The Lions from Detroit Michigan have been a professional team and part of the NFL since 1930. They are one of the older teams in the United States and, although they have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous at times, they have remained a committed and consistently strong opposition with a devoted fan base, plenty of money and a powerful institution behind them.
The pride of the Lions
Detroit is known for its car manufacturing and its Motown music but back in the first half of the 20th Century there wasn’t much in the way of football being played there. In fact they didn’t even have a team at all. What later became the Detroit Lions originated in the town of Portsmouth, Ohio.
They were called the Portsmouth Spartans and it all began in 1929. They boasted some pretty impressive names at the time and in their first season of competition, they regularly gave their local rivals, who were playing professionally, a run for their money. The Spartans continued their winning ways into the 1930s and famously beat their local enemies, the Green Bay Packers.
But Portsmouth was over 200 miles south of Detroit so how did the two ever meet? Well a depression happened and it was so great a depression that it was coined The Great Depression.
Many of the smaller teams in the NFL, who didn’t have big tycoons backing them, fell into bankruptcy. The poor Spartans looked like they’d be the next ones in trouble. When businessmen came down from the big city Detroit then, it would be hard for anyone at the Spartans to resist any offers out to them.
In 1934 George Richards, who was the powerful owner of WJR, one of the biggest radio stations in Detroit, came to the door of the Spartans and waved a big cheque at them. It was an offer they just couldn’t refuse. Richards got the team he wanted, told everyone to pack their bags and moved them up north to his home in Detroit where he renamed them the Detroit Lions.
The Lions’ new Den
It didn’t take the new Detroit Lions long to set up shop in the Motor City. As the war ended and the revolutionary 1950s came along, with its rock and roll music and its rebellious teenagers, The Lions experienced their most successful and profitable period of all time. They won league titles in 1952, 1953 and again in 1957.
During this period they showed players such as Jack Christiansen, Doak Walker and Lou Creekmur to the world. But above all their most famous and talented player during this period was the great Bobby Layne.
He was a quarterback to rival anyone in the world at the time. When the season ended though, the Lions didn’t think that their precious Layne would ever properly match the form he had found that season, so they struck while the iron was hot, cashed in their winnings and sold him to Pittsburgh. Before Layne left though, he issued what some Lions’ fans feel was a curse.
He said that now they had sold him, they wouldn’t win another game for 50 years. It’s only when you look at the following 50 years and see that the Lions didn’t win a championship and went on to suffer both on and off the field, that you wonder whether the so called ‘Curse of Bobby Layne’ was alive and real in Detroit.
Not so swinging sixties
The Lions peaked early in the 1960s. They beat the Cleveland Browns in the first ever Playoff Bowl game, which placed the two runners up from the two NFL leagues at the time, against each other. The Lions managed it by one point.
There were two notable names in and around the team during the 1960s and these were Joe Schmidt, who was a former player from the 1950s, and sports writer George Pimpton. Schmidt moved from player to coach in 1967 and he would complete six seasons heading the Lions. He took them to their first post-season playoff game in 1970 but they crashed out in the first round to Dallas, losing by a pathetic 5-0.
Pimpton on the other hand would spend a few years with the Lions in the mid 1960s whilst researching his book, Paper Lion. He initially joined as a back up quarterback but his writing soon took off, as he recounted the ins and outs of the dressing room and created the book which later became a film in 1968, starring Alan Alda.
Then came another crucial name into the Lions’ Den and it would be one that would sadly continue to curse them. William Clay Ford Sr bought the team for a princely sum (at the time) of $4.5 million.
The Lions had been playing their home games at the strangely named Tiger stadium so when they played their last game there against the Denver Broncos and lost in front of their thousands of adoring fans (in the pouring snow) it came as relief to everyone that they were set for a change.
In 1975 they moved into the all-new and ultra modern stadium called the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, which was about 30 miles north of Detroit. It is still to this day the world’s largest air-supported domed structure and has a huge fibreglass roof to keep the snow off the 80,000 spectators. It has the largest capacity for the entire NFL.
But this fancy stadium sadly didn’t produce fancy play. They got a new coach in 1978, called Monte Clark, and things picked up slightly for the Lions. The just missed out on the playoffs in 1981 and then got through in the following year.
They had a star running back called Billy Sims and with his help they finally won the division in 1983 but then didn’t make it any further than the first round of the playoffs. Their best asset, Sims, then fell victim to the curse when his knee was completely smashed in 1984 and it spelt the end of his playing career. That was pretty much the end of the winning ways for the Lions for the 80s.
Some hope was restored again in 1985 when they were given a new coach in Darryl Rogers but he wasn’t particularly experienced and the results and form started to highlight this. He was then given the boot too and replaced by Wayne Fontes in 1988.
The nineties saved the day
One key man brought success and happiness back to Detroit during the 1990s and that man was Barry Sanders. The 1991 season started as most others had done in the past for the poor old Lions, when they were absolutely annihilated by the Washington Redskins by a pretty convincing score of 45-0. But then the tide turned and they won their next four games.
The season went on to produce some incredibly memorable moments for the side. Mike Utley broke his neck and became paralyzed and Barry Sanders practically took the entire NFL into the palm of his hands.
They finished their season with 12 league wins and took their first league title in eight years. One of the lasting moments of the season was a courageous and devoted thumbs up from Mike Utley as he was being stretchered off the field following his neck injury. He would never walk again.
After the ’91 season they entered the playoffs and finally passed the first round for the first time since 1957. Could the curse have finally been lifted? No. It didn’t take them any further than the second round that time and they lost to their old rivals, the Redskins, but then they continued their improved play into the decade and reached the playoffs in 93, 94, 95, 97 and 99.
Half way through the decade Fontes, who had become the Lions’ most successful coach of all time with 67 wins under his command, was replaced by Bobby Ross but this didn’t seem to mar their performances and they capped the decade with their best stats of all time.
No one could ever deny the impact Barry Sanders had on the team during this period. He literally just kept running for the Lions. All in all he ran a total of 15,269 yards for them, which put him just behind Walter Payton in the all time hall of fame.
Not just for the Lions though but for the entire NFL, Sanders was the one to watch at the time. His 175 yard run against San Francisco in 1996 was one of his crowning moments and one no fan of the Lions will ever forget. It was quite an abrupt end to this career when he hung up his boot in 1998 and retired aged 30.
A new hope
A new coach, Gary Moeller, took the driving seat in 2001 and the following year saw them welcome their patient and loyal fans into a brand new $35 million HQ and training ground. After this came another huge acquisition in the form of a new $500 million stadium called Ford Field, named after and funded by the man himself. But old ghosts returned to haunt the Lions at the start of the decade and they began a losing streak that would end up with a group of disgruntled fans leaving the stadium at half time in protest against the team and coach, Matt Millen’s, manner and lack of success. In 2006 they got a new coach in Rod Marinelli and since then everyone has had their fingers and toes crossed for a repeat of the rare success they rediscovered in the 1990s.