Frankly, like many of you, I have grown tired of griping week-after-week about Steve Mariucci, Joey Harrington and the rest of the underachieving 2004 Detroit Lions. So in honor of the Thanksgiving Day game and my blood pressure, I'm going to hold off on the bashing for this week and instead take a trip down memory lane, back to the year 1960. On December 4th of that year, the Lions played the Baltimore Colts in what would become one of the greatest games, and include one of the most fantastic finishes, in Detroit Lions' history.
By the way, a lot has been made of the Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers-Detroit fans near-riot at the Palace of Auburn Hills last Friday night. While it certainly is a big story, and worthy of attention, let's not get carried away and act like this is something new; to find proof, you have to go no further than the story below.
Oh, and one more thing . . . Happy Thanksgiving everyone.
For the most part, since being drafted second-overall by the San Francisco 49ers in the 1956 NFL draft, Earl Morrall had failed to distinguish himself during his NFL career. He spent his rookie year riding the 49er bench behind Y.A. Tittle. Then, when the ‘Niners drafted John Brodie the next season, they traded Morrall to Pittsburgh where he failed to impress their newly arrived head coach, Buddy Parker. When Detroit's head coach George Wilson offered Bobby Layne to Parker the following season in exchange for Earl and two draft choices, Morrall found himself on way back to his home state of Michigan. Earl, of course, had been a high school legend at Muskegon High and later took his talents to Michigan State, where he led the Spartans to the 1956 Rose Bowl.
From his arrival in October of 1958 thru the end of the 1959 season, Earl shared QB duties with veteran Tobin Rote. By the end of 1959, when Rote decided to play out his option and head for the Canadian Football League, George Wilson's patented version of the dreaded quarterback carousel was in full effect. When Wilson replaced Rote on the roster by working a trade with the Browns for another former MSU Spartan, Jim Ninowski, the Lion carousel looked like it would never come to a halt.
For some reason, George Wilson never seemed to embrace Earl during their time together in Detroit. Even though George was the one who traded for him in the first place, the coach always seemed to be looking for someone else to be the Lions' starter at quarterback. Earl had watched patiently in 1960 as Ninowski stumbled his way to a season where he would finish with 2 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. With players like Joe Schmidt, Night Train Lane, Yale Lary, Alex Karras, Dick LeBeau and Wayne Walker, the Lions possessed a devastating defense that rivaled any in league history. However, because of their sputtering offense, the Lions stood at 4-5 when they traveled into Baltimore's Memorial Stadium to face the NFL's two-time defending champions.
The Lion defense held tough through the first half, holding the powerful Colts to just 8 points. Those came from a first quarter safety, when Baltimore defensive end Lebron Shields blocked a Yale Lary punt out of the end zone, and a second period bomb from Unitas to Lenny Moore that covered 80 yards. The Lion defense had stopped three other Colt drives inside the 20 yard line during the first half. The first stop came on downs at the 17 when Unitas elected to go for the first down instead of a Steve Myhra field goal try. The second stop came with a Lary interception at the 2, and the third occurred when Lion defensive tackle Roger Brown stripped and recovered the ball from Unitas at the 11 yard line.
In the meantime, the only Lion points came from a 20-yard Jim Martin field goal. Throughout the half, the Lions struggled with Ninowski at the controls. Detroit's best scoring opportunity came late in the second period when, after a pass off a fake field goal from holder Earl Morrall to Ken Webb gave the Lions a first down on Colt 7, Ninowski threw an interception to Baltimore's Bob Boyd. Boyd returned the pick 74-yards to Detroit's 11. At this point, it was only the aforementioned strip-and-steal by Roger Brown that kept the Colts 8 to 3 lead from increasing going into the half.
Wilson stuck with Ninowski through the end of the third quarter. Then, with the game still deadlocked at 8-3, George handed the controls over to Morrall to start the final period. With eight minutes left, Morrall dropped back at threw a pass to Howard Cassady, who crashed into the goal posts just as the ball came to rest in his hands. The aerial covered 40 yards, and gave the Lions their first lead of the day at 10-8. Then with less than two minutes remaining, Jim Martin added another field goal, this time from 47-yards out to increase Detroit's lead to 13 to 8.
If there was a quarterback anywhere who could have claimed to be the man who inherited the two-minute drill championship from Bobby Layne it was John Unitas, and it was at this point that the stoop-shouldered assassin went to work. In a magnificent drive that took less than one minute, Unitas brought the Colts 80 yards to paydirt. The go ahead score came when Lenny Moore beat defensive back Night Train Lane with, in the words of legendary Lion beatwriter George Puscas, "one of the decade's great pass catches, a diving, sprawling, rolling snare." The touchdown covered 37 yards, and the Myhra point-after made the score Colts 15, Lions 13. There were now 14 seconds remaining on the clock.
In George Plimpton's 1973 book, "Mad Ducks and Bears," Plimpton recalls a conversation he had with Lions' Alex Karras and John Gordy about the final moments of the game immediately after the Moore touchdown. The following passage is directly taken from that book because frankly, it describes the scene much more colorfully than I could ever hope to. We pick up the story from the point where Karras recalls Moore's catch:
"Christ! I'll never forget it. Lenny Moore went six yards in the air parallel to the ground, I swear. He caught the ball just on his fingertips, the most fantastic catch I ever saw in my life. I ran down on the field. I couldn't believe it. Neither could Night Train. His whole spirit left him; he turned white. And then this whole ant army of Baltimore fans came down on the field, and they knocked Train over and they were yelling and screaming. The announcer came on the public address system. It was almost impossible to hear him, and he was saying, ‘Okay now, you've got to get off the field. This is Baltimore's greatest hour. Please don't ruin . . .'
