Column: The Night of the Hipple

One of the greatest debut performances in NFL history took place on Monday Night Football.

Date: October 19, 1981

Attendance 71,273
@ Pontiac

Few Lion fans had ever heard of Eric Hipple before this game, and none have forgotten him since. He came to Detroit as an unsung fourth-round selection in the 1980 draft out of Utah State, and did not set foot on the field as a rookie. He was listed as the third-string QB behind Gary Danielson and Jeff Komlo going into the ‘81 season. However, when Danielson injured his wrist in a September 27 victory over the Raiders, and Komlo promptly led the Lions to two-straight defeats, leaving Detroit with a record of 2-4, Monte Clark decided he had nothing to lose and gave Hipple his first start . . . on Monday Night Football.

So it was in front of a raucous Silverdome crowd, Howard Cosell, Dandy Don Meredith, Fran Tarkenton and a nationwide television audience, where Hipple, who with his full growth of blond beard resembled TV’s Grizzly Adams more than an NFL quarterback, engineered one of the most impressive debut performances by a player in NFL history. When all was said and done, Eric had run for two touchdowns, and thrown for 336 yards another four scores.

In addition to Danielson still being on the bench with his healing wrist, the Leos went into the game without their offensive lynchpin Billy Sims, who missed his first ever NFL game with a toe injury. With Detroit’s two biggest offensive stars on the bench, one might suspect head coach Monte Clark to try and play it close to the vest on offense and let his powerful defense control the Monday night matchup. Going against convention again however, Clark decided to let Hipple test his arm against the unsuspecting Bears. On the Lions’ first play from scrimmage, Hipple hit Freddie Scott for a 48-yard gain. Eight-snaps later, Eric carried it over from the one for his first NFL touchdown, and the Lions led 7-0.

The Bears responded with an 85-yard bomb from Vince Evans to Marcus Anderson to tie the game later in the first period. The Lions responded with a Murray field goal from 49 yards, and a 10-7 advantage. Then in the second period, after a Doug English recovery and return of a Vince Evans fumble to the Bears’ five yard line, Hipple scored on a 4-yard TD run. It was his second TD run of the night. Eddie Murray’s ensuing PAT put the Lions up 17-7. The Bears then tacked another seven points on the scoreboard when Walter Payton vaulted over the goal line from the 1, cutting Detroit’s lead to 3 points, 17-14.

It was here that the Lions engineered a masterful 12 play, 80 yard drive that ended with a Rick Kane 2-yard scoring pass from Hipple. Kane playing in place of the injured Billy Sims, who also caught a 25-yard toss from a scrambling Hipple on 3rd-and-10 earlier in that same drive, would finish the night with 101 yards on 20 carries. Detroit would tack on another Murray three-pointer as the half ended, this time for a franchise record-tying 54 yards, giving the hometown fans a 27-14 halftime advantage.

The second half would begin where the first half left off for the Lions as they added another score in the third when David Hill grabbed a 10-yard pass from Hipple, extending the Lion lead to 34-14. A 22-yard Chicago field goal by John Roveto early in the final period would be all but academic, as the Lions continued to pour gas on their Monday night bonfire with two more scoring passes off the arm of their first-time starter. Hipple connected with Freddie Scott for a 47-yard strike just 25 seconds after the last Chicago points to move the Lion rout to 41-17. Then with just under nine minutes to go, he hit Leonard Thompson on a 94-yard aerial to paydirt. Final score: Detroit 48, Chicago 17.

Eric Hipple had clearly been blessed by the football gods on the night of his unforgettable debut. His Lion career would last another eight seasons. He would play tough. He would play hurt. He would show flashes of his opening night greatness. Unfortunately though, Eric Hipple would never play consistently at that level again. With the hiring of Wayne Fontes and the entry of Mouse Davis’ Run-and-Shoot offense in 1989, Eric’s NFL career would quietly come to an end. Nevertheless, because of his magical performance on that October night in 1981, Eric Hipple’s name will forever be etched in Detroit Lion lore.

Scoring ...
Detroit 10 | 17 | 7 | 14 - 48
Chicago 7 | 7 | 0 | 3 - 17

Detroit - Hipple 1-yard run (Murray kick)
Chicago - Anderson 85-yard pass from Evans (Roveto kick)
Detroit - FG Murray 49
Detroit - Hipple 4-yard run (Murray kick)
Chicago - Payton 1-yard run (Roveto kick)
Detroit - Kane 2-yard pass from Hipple (Murray kick)
Detroit - FG Murray 54
Detroit - Hill 10-yard pass from Hipple (Murray kick)
Chicago - FG Roveto 22
Detroit - Scott 47-yard pass from Hipple (Murray kick)
Detroit - Thompson 94-yard pass from Hipple (Murray kick)

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