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Thread: Excellent Bobby Layne article...
09-28-2008, 06:26 AM #1
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Excellent Bobby Layne article...
Flawed on the field and off, quarterback Bobby Layne always found a way to win
BY BILL DOW • FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER • September 28, 2008
Off the field, he was a late-night carouser who loved Cutty Sark whiskey, cards, gambling, jazz, a roomful of drinking buddies singing "Ida Red," picking up the tab and leaving a big tip.
On the field, though, quarterback Bobby Layne was the protypical field general, deferring to no one during the glory days of the 1950s when the Lions won four division titles and three world championships.
Layne was considered the first "two-minute quarterback." The swashbuckling, ramblin', gamblin' Texan relished the challenge of coming from behind and pulling out a victory in front of delirious fans at Briggs Stadium.
"I still say the one guy responsible for the success of football in Detroit was Bobby Layne," said Lions legend Joe Schmidt, who once was voted "Mr. Detroit Lion" by a local media panel.
Layne is still the Lions' all-time passing leader in completions, yards and touchdowns.
As the Lions celebrate their 75th season this year, Bobby Layne will be mentioned with reverence by those who know most of his legendary story. Some fans might cite the mysterious "Curse of Bobby Layne" as an excuse for the Lions' losing ways, pointing out that since he was traded 50 years ago, the team has won just one playoff game.
For others, including some teammates, the real mystery is why the team's most celebrated player was suddenly traded after the second game of the 1958 season.
One possible explanation might be more surprising than the trade itself. But to put one of Detroit's most shocking trades in perspective, one must first examine Bobby Layne and his significance to the franchise.
Building a winner
Layne, who grew up in Dallas and starred for the University of Texas, began his pro career with the Bears in 1948 and later the New York Bulldogs before Detroit acquired him for receiver Bob Mann and cash in 1950, the same year the team drafted Heisman Trophy winners Leon Hart and Doak Walker. (Layne and Walker had been high school teammates and friends in Dallas.)
At the time, the Lions had won just 10 games in the previous four seasons and were wallowing in red ink with the threat that the struggling franchise might leave Detroit.
But thanks to marquee headliners Layne, Walker and Hart, a strong supporting cast and the promotion of Buddy Parker to coach for the 1951 season, the Lions began to fill the seats at Briggs Stadium.
With the blond-haired Layne barking out signals in his Texas drawl, the Lions became America's team as they captured consecutive world championships in 1952 and 1953 and a division title in 1954, the same year Layne became the first football player to grace the cover of Time magazine.
"Bobby was not a great pro thrower, but he was smart, knew the weaknesses of defenses and did what he had to do to win," Schmidt said. "He was a tremendous leader, highly competitive and had a passion for excellence with very high expectations for his teammates."
Although Parker was the coach, it was clear to fans, teammates and opponents that it was Layne's team.
"He was probably the greatest competitor I ever saw, and it was always 'win at all costs' with him," said former teammate Gene Cronin, who met Layne in training camp in 1956. "It didn't take you long to find out that he was really the man in charge."
Teammate Yale Lary agreed: "When Bobby said block, you blocked. And when Bobby said drink, you drank."
Layne was tough as nails in more ways than one. He was the last quarterback to play without a face mask, and he competed with small shoulder pads while eschewing rib, thigh, hip or knee pads.
And pity the lineman who missed a block.
Cronin learned the hard way.
"They tried to make an offensive guard out of me, but in an exhibition game against the Colts, I let Art Donovan get through," Cronin said. "Bobby screamed at me, 'If you can't block, get the hell out of here.' I was too small and moved to defense."
After a game, all was forgiven. As a longtime Monday ritual, Layne hosted a team get-together at the Stadium Bar across from Briggs Stadium, where the drinks would flow, songs would be sung and stories told. Typically Layne, the team's highest-paid player, picked up the tabs of his teammates and often those of strangers and bar regulars.
A night out with Bobby Layne was an adventure.
"Before I was married, I used to go out on the town with him, and although I didn't always want to go, it was hard to say no," Schmidt said. "It was like walking into a room with Babe Ruth -- everybody knew him, table down front, drinks for everyone and big tips to the musicians. You'd have a good time but pay for it the next day."
Despite all of his success, the seeds for Layne's departure began in the last game of the 1956 season, when Detroit lost the division title to Chicago. Layne was knocked out of the game on a late, blindside hit by the Bears' Ed Meadows, and backup Harry Gilmer failed to rally the Lions.
In need of a solid backup quarterback, Detroit acquired Green Bay's Tobin Rote, the NFL's leading passer in 1956. The move resulted in a 1957 season full of controversy.
Parker suddenly resigned during training camp. New coach George Wilson announced he would alternate quarterbacks. And two weeks before the season, Layne was arrested for drunken driving. (Ashamed, Layne offered to retire.) He was acquitted days before breaking his ankle in the second-to-last game of the season, and Rote became the hero in leading the Lions to their third championship in six years.
As the 1958 season started, Layne and Rote split time as the team dropped three exhibition games and the opener in Baltimore. On the eve of the second game in Green Bay, Wilson told the Free Press "we have not had a solid quarterbacking job from them yet, but we know what Layne and Rote can do. It's simply a matter of getting everything working together."
However, the Green Bay game would be Layne's last as a Lion.
With the score tied 13-13 and two minutes remaining, Detroit recovered a fumble on the Green Bay 16. Layne handed off to Gene Gedman, who gained two, and on second down then threw incomplete to Ken Webb. With 70 seconds on the clock, the Lions were within field-goal range. Instead, on third down, Gedman reached in vain for a pitchout from Layne, the Packers recovered the fumble and the game was over.
Wilson was publicly upset with Layne's questionable play-calling, especially the third-down option that led to the fumble. Layne had also flubbed an extra-point kick on the first score.
In an article Layne wrote a year later in the Saturday Evening Post, he revealed what happened the following day.
"I was so tired and disgusted that I told my wife in Lubbock, Texas, that I was quitting football. I had been with them eight years, and in that time we had won four Western Division titles and three league championships and had finished second twice. Now I was suddenly a bum. In the second game of the season, the Green Bay Packers tied the Lions 13-13 and it was all my fault. I was blamed for missing an extra point and for not doing various things to win the game. The coaching staff criticized me openly and some of the sports writers got on my back. I was unhappy with the Lions even before the Green Bay stuff mainly because I was splitting time with Tobin Rote."
Although a friend talked him out of quitting, Layne's wife, Carol, flew into Detroit. As the couple walked through the terminal, Layne was paged over the public-address system. It was Wilson, who informed him that he had been traded to Pittsburgh for quarterback Earl Morrall and two draft choices. For Layne, the only consolation was that he would rejoin Parker, who had taken over the Steelers.
The move sent shock waves through Detroit.
"My reaction like everyone else was why?" said Alex Karras, a teammate and Lions defensive tackle from 1958-62 and 1964-70. "No one could give us a real explanation, and that disturbed a lot of his. Once he was gone, the team just wasn't what it used to be. It must have been something he must have done that wasn't good for the NFL."
Wilson told reporters the trade had been made because it had been difficult rotating two No. 1 quarterbacks, and by obtaining Morrall the Lions were getting a younger quarterback and two high draft choices.
However, there has been speculation that Layne's sudden departure might have been linked to Layne allegedly gambling on his own games.
Former Packer Paul Hornung, who played against Layne in the 13-13 game, revealed in his 2004 autobiography "Golden Boy":
"In the second game of the 1958 season, Layne did something peculiar against our team in Green Bay. The Lions were 3 1/2 -point favorites and, as Layne told me later, he had bet on them to cover the spread. With the score tied at 13 late in the fourth quarter, the field-goal team came onto the field to win the game, but Layne shushed them off. Layne then overthrew his receiver in the end zone" -- note, Hornung's facts are wrong; the Lions fumbled on third down -- "and the game ended in a tie. It was obvious he had bet on the game. Layne later told me he was confident he could get a touchdown and win the game that way. Bobby gambled more than anybody who ever played football period. How did the league go all those years without ever getting him?"