"Well, man, I was hot. I got to the sidelines and these three Baltimore fans started giving me the needle. One of them called me a ‘fat-ass something-or-other' and I took my helmet and hit him ‘whap' in the head with it. He went down, and one of the other two guys pulled a knife. I stared at it bug-eyed and began swinging my helmet back and forth to keep him away from me. Jimmy Butsicaris was there, a friend of mine from Detroit. He came rushing up and pretended he had a gun. He put his hand in his overcoat pocket and shoved it out with the index finger and said, ‘I've got a gun, you mothers.' They turned and ran. Christ, all he actually had on him was a bench pass!"
"Remember Gil Mains?" Gordy said. "He just waded into the crowd. He almost killed one of them."
"What was going on out on the field?" I (Plimpton) asked.
"There were still twenty seconds left," Karras said. "When they finally got the crowd moved, Baltimore kicked off and we had time left for one play. There was only the slimmest chance of winning it - being what? Five points down?"
"Out of the corner of my eye I could see Coach Wilson," Karras continued. "He was behind a row of fans on the sidelines, jumping up and down like a kid trying to see over a fence. The poor guy couldn't even see what his own team was doing. As for me, I didn't care about the game. I was still running around holding my helmet by the strap trying to bop the guy who'd pulled the knife on me. The whole place was going crazy - the damnedest sound."
"That's right," Gordy said. "The acoustics in that stadium are weird, and it funnels the sound right down to the field. ‘The Baltimore Boom.' Sometimes it's so loud that the quarterback has to scream in the huddle."
"And then suddenly all that noise stopped," Karras went on. "It was like all those mothers had been throttled. There wasn't a sound. I pulled up. I thought maybe I'd gone deaf. Just like that - blam! - the whole place went silent."
The silence came from a Morrall to Jim Gibbons pass that covered 65 yards. Gibbons, the tight end, was wide open down the middle of the field when Morrall's pass dropped into his hands at the Baltimore 40. On the play, the Colt defense was more concerned with the Lions' speedy wideout duo of Gail Cogdill and Terry Barr. As a result, there was not a Baltimore player within fifteen yards of Gibbons as he took the pass and chugged down the right sideline into the endzone as time expired. When Jim Martin's point after sailed through the uprights, ending the game and giving the Lions a miraculous 20 to 15 victory, there was one more daunting task facing the visiting Detroiters, as Gordy recalled to Plimpton:
"Christ, we'd won it. But then came the scary part. There was that quick and awful silence. The crowd moved onto the field again, and it was like they were coming for us. We jumped up a few times when Gibbons scored, but then we stopped. No cheering by us, nossir. You had to weave your way through them to get back to your locker rooms. They wouldn't move. If you got near them on the field they'd elbow you, and you'd look into these crazy, mad, quiet faces, and it was the scariest thing in the world. You have to step down into the baseball dugouts at Memorial Stadium to get to the tunnels that lead back to the locker rooms. The crowd was so thick and surly around the dugout steps that I asked a cop to help me through. The guy shoved me into the dugout, real hard, and I smacked up against the dugout wall. A policeman! I didn't say anything. The whole town was furious. They had to drive us to Washington to catch a plane back to Detroit; they were afraid to take us to the Baltimore airport. Oh, yes, we stuck it to the crowd that time."
The Morrall to Gibbons game-winning pass had moved the Lions record to 5-5 on the season. It was the first time the Lions had reached the .500 mark since their championship season of 1957. For his efforts, Earl Morrall was named the starter the next week by Coach Wilson. The win would spark the Lions to a three-game winning streak that would give the Lions a final mark of 7-5. Earl would lead the Lions during that streak, and finish the season with a 65.3% completion rate (32-of 49), good for 423 yards, 4 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Detroit's final record of 7-5 was good enough for second place in the Western Division behind the 8-4 Green Bay Packers. However, Morrall's impressive stretch-drive performance in 1960 would not earn him the starting job the following season. That was because George Wilson once again would give the bulk of the snaps in 1961 to Jim Ninowski.
During the years 1960-62, second-place would become all too familiar to the Lions as Detroit would widely be considered the best team in the NFL not residing in Green Bay. With Vince Lombardi's resurrection of the once great Packer franchise, the Detroit / Green Bay rivalry would reach a zenith it hadn't been to since the 1930's. The Lions' struggle to dethrone the Packers would culminate in a two-game battle in 1962 that would, in large part, serve to determine the direction of both clubs for the remainder of the decade. Nevertheless, the Lions against-all-odds victory over the Baltimore Colts on December 4, 1960 might well have served as the highpoint of Earl Morrall's roller coaster Lion career. Over forty years later, the victory still remains one of the greatest moments in the history of the Lion franchise.
December 4, 1960
Attendance 57,808 @ Baltimore
Detroit 3 0
0 17 - 20
Baltimore 2 6 0 7 - 15
Baltimore - Safety, Shields blocked Lary punt out of back of end
Detroit - FG Martin 20
Baltimore - Moore 80-yard pass from Unitas (kick failed)
Detroit - Cassady 40-yard pass from Morrall (Martin kick)
Detroit - FG Martin 47
Baltimore - Moore 37-yard pass from Unitas (Myhra kick)
Detroit - Gibbons 65-yard pass from Morrall (Martin kick)
Questions or Comments on this story: Contact Doug Warren at LWarren12@juno.com