Warm Memories of Cold Days

I’m such an “I remember when…” guy that even I get sick of me.

I can’t help it. Childhood memories are the ones that stick most fully with me, and I can’t watch an NFL cold-weather game without being transported back to the 1950s.

The league and the networks think that freezing conditions and snowy showdowns reek of the Packers–Bears series of games played through the ages, so they went nuts over this year‘s Green Bay–Chicago playoff showdown. But when I was a kid the Packers were perennial also-rans come December, and the Bears had but one memorable season in my favorite decade. (And they stole the lone division championship they won, but more on that in a while.)

Nope, the golden teams of the NFL’s golden era — when the league moved into the realm of television, and stadiums started selling out from coast to coast — were the Cleveland Browns and, yup, the Detroit Lions. In the ten years from 1950 to ‘59, the World’s Championship (the old equivalent of the Super Bowl) was won three times by the Browns (’50, ‘54, ‘55), and three times by the Lions (’52,’53,‘57). (Cleveland appeared in the title game an amazing six times, and the Lions four — each time against the Browns.) The Baltimore Colts won the title in ‘58 and ‘59, coming to respectability late in the decade. The other championships went to the Los Angeles Rams in 1951, and the New York Giants in 1956.

If anybody was paying attention to Bears–Packers games in that key decade, it had to have been fans of losing football.

The late season, cold-weather games of title importance in that era, then, were not being played between Chicago and Green Bay. So my memories lie elsewhere. And as uncomfortable as the conditions can be for players and fans in attendance, there’s something really special about cold-weather clashes between two top teams, and I keenly remember four that were highlights of my youth:

December 19, 1954: Detroit at Cleveland. Played in a nonstop snowstorm, the Lions and Browns felt each other out like heavyweight fighters in the early rounds just one week before their title game showdown. The season’s final regular season game was played in whiteout conditions, with both teams having clinched their divisions weeks before. Bobby Layne passed to Jug Girard for a late touchdown, leading Detroit to a 14-10 triumph. It was the first game I‘d seen played in snow on TV, and I found it thrilling. (The two teams played on the same field, cleared of snow, for the championship one week later, and the Browns stunned the best Lions team of the era, 56-10, but you didn’t hear it from me.)

December 16, 1956: Detroit at Chicago. Of all the games I saw in the 1950s, this one left the most indelible impression on me. The 9-2 Lions and 8-2-1 Bears, bitter rivals, played a winner-take-all final game for the Western Division championship on a dark and windy day at Wrigley Field, with evil Bears owner George Halas bullying officials all afternoon long from the sidelines. The tension and hype raised before the match spilled onto the field, as Bears end Ed Meadows viciously slammed Lions quarterback Bobby Layne to the turf, knocking the Lions leader out of the game with a severe concussion on the fifth play of the second quarter. That Layne had handed the ball off to halfback Gene Gedman three full seconds before, and that Meadows blindsided him from behind, seemed to bother no one in Chicago that day, or since. The Bears went on to defeat the demoralized Lions 38-21. (They subsequently got their clocks cleaned by the Giants in the title game, 47-7, with Meadows receiving a picturesque punch square to the jaw from a Giants lineman … which proved that sometimes prayers are answered.)

December 15, 1957: Detroit at Chicago: Played in swirling snow squalls on another raw Chicago day, this eagerly-awaited rematch saw the Lions shelving plans for revenge as they were all business on the season’s final day. Needing a victory to tie for the Western Division lead with San Francisco and playing without the injured Layne (a broken leg suffered the previous week), the Lions and substitute qb Tobin Rote trailed 10-0 at the half. But Rote, obtained in the off-season for such emergencies, rallied the Lions with touchdown passes to John Henry Johnson, Howard Cassady, and Dave Middleton, downing the Bears 21-13 and clinching the divisional tie with the 49ers. Take that, Halas.

December 29, 1957: Cleveland at Detroit: The fourth-and-final Browns-Lions title matchup of the 1950s was played on a cold but clear Detroit day, and I was there with my Dad for my first Lions game. Our guys had overcome a 27-7 second half deficit to defeat San Francisco 31-27 in the playoff the Sunday before, and never stopped rolling as they plastered the Browns in a 59-14 rout, getting revenge for the 1954 game you may have heard about. Everything the Lions tried worked, and Rote and defensive leader Joe Schmidt were carried around the field by thousands of delirious Lions fans after the final gun. The temperature was in the high 20s, but it’s amazing how warm you can be when your team is running away with the World’s Championship game. It was the Lions third NFL title in six years, and as my father and I walked down Michigan Avenue towards the dusk of that memorable Sunday, amid scattered cheering and the honking horns of passing cars, I was sure that more championships were sure to follow. The Detroit Lions; our once and future kings of the NFL. Of that, I had no doubt.

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