The NFL Playoffs and Memories from Detroit

I hate to beat a dead horse — and the Detroit Lions have been about the deadest horse I’ve yet observed running on the track of major sports in this town — but the recent National Football League playoffs have served to remind me of what I miss about the “old days” in our town.

Now, as I inexorably advance down the road towards full-blown old cootdom … I’m in a position to say I miss plenty about the seasons of yore. Yup, I miss the old Olympia and those smoky nights when Gordie Howe would wearily pull himself up off the bench and slowly roll over the boards for the final face-off in the Canadiens’ zone in the third period with the game on the line.

I miss those magic days at Tiger Stadium when Al Kaline would somehow elevate the level of his play … at the plate or deep in the right field corner … to remind us, yet again, that he was the special player of our lives, the guy we could hang our hearts on.

But boy, how I miss the Sundays at Briggs Stadium when the spirit of the old Detroit, in the form of the rough-and-tumble but always game and exciting Detroit Lions, lit up that cozy ballyard and had 55,000 of the local faithful reacting, urging, howling as one. Our city never looked or sounded or felt better — to me — than at those unpredictable moments when the Lions pulled yet another rabbit out of their silver and blue hats.

Those old Lions were Detroit’s greatest communal experience.

Did you see the Pittsburgh Steelers at home a few Saturdays ago?  They fell miserably behind in the first half to the Baltimore Ravens (forever an expansion name; they should still be the Colts). Yet the Steelers somehow melded the nonstop love cascading down from their fans with the determination of their championship spirit, eventually sending everyone — except the shell-shocked Ravens — into the Pittsburgh night with yet another warming memory of a crucial game seemingly won as much on the faith of their fans as their play on the field.

Later that Saturday it was the Green Bay Packers — another name that prompts thoughts of the affection a town can have for a team — that went on the road to splice, dice, and puree a confused Atlanta team.

We can be sure that those victories sent electric jolts of excitement and hope through large sections of Pennsylvania, of Wisconsin. Yeah, it’s only a game … but moments like that are transcendent. Young fans will hold those victories for decades, and (as old coots) maybe recall them for kids wanting to connect to the living magic of Steeler and Packer lore in 2060, in 2065.

The playoff excitement of 2011 reminded me of games once played at Michigan and Trumbull. Classic games by Detroit Lions teams of the years 1953, of 1960. Of games I attended in 1957, and 1962. The pulse and pound of championships won in 1952, ’53, and ’57. The championship runs to playoff showdowns in 1954 and 1970; a championship lost to foul play in the last game of1956.

The season of 1957 alone provided thrills and memories to last a lifetime. It was a year that saw three classic Lions comebacks; two involving late-game deficits of 24 and 20 points. A last-second ’trick-play’ loss in San Francisco that seemed to doom our chances. The loss of quarterback and leader Bobby Layne to a broken leg in the second-last regular game, in the midst of a three-way pennant struggle. A championship playoff in San Francisco that saw the Lions trailing 27 to 7 in the second half, but then scoring 21 points in less than four and a half minutes to eventually pull out a stunning 31-27 victory.

They then came home, back home to beautiful Briggs Stadium, taking the field as underdogs to the Cleveland Browns in the championship game, then the equivalent of today’s Super Bowl. And the Lions pounded out an astonishing 59-14 victory.

Boy, do I miss those old days. Not just because of the victories, but because of the loss of grace that has come with the Lions long progression of disappointing years. The loss of a beautiful and familiar outdoor stadium that seemed to fit Detroit crowds like a warm cotton glove. The loss of a team — of many veterans and some war heroes — that played with color and ran on character. The loss of joyful communal gatherings to which you could take children and women without fear of embarrassment or abuse. The loss of a team, and an organization, we could be proud of.

The drama and pride exhibited in Pittsburgh, by Green Bay, