Courtesy of the NFL Alumni Guide and Yearbook
In the era of full-time players, future hall of famer “Dutch” Clark was the Lions’ undisputed star player and team leader.
Courtesy of the NFL Alumni Guide and Yearbook

In the era of full-time players, future hall of famer “Dutch” Clark was the Lions’ undisputed star player and team leader.

<
1
2
>

Pass-happy football has made it difficult for players on the other side of the ball. It’s a trend at all levels of America’s most popular sport, from grade school to high school, from high school to college, and from college to the National Football League, which happens to be the crown jewel of all football.

A long time ago the NFL Alumni Guide and Yearbook published a story listing the “greatest offenses and defenses” in NFL history up to that point. The 1934 defense of the Detroit Lions was listed No. 4. The 1976 defensive units of the Pittsburgh Steelers was ranked No. 1, and the 1974-1975 Steeler teams were listed at No. 2. The great defense of the Chicago Bears filled the No. 3 spot. Other stellar defenses cited by the magazine were the 1970-1971 Dallas Cowboys at No. 5 and the 1952-1954-1957 Detroit Lions at No. 6. Yes, Detroit had some great runs in the 1950s.

There’s no denying the present-day NFL brand of football is at the top of its game. The stadiums are larger and plusher. The cost of a franchise is mind-boggling. Player salaries are outrageous. Assistant coaches are paid more money than the head coaches who came before them. The technology used in recruiting, scouting, breaking down film, coordinating team rosters and on game day is unparalleled.

In reviewing the great defensive units listed by the NFL Alumni Guide, I couldn’t help being impressed with the 1934 Lions and what they did that year even if it was before my entry into the category of a football freak. I’ve been a lifelong Packer fan, but I appreciate the sterling performances of other teams.

The 1934 Lions started out as the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans. Portsmouth was a nice place to live and play football, but not enough fans showed up to support professional football. The team was sold to a group of businessmen in Detroit headed by George A. Richards, a radio executive. The selling price was $8,000.

One of Richards’ first moves was to lure back Earl “Dutch” Clark, an outstanding runner-passer who played tailback in the team’s single wing offense. Clark, a Hall of Famer, had announced his retirement after the 1933 season to accept a teaching job at the Colorado School of Mines.

Richards retained Potsy Clark as head coach, giving him a block of stock in the franchise to lure him back in an era of the Great Depression. Potsy Clark had coached the Spartans to three consecutive winning seasons in Portsmouth.

The relocated Spartans also got a name change. Richards picked the nickname Lions because he wanted to coordinate motifs with the World Series-winning Detroit Tigers.

Detroit’s first opponent was the New York Giants who were led by Harry Newman, a passing sensation in the heyday of smash-mouth football and its running game. Throwing the melon-sized football of the 1930s, Newman averaged 12.7 passes per game the previous season, completed 39 percent of them and the Giants were labeled a “pass-happy” team by sports writers covering the games.

The Lions stunned the Giants 9-0 by rattling Newman with a furious pass rush. The Lions were led by all-pro tackle George “Tarzan” Christensen, a 240-pounder and the biggest man on the team roster. Other two-way players in the line were Ox Emerson, 216-pound “Cowboy Jack” Jackson, Buster Mitchell, “Wild Bill” McKalip and “Big John “ Schnell. The backfield was made up of Dutch Clark and Glenn Presneli as tailbacks, Ernie Caddell at wingback, Ace Gutowski at fullback, and Roy “Feather” Lumpkin at blocking back (quarterback).

As the NFL Alumni Guide pointed out, great athletes in that era got almost as much relish out of playing defense as offense. Think of fullback Bronko Nagurski, a punishing linebacker for the Bears, and fullback Clark Hinkle of the Packers who was a rugged linebacker on defense.

Potsy Clark’s team was blessed with talent in the backfield. The coach could rest players like Dutch Clark and Glenn Presnell, a tandem that made all-pro at the same time.

After knocking off the giants, the Lions nipped the Chicago Cardinals 6-0 and Green Bay 3-0, the latter coming on Presenll’s 54-yard field goal, a record for 19 years. Detroit blanked the Philadelphia Eagles 10-0 for its fourth straight shutout.

The Boston Redskins were up next. “If we get by these Redskins tonight, we’re liable to keep going for some time and set a record for scoreless games that no team will approach,” a confident Potsy Clark was quoted in a newspaper. The Lions won 24-0.

Five days later the Lions cuffed the Brooklyn Dodgers 28-0. No team managed to get inside Detroit’s 20-yard line up to that point. With six straight shutouts under its belt, the upstarts from Michigan made a return to their former home in Portsmouth to take on the struggling Cincinnati Reds, a team on the verge of folding. The Reds wanted the game moved to Portsmouth in hopes of boosting fan support. Coach Clark started as many former Spartan players he could to boast gate receipts. The crowd was small as the Lions routed the Reds 38-0. The Reds never crossed Detroit’s 50-yard line and the Lions had their seventh consecutive shutout, a feat the NFL had never seen.

The streak was snapped when the Lions pounded the Pittsburgh Pirates 40-7. Pittsburgh scored on a fake punt, a 62-yard pass from Harp Vaughan to Mugsy Sklanny. It was the only pass the Pirates completed in sight attempts.

The streak was over but the surprising Lions were 8-0. Two more wins got them to 10-0 and a showdown with the George Hales’ Chicago Bears who were also undefeated.

A shrewd promoter, Richards called Hales and convinced him to play the game on Thanksgiving Day. He promised Hale he would get radio coverage “all over the country.” He fulfilled his promise. National Broadcasting (NBC) carried the game with Gordon McNamee calling play-by-play and Don Wilson of Jack Benny Fame doing the color. Ninety-nine radio stations around the country carried the game. The game was famous in more than one way. It became the first of what continues to be an annual Thanksgiving Day event in Detroit.

The Lions established a 16-7 lead at halftime. The Bears rallied in the second half to win 19-16. Green Bay clipped Detroit the next week 3-0 on Hinkle’s 47-yard field goal. The defeat enabled the Bears to win the Western Division title.

The undefeated Bears faced the New York Giants in the Famous “Sneaker Game” at the Polo Grounds. The Giants won. The Lions roared back the following season to win the NFL crown.

Over the course of 13 games in 1934, the Lions allowed only seven touch downs, two of them rushing, an NFL record.

The 1934 season was special for the new Michigan franchise. The Lions played in a new city, racked up an unprecedented record on defense and ushered in the traditional Thanksgiving Day contest.

Just goes to show that a good defense can work wonders for a franchise.