I will never forget Christmas morning 1964 when I received the phone call from Mrs. Nussbaumer to come on over to their house across the street from mine in Dearborn.
Her husband was Bob Nussbaumer, the recently fired chief talent scout and receivers coach for the Detroit Lions. Just a couple of weeks earlier the Lions new owner William Clay Ford fired Nussbaumer, and fellow assistants Don Doll, Aldo Forte, and Les Bingaman. The next day head coach George Wilson resigned in protest.
The Nussbaumers and their son John had always been so nice to me, and I was really upset that they were headed to Cleveland to join the Browns.
When I walked into their living room Mr. Nussbaumer handed me a game used Detroit Lions football! I couldn’t believe it.
Sure enough it was the official game ball stamped “The Duke” and you could see the dirt on the laces from it having been used at Tiger Stadium. For a nine-year-old kid who idolized the Lions of Joe Schmidt, Nick Pietrosante, Gail Cogdill, and the “Fearsome Foursome” of Alex Karras, Roger Brown, Darris McCord, and Sam Williams, you can only imagine how thrilled I was. My feet barely touched the ground when I ran, I mean ran back home to show my family.
Nowadays a kid getting a ball like that would probably put it in a protective case but I of course used that ball for our neighborhood football games out on North Highland.
There we were playing with the same ball that had been used in an NFL game that might actually have been touched by not only the Lions but perhaps Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Brown, Johnny Unitas, or Raymond Berry. So of course Jeff Meyers, Jamie Meyers, Dave Newberg and I really loved the way that ball felt in our hands so unlike cheap plastic kiddie balls you would get at the local hardware store.
Somehow that ball miraculously survived being lost or otherwise thrown away by my mother. At some point after getting married and returning to the home on Highland I found it and have had it in my possession ever since.
I never dreamed that one day it would return to Tiger Stadium.
In 1999 I had interviewed Gail Cogdill for the book on Tiger Stadium called “The Corner” by Richard Bak. I had stayed in contact with Cogdill and in 2000 he returned to Detroit for an autograph show.
I picked Gail up at the airport, and the following day we went out to the Silverdome for a Lions practice and drove downtown to pay a visit to the Lindell AC. I then told I was taking him to a special place.
Driving down Michigan Avenue and onto the red brickway in front of Tiger Stadium I parked the car. Gail had not set foot inside the stadium since he left the Lions in 1968.
Without Gail knowing it, I had made arrangements with the security guard to let us into the stadium. Before we walked into the ballpark, I reached into the backseat and pulled out that old “Duke” that I had refilled with air. I couldn’t believe that the bladder had not rotted and that it still kept its air after 36 years.
It was a beautiful September day, not a cloud in the sky, and there I was throwing “The Duke” to Gail Cogdill as he ran a few more patterns on that beautiful green lawn at Tiger Stadium.
That old football now sits proudly in my office, signed in silver sharpie with the words, “Bill, thanks for everything, Gail Cogdill.”
God does it ever bring back some great memories beginning with that Christmas morning so many years ago.