Nov. 29, 1954: The NFL makes the grade

Pro football was still emerging from the long shadow of baseball when Bobby Layne, the Lions’ Hall of Fame quarterback, popped up – 60 years ago today – on the cover of Time magazine’s Nov. 29, 1954 issue. The NFL had only 12 teams then . . . and 12 individual TV deals. But Layne had become such a folk hero, leading Detroit to back-to-back titles between swigs of bourbon, that Time decided to give him the Full Treatment.

This was a first for the pro game, a major breakthrough. After all, it wasn’t long before that sportswriters would debate, with dead seriousness, whether a top college team could beat a Layne's Time coverpro club. By 1954, though, Time was willing to concede: “After half a century of trying to capture the fans’ fancy, pro football has finally made the grade. . . . The pros play better and more complex football than even the best college teams. They also play rougher.”

“We play rough and we teach rough,” says Lion[s] coach Buddy Parker. “And when I say rough I don’t mean poking a guy in the eye. I mean gang-tackling — right close to piling on.” . . .

The Lions take just about as much as they dish out. And most of them agree that Don Paul (6 ft., 1 in., 225 lbs.), captain of the Los Angeles Rams and a rib-cracking linebacker, is the dirtiest player in the league. Pro football being what it is, Paul takes this judgment for what it is meant to be — sheer flattery. “I play the Lions’ kind of football,” says Paul. “I don’t hit with my fists, but when I hit a ball carrier and there is a split second between then and the time the whistle blows, I hit him again, hard.”

Layne was portrayed, accurately, as a hard-partying, facemask-abstaining team leader who specialized in game-winning drives in the final minutes. His nocturnal escapades — with the rest of the team in tow — were fine with coach Buddy Parker, the magazine reported, “as long as they show up sober for practice.”

There’s also a great quote from an “opponent” who says, “They’re a wild bunch, but they have an esprit de corps which most coaches in the league feel keeps them on top. It sounds sorta high-schoolish, but in that playoff game for the championship last year, the Browns were ahead 16-10, there were only a couple of minutes to play, and the Lions had 80 yards or something to go for the winning touchdown. But in the huddle, Layne told them in that silly old Texas drawl of his, ‘Jes’ block a little bit, fellers, and ol’ Bobby’ll pass ya right to the championship.’ And he went and did it.

Wish I could link to the story, but it’s hidden behind a paywall. If you can figure out a way to access it, though, it’s definitely worth your while. It’s a terrific piece, one that deals not just with Layne, a fascinating figure who lost his father at the age of 6, but with the NFL’s — and Lions’ — bumpy road to respectability. It talks about violence (as I’ve already mentioned). It talks about betting on games. It talks about finances. (The Lions had cleared $114,000 and $108,000 the previous two seasons.) It talks about scouting (Detroit’s budget: $70,000). It even throws in some X’s and O’s.

“If I want to pass to an end,” Layne told the magazine, “I might call for a ‘9 Bend Out’ [the numeral designating the player who will receive the pass]. For a back, I might call a ‘4 Up and Out.’”

The Lions were 7-1 when Time went to press and seemingly on their way to their third straight championship, which would have tied the league record. Alas, the season ended with the Browns routing them in the title game by the inconceivable score of 56-10.

In other words, before there was a Sports Illustrated jinx, there was a Time magazine jinx.