The Detroit Lions and the Spirit of ’54

There was a blog posted here recently that recalled the squalid story of one Gary Glick and his status as probably the greatest failure of 1950s drafting in the NFL. That same blog promised to follow-up Glick’s absurd tale with an even more ridiculous draft-day performance by our own formerly beloved Detroit Lions. And since I was the author of The Glick Affair, and thus made the promise, herewith is the Lions tale of woe:

Yes, NFL drafting today has taken on all the trappings of a national Presidential election, with months of speculation and rigorous testing of the candidates, culminating in a day of mad obsession from coast to coast with the announcements of each team’s draft selections. Compare that to the old days when league franchises admittedly sometimes used college football fan magazines as their sources of information on draft day, and that may explain how our Lions once put in the most shameful draft-day performance in NFL history.

Now I can’t prove that the Lions based their draft in 1954 on that season’s “Street and Smith’s College Football Guide,” but they couldn’t have done worse if they’d gone into draft day depending on “The Farmer’s Almanac” as their information source. The true irony in this absurd failure was that the Lions in ’54 were at the peak of their NFL golden era. Coming off two successive World Championships, and being overwhelming favorites for a record third (which they damned well should have won, which is another story), the Silver and Blue must have suffered an attack of hubris or maybe the first faint stirrings of William Clay Ford Fever to choose as they did.

Baby boomer collectors of football cards will well recall the two mysterious Detroit Lions names and faces that graced the 1954 Bowman’s NFL offering. One card featuring the dashing profile of Dick Chapman, described as an All-American tackle from Rice who was coming to the Motor City as the Lions acclaimed number one choice. Another card that year showed the rather dull visage of Jim Neal, pictured in only a head shot and wearing obviously his green Michigan State helmet that had been haphazardly dyed a lousy blue (nowhere near the proper Honolulu blue) at the Bowman offices. Neal, also an all-American, was hailed as the hard-hitting center from MSU and the Lions key second draft choice.

Both cards turned — symbolically speaking of course — to toilet paper in their holders’ hands as NEITHER of these vaunted selections ever showed up to play for the Honolulu Blue and Silver. In 1954 there was very little reporting on the NFL in the off-season, and hardly any on the draft, so fans were left wondering what had happened to these two precious choices … I among them. Years later I learned that Chapman — and gee he looked dashing on that card, I bet we could have used him — had no interest in pro football, and indeed had planned all along to continue his education and become a nuclear physicist. Now to my understanding, our Lions have NEVER fielded a bona fide nuclear physicist (Alex Karras may have been the closest; it was rumored he could spell) so the all-important choice was a complete washout. How could they not have known??

And Neal … get this one … I once heard that Jim Neal belonged to a religion that banned working on Sundays! How’s THAT for a draft-day recomendation? Did the Lions draft him for the taxi squad? Now…with Michigan State only a short drive from the Lions old offices at 1401 Michigan Avenue, wouldn’t you think that SOMEONE on their staff could have spent an afternoon discovering that Neal was an absurd choice, a wasted opportunity? Or making ONE phone call?? Nope, not the Lions. Instead, at the top of their game historically … they cut into their future chances by drafting two guys in succession who had the good sense to NEVER want to play in the NFL. Never as in never-EVER! Who’d a thunk that?

I loved the Detroit Lions in 1954. I mean … I loved them. (Even though, and how’s this for a draft-day irony, they had a starting center who weighed less than 210 pounds.) I followed every game religiously; I had every card. As a lad, I even prayed in church for their success. Yet they drafted Two Guys Named Nobody when they could have had two top college players. And they crushed all my hopes and dreams when they lost the World Championship that year — to a team they had beaten just the week before — by a score of 56-10. And it still hurts.

Do you think that fate, or maybe the good Lord Himself … was trying to warn me off? … trying to tell me something about Lions days to come…?