Three former Lions’ quarterbacks died within days of each other in 2000

In 1957, Tobin Rote was under center for the Lions' last NFL championship.

It was a little bizarre to the say the least.

In the summer of 2000, over the course of thirteen days, three former Lion quarterbacks passed away.

On June 27th , 72-year old Tobin Rote, the quarterback who led the Lions to their last world championship, died at a Saginaw hospital after suffering a heart attack nearly two weeks following back surgery.

In 1957, the Lions platooned Rote and fellow Texan Bobby Layne before Rote finished off the season after Layne broke his leg in the second to the last regular season game.

He then engineered two of the greatest games in Detroit Lions history.

In the divisional playoff game at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium the Lions were trailing at halftime 24-7, and through the thin walls of the adjoining locker rooms the Detroit players could hear the 49ers celebrating.

“We could hear them laughing,” Rote said in 1991. “The walls were paper thin and they were going on about how they were going to spend their championship game money. It made us angry.”

Under Rote’s leadership, the Lions roared back as they scored three touchdowns in 4:29 and went on to win 31-27. The next game the Lions won their third World Championship in six years with a 59-14 rout of the Cleveland Browns as Rote threw four touchdown passes and ran for another.

Five days after Rote’s sudden passing, Lion fans learned that former signal caller Karl Sweetan, a fun loving party boy who for two seasons in the mid-sixties was embroiled in a quarterback controversy with Milt Plum, had died at a Las Vegas hospital of complications from vascular surgery.

Sweetan had lived in Nevada for 27 years after moving there to play semipro football when his NFL career ended in 1970. When he died at age 57 he was a blackjack dealer at a Vegas casino.

In his two seasons with the Lions, (1966-1967) Sweetan was probably best remembered for his record setting 99-yard TD to flanker Pat Studstill on October 16, 1966, in Baltimore. A few years later the Texas native made the national news when New Orleans coach J.D. Roberts reported to NFL security that Sweetan had contacted him in hopes of selling him a Los Angeles Rams playbook. Sweetan was arrested for wire fraud and interstate transportation of stolen property but the indictment was dropped after the D.A. determined that the monetary value of the playbook was less than the federal crime threshold for the sale of a stolen object across state lines.

And then just eight days later on July 10, Bill Munson, who had been acquired to replace Sweetan in 1968, was found by his nephew drowned in the swimming pool at his Lodi, California home. His death at age 58 was ruled accidental by local authorities. After eight seasons with Detroit where he competed for playing time with Greg Landry, Munson completed his NFL career with Seattle, San Diego, and Buffalo.

Munson maybe best remembered for nearly taking the 1970 wild card 10-4 Lions to the first ever NFC championship game in 1970.
Down 5-0 with less than two minutes to play, Lion head coach Joe Schmidt substituted Bill Munson for the ineffective Greg Landry. Munson marched the Lions down to the Dallas 29 yard line. With just 35 seconds left and on 3rd and 10, Munson threw what looked like a sure touchdown to Earl McCullough but the ball was picked off by Mel Renfro, sealing the Dallas victory.

Let’s just say that after those three consecutive deaths in the Summer of 2000, other former Lion quarterbacks were probably looking over their shoulders for the Grim Reaper.