Investigative reporter Dan Moldea wrote in his book, "Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football," that Detroiter Donald (Dice) Dawson, a convicted gambler, told him that he had placed bets with Layne and that Layne "had fixed games or shaved points in no fewer than seven games over a period of four years while Layne played with the Detroit Lions and later the Pittsburgh Steelers."
Dawson told Moldea, "I was involved with players in at least 32 NFL games that were dumped or where points were shaved." Moldea added: "Layne was thought to have shaved points or participated in the fixing of several NFL games, according to several bookmakers and law enforcement officials."
Reached at his home in Las Vegas, Dawson, 88, stands by the assertions he made in Moldea's book but stated he did not recall the Green Bay game.
A source for Moldea's book was Vincent Piersante, the former head of the organized crime unit of the Michigan attorney general's office. In the book's footnote, Moldea writes, "Piersante told me, 'The Detroit team management broke up the (gambling) operation. The way it was broken up was Bobby Layne was sold to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1958 in midseason.' "
Former WXYZ television sports anchor Dave Diles, an Associated Press reporter in the late 1950s, said that getting into the gambling allegations about Layne is a little like "shooting Santa Claus."
"But I heard the rumors back then and knew some Lion players very quietly discussing them, and some bookmakers who knowingly smiled," Diles said. "I did investigate it as well as I could with the Lions and NFL, but I couldn't get anywhere and couldn't get a bookie to talk. I heard that George Wilson had no choice but to trade him."
Denials and death
Toward the end of his 1962 autobiography "Always on Sunday," published during his last season, Layne denied betting on games.
"I know I've been accused of betting on games, especially when my team loses, but I take it with a grain of salt. Losing gamblers grumble no matter what happens. First of all, I would have to be crazy to endanger my livelihood for a few thousand dollars ... but I owe a lot to football and to jeopardize my reputation would be ridiculous. Even if I had been betting, it would have come out in the open long ago."
Layne was never charged nor was it ever proved that he was involved with point shaving or fixing games.
Layne finished his career with the Steelers, and his last pass was intercepted by friend Lary of the Lions in the Runner Up Bowl in Miami on Jan. 6, 1963.
In August 1963, Layne was honored by the Lions with a Bobby Layne Day during a preseason game at Tiger Stadium. That year, Wilson tried to coax him out of retirement to return to the Lions, but Layne would not budge. In 1967 he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Layne remained in Lubbock, served briefly as a part-time quarterback coach with the Steelers and Cardinals and became a successful self-employed businessman.
Layne's hard drinking and party lifestyle caught up with him as he battled chronic liver problems and throat cancer.
In November 1986, Layne attended a Lions reunion in Detroit but left the party early and was found throwing up blood in his hotel room. He was hospitalized in Detroit for internal bleeding and then flown to a Lubbock hospital where he died of cardiac arrest on Dec. 1, 18 days shy of his 60th birthday.
"It was certainly sad when Bobby died. But, you know, if you could bring him back and say you can start your life all over again, I don't think he'd change a thing," Schmidt said. "I'm happy he enjoyed his life but sad that he abused himself that much.
"And I still think that if the Lions had Bobby in the early '60s, we would have won another championship."Where's Zimm?
09-28-2008, 07:52 AM #2
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09-28-2008, 08:13 AM #3
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I don't remember when he died, but I was a little shut out from the outside world, as I was in the Army at the time.Where's Zimm?
09-28-2008, 12:43 PM #4
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Thankfully his curse is gone before we play again. When we hit a huge winning streak, some silly people will think it's because of the Millen thing.