Courtesy of NFL Guide and Yearbook
It took two Green Bay blockers to hold off Middle Linebacker Joe Schmidt of the Detroit Lions in a game dating to the 1950s when the Lions were perennial contenders in the Western Division of the National Football League.
Courtesy of NFL Guide and Yearbook

It took two Green Bay blockers to hold off Middle Linebacker Joe Schmidt of the Detroit Lions in a game dating to the 1950s when the Lions were perennial contenders in the Western Division of the National Football League.

<
1
2
>

The Green Bay Packers have devoted a lot of attention — and money — in recent years in efforts to shore up its defense. The moves have come through the draft and free agency.

In the pass-happy NFL these days, the other side of the ball has been put under a tremendous amount of stress to stifle the quarterbacks and pass receivers who have been ringing up big numbers like never before. We read a lot about the need for edge rushers, cornerbacks and safeties. Some coaches prefer a good pass rush from their inside linemen. The game has changed from the old days when running backs dominated and quarterbacks were throwing 20-30 times a game.

In a Feb. 4 column, I wrote about the Detroit Lions and their smothering defense in 1934 when the game was in its smash-mouth, grind-it-out style with bulldozing fullbacks and slick running halfbacks. The Detroit defense was so stout it racked up a shutout record that would be obscured in the present-day game.

The Lions fielded three stellar defensive units in the 1950s that were special. Detroit fans were in their glory and they had every right to be excited. The 1952, 1954 and 1957 Lions were set apart from other team defenses. I’m a lifelong Packer backer, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate watching a good football team in action.

I referred to one of my favorite NFL guides — the NFL Alumni Yearbook — for some recollections of those magnificent Detroit teams and combined the information with my memories of watching them perform in Green Bay and writing about them in my novice years as a sports writer at the Menominee Herald-Leader. It was also the same decade Earl “Jug” Girard, perhaps the greatest all-around athlete in M&M history, was a member of the Detroit team as a talented running back, pass receiver, punt and kickoff returner, and who had playing time at quarterback and defensive back. The Jugger did all of those things and I saw him do it.

Let’s review 1957 for example. Detroit was losing to the powerful San Francisco 49ers in the third quarter of the playoffs by a 27-7 score. The 49ers had standouts like Y.A. Tittle (quarterback), Joe “The Jet” Perry and Hugh McElhenny (running backs), and R.C. “Alley Oop” Owens, one of the top receivers in professional football. The game was played in old Kezar Stadium to boot. Somehow, the Lions roared back and won.

Joe Schmidt was a crushing linebacker for Detroit. He joined the team in 1953 and was a coach’s dream. He and linebacker Bill George of the Chicago Bears were the first of the great middle linebackers, according to NFL Alumni Yearbook.

The Detroit defense was anchored by 350-pound middle guard Les Bingaman. Alumni Yearbook compared him to Green Bay’s Gilbert Brown who played next to Reggie White to give the Packers a couple of studs up front. Bingaman retired after the 1954 season and the Lions switched to a 4-3 defense, which brought out the greatness of Schmidt.

Other stalwarts in the front makeup of the lions were Thurman McGraw, Darris McCord and Gil Mans. The roughneck in the secondary was 5’10”, 170-pound Jim David who earned the nickname “the Hatchet.” NFL Alumni Yearbook noted that David put two of the NFL’s elite players — Y.A. Tittle and Tom Fears — out of the game on successive Sundays. Tittle suffered a broken jaw and Fears went out with two broken vertebrae. The two incidents reached the commissioner’s office for review.

Davis said injury to Tittle was an accident and admitted “kinda going after Fears because he went after my teammate Yale Lary. We police our own game.”

Detroit bagged the Western Conference crown in 1952 and went on to defeat the Eastern Division Cleveland Browns 17-7 for the NFL championship. The next year the same two teams collided for the NFL title and Detroit eked out a 17-16 win. The Lions had a chance to make it three in a row in 1954, but the Browns would have none of that: Cleveland 56, Detroit 10.

Detroit dominated Green Bay in the 1950s. During the team’s great run early in the decade, the Lions defeated the Packers 52-17 and 48-24 in 1952; 14-7 and 34-15 in 1953, and 21-17 and 28-24 in 1954. Gene Ronzani, a native of Iron Mountain, Mich., was Green Bay’s head coach in ‘52 and ‘53, and Lisle Blackbourn was at the helm in ‘54 after Ronzani was fired. Blackbourn came to the Packers from Marquette University at a time the Hilltoppers’ (their nickname then) sponsored football. Several former Menominee High School standouts played under Blackbourn at Marquette.

There was a bizarre beginning to Detroit’s 1957 season. The team held its annual “Meet the Lions” banquet two days before the season opener. Coach Buddy Parker, who had carved out a successful record with the club, stood up at the banquet and announced: “I can’t handle this team anymore. This is the worst team I ever seen in training camp. They have no life, no go, just a completely dead team. I’m leaving Detroit football. And I’m leaving tonight.”

Wow! What a knockout punch. Parker’s assistant coaches, players and everyone connected with the organization were shell-shocked. George Wilson, Parker’s top aide and a former NFL player, was left to pick up the fragments.

Television sports channels didn’t exist back then. Sports fans relied on the hometown daily newspaper, most of them late afternoon editions, to deliver the news. Detroit fans, among the most feverish in the NFL, bristled at Parker’s announcement.

When I arrived at the Herald-Leader newsroom the following morning and was reading the overnight Associated Press wire copy, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. AP updates were transmitted right up to press time. My decision for the sports page banner headline that day was easy.

For the benefit of younger generations and the seniors who may have forgotten about the nation’s top sports story of the day, Wilson was coaching the Lions when they made a remarkable comeback against the 49ers and went on to trounce the Browns 34-14 in the NFL title game.

Despite Detroit’s success in the 1930s, Coach Paul Brown and the Cleveland Browns were more successful. The Browns nailed down seven Eastern Division titles and won three NFL championships in the pre-Super Bowl era. The Super Bowl was created as a condition of the merger between the American Football League (formed in 1959) and the National Football League (formed in 1920).

The merger agreement stipulated that the league would play separated regular season schedules through the 1969 season, but meet after each AFL-NFL championship game, unofficially dubbed the Super Bowl. The first Super Bowl was played at the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Jan. 15, 1967, when the Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs 35-0.