games on Sundays. The spirit and vitality brought to the stadium by the high school teams and their cheerleaders and fans on those Friday nights lit up downtown like I’ve rarely seen it since. Something went out of the spirit of Detroit when the games were cancelled — because of post-game scuffles — in the late 1960s.
Still, that local tradition — minus the psychosomatic frostbite, the galoshes, and the fights — constituted the ‘up’ side of outdoor football in Detroit. For the ‘down’ side I take you to December 11, 1966, when the Detroit Lions hosted the Minnesota Vikings in the last game of the regular season. That day was a bitterly cold one too; made worse by a snowstorm that had sailed into town overnight, leaving pockets of snow on the edges of the field, and piled into the corners and overhangs of the stands. The Lions lost to the Vikings that day, which was no news in that 4-9-1 season. But the game was memorable for a scene that took place on the field, separated from the game. In fact, some Lions fans remembered that game’s final scene as the most exciting of an otherwise forgettable 1966 campaign. (I was in attendance that day, but for the life of me I cannot remember why.)
The Lions were led that season by coach Harry Gilmer, who was in his second season following a record of 6-7-1 in 1965. It was a sign of how spoiled Lions fans had become, how used to winning the locals had been, that Gilmer’s two successive under-.500 seasons raised the bloodlust of the team’s supporters. Their frustration — I emphasize theirs, not mine; I just report this stuff showed itself as Harry the Hat, as we used to call him, began to make his way off the field and towards the Lions dugout after the final gun.
Almost as if on cue, snowballs began to rain down on Gilmer from the upper deck. Fwoop, Zam, Splat. The first balls were close, but no cigar. But the fans were just finding their range. Bing, Boing, Boom … large hunks of snow began to smack all around Gilmer as he walked, and more fans — again as if on signal — began singing “Goodbye Harry, Goodbye Harry … We hate to see you go!”  Zing, Poing, Pfft, Ping.
Poor Harry, I felt sorry for him. (Let me point out that I wasn’t throwing at him, mostly because I wasn’t near any snow, and — being in the lower deck — I wouldn’t have been able to get a good angle on him, anyway, if I had.) He continued to walk straight ahead, without flinching, head and shoulders erect, refusing to run or duck, refusing to give the crazed fans their satisfaction. Towards that end, as more and more missiles found him and his white cowboy hat — Floom! … his hat almost flew off his head at a glancing hit — he continued at a heroic, some might call it suicidal, pace. It was then that several Lions players ran to his aid, providing an entourage; holding up their parkas and long stadium coats to shield him from the onslaught. Fwoop, Flagroon! … snow and ice begin to fill their emergency drapes.
What everyone who was there that day remembered most … was what happened next. As the Honolulu Blue and Silver caravan approached the Lions dugout escape, a lone white orb came flying down from on high, heading right for poor Harry’s head. But all-time Lions hero Joe Schmidt — the team’s greatest linebacker, but then an assistant head coach — quickly reached up and made a baseball-style catch with his left hand — Zap — stopping the snowball just a foot or so from Gilmer’s face. What a grab; barehanded. Al Kaline would have been proud.
It was ironic that the players and — in Schmidt’s case — the assistant coaches came to Gilmer’s aid, because dissension was rumored to be running rampant among all factions — players and coaches — on that ‘66 Lions team. And while Joe Schmidt came away as the certain hero of that wild scene, it was doubly ironic that Joe saved face for Harry that day, kind of literally, and saved the day for the franchise.
Because the embarrassment of 1966 and two successive losing seasons, turned to high hopes and a call for the return of the Lions glory days when Gilmer was sacked shortly after that final game (and let’s face it, the snowball attack couldn’t have helped his case), and he was replaced on January 11, 1967 by … Joe Schmidt, the man of the hour just a month earlier.
Ah, outdoor football in Detroit. Ya gotta love it. I say bring it back. Especially for those glorious sunny Sundays of September and October. Especially for the days of high school football glory on cold November Friday nights. And especially for that amazing cross-field walk made one furious December Sunday in the face of a crazy snowball barrage by the legendary Harry … The Hat … Gilmer.

4 replies on “The Detroit Lions and the 1966 Snowball Rebellion

  • steve mardigian

    Great article. I remember the game bought my first season tickets at TS in 66. We knew Russ Thomas and WCF would destroy the franchise but loved the game in spite of them. My tics were in the bleachers on the wooden benches around the 10 yard line and took the brandy when it was passed my way even though I wasn’t 21. I was the manly way to watch football. Never again, the suburbs, and foo,foo and the feminist took away all the balls and political correctness buried most of the Alpha Males. Glad I grew up between mid 50’s and mid 60’s. What a town it was. I always told people and still do, 2nd best city in the U.S., after NYNY, until racism finally over took S.E. Michigan. And a new industry was born. Not that the racism didn’t need to die but political correctness has destroyed the character and soul of the real sports fan black and white. My opinion.

  • Craig Lounsbury

    I was there that day as well. I was 14 years old. The one thing I remember differently was the song lyrics. They weren’t:
    “Goodbye Harry, Goodbye Harry … We hate to see you go” rather they were “Goodbye Harry, Goodbye Harry … We’re glad to see you go”. At least where we (my dad and brother) were sitting. It was sung to the tune of “Good Night Ladies”

  • Jim Lewis

    I wasn’t at the Harry Gilmer game but I sure remember reading about it. I had season tickets from 1970 to 1974. I gave up my tickets when the Lions moved to the Silverdome. I remember listening to the Lions on the radio when they won their last Championship in 1957. The game was blacked out on TV in the Detroit area.

  • Barry Schumwr

    How can I get the video of the 1966 snowball rebellion? It is the opening of my armature open mic comedy routine.

Comments are closed.