This year Detroit Lion rookie Sam LaPorta, an All-Big Ten tight end who starred at the University of Iowa and was selected last year in the second round in the NFL draft, has been a key factor in the team’s success with his jaw dropping performances.
Already he is the first rookie tight end in NFL history with at least 70 receptions, 700 receiving yards and nine receiving touchdowns in a season while breaking franchise records for receiving touchdowns by a rookie, and receiving yards and receptions by a rookie tight end.
When the Lions won their last world championship back in 1957, another 22-year-old rookie tight end, Steve Junker, played a prominent role in the team’s success, particularly at the end of the season when he scored key touchdowns.
And this was back when the NFL was largely a running game compared today’s constant air assaults.
With the recent passing of Steve Junker at the age of 88, (his number with the Lions) it is worth looking back at his significant contributions to the Lions’ ’57 championship season.
The Cincinnati native was drafted in the fourth round of the ’57 NFL draft out of Xavier
Junker did not start for the Lions until the fourth game of the season against the Colts at Briggs Stadium in what became one of the greatest comebacks in Lion history.
Trailing 27-3 with a quarter left to play, the very first pass ever thrown to Junker in an NFL game was thrown by Tobin Rote that resulted in a 14-yard touchdown. The Lions went on to beat Baltimore with 50 seconds left in a thrilling 31-27 comeback victory that became a turning point for the team.
In my 2007 interview with Junker, he said that he would never forget being chewed out by quarterback Bobby Layne later in that game. He said:
“Layne had this gravelly, Texas, whiskey drawl, and I heard him call my pattern ‘8 right’, so I cut across the middle. But Bobby actually had said ‘8 drag’ where you go down the sideline. Layne threw it for an interception and goddamn he was mad. He chewed my ass from the huddle to the sideline and told George Wilson (head coach) ‘Get that (expletive) rookie out of here.” I thought it was the end for me but I got back into the game.”
Junker really made his mark in the final two games played that season.
With the Lions and 49ers tied with regular season records of 8-4, the teams were forced to meet in a playoff game in San Francisco to determine in who would play in the championship game against the Cleveland Browns.
Once again, the Lions staged arguably their greatest and most significant comeback in franchise history with Junker again playing a key role.
At halftime the Lions trailed the 49ers 24-7 and became livid when they heard their opponents celebrating in the adjacent locker-room.
“Hearing that gave us the incentive to play our assess off,” Joe Schmidt told me 50 years later.
The Lions however fell further behind 27-7 early in the third quarter but then pulled off the impossible when they rallied to win 31-27 after scoring three touchdowns in a span of 4 ½ minutes.
For the game, Steve Junker was Detroit’s leading receiver with eight catches for 92 yards and a touchdown.
In the World Championship game at Briggs Stadium against the Browns, Junker was once again one of the heroes in the 59-14 resounding victory.
Leading 17-7 in the second quarter, Junker and the Lions pulled off a trick play that forever changed the momentum of the game in Detroit’s favor.
On fourth down at the Cleveland 26 George Wilson with a leg kick signaled for a field goal attempt.
But quarterback Tobin Rote and another idea.
“In the huddle Rote said, ‘Goddamn it, this is our money. Let’s go with the fake field goal we practiced last week,’” Junker told me. “When I got to the line I put on a pretty good act with Ken Russell as we pointed out who we were going to block. When the ball was snapped, I ran past the linebacker who realized he had been had, and at the 5 the ball was there, and I’m thinking, ‘God, don’t drop it.’”
And Junker didn’t as he scored the first of his two touchdowns that glorious afternoon.
The next morning the red-haired rookie who was a runner up to Cleveland’s Jim Brown for Rookie of the Year honors, appeared with George Wilson at the WWJ studios for a live interview on NBC’s “Today Show.”
In the two playoff games Junker scored three touchdowns on 13 receptions for 201 yards but sadly he never fully recovered from an off-season knee injury that caused him to miss the entire 1958 season.
He played briefly in the 1959 and 1960 seasons and then finished his NFL career with the Washington Redskins in 1961 and 1962.
Still, Junker had no regrets.
“I wouldn’t trade that 1957 championship season for 10 more years in the NFL,” he said. “There are a lot of guys who played many more years and never came close to a championship.”
Following his retirement, Junker worked as a scout for the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys until 1967 before creating a very successful real estate business in Cincinnati where he died on December 13. He was survived by Elaine, his wife of 55 years, three children, and five grandchildren.