Thirty five years ago this past Thanksgiving, the era of Lions football in the Great Outdoors ended when the team lost to Denver 31-27 at Tiger Stadium. It was the last Detroit Lions game ever played at the fabled ballpark. The following year the team headed out to the Pontiac Silverdome.
In front of a crowd of 51, 157 with temperatures in the low thirties and snow flurries, the Lions were fighting for a wild card playoff spot as an estimated 35 million television viewers watched the contest that was blacked out in Detroit.
The Tiger Stadium finale is best remembered by the career ending injury to Steve Owens, the team’s highest paid player and the 1969 Heisman Trophy winner. Owens was completing a first quarter 27 yard scamper when just as he was about to cross the goal line at the first base side end zone, a running back’s worst nightmare occurred.
“I was going to dive in but when I went up my cleat stuck in the turf and a Bronco hit me from the left side. My foot was implanted and when he hit it just tore everything up in my left knee. Downed at the one, the Lions were unable to score any points. After the game my wife Barbara said, ‘Steve, at least you could have scored’” he says with a laugh. “It was frustrating because as it turns out, we didn’t get any points from that run.”
Ironically, the longest run of his five year career was also his last. Following surgery the next morning and after two years of rigorous rehab Owens retired and returned to Oklahoma where he is now the CEO of his insurance and financial services companies.
“I left a big part of me at Tiger Stadium. I really enjoyed playing there,” Owens recalls. The Detroit fans were always so great to me and I loved playing for Joe Schmidt. I also had such great teammates.”
Denver’s three touchdowns in the third quarter erased Detroit’s 17-10 ten half time lead and went on to win 31-27 dashing hopes for the playoffs while losing their star player. The Lions finished the season with a 7-7 record.
It was an unhappy conclusion to the 34 years at the stadium where the Lions had their glory days in the 1950s when the team won three world championships in 1952, 1953, and 1957. Despite its rich history at the ballpark, there was little fanfare about it being the last professional football game at Tiger Stadium.
“I remember there wasn’t a great deal of emotion about it being the last game there because we were focused on winning and making the playoffs,” Lions’ legend Lem Barney recalls.
“Steve Owens was our Bronco Nagurski, our workhorse. It was a deflating and somber mood when he went down. We tried to rally but fell short.
“But when I was back home for dinner with my family it dawned on me that it was my last game there,” Barney says. “I really enjoyed the Tiger Stadium era. You can’t replace the spirit of the great players who played there. From time to time I used to drive down the Lodge freeway and will veer off at Bagley and drive by Tiger Stadium to just look at it. I preferred playing outdoors with the natural aesthetics. Nothing can replace natural grass, a much more forgiving surface. With the Silverdome it was more of a corporate scenario and we kind of lost the family mystique of Tiger Stadium.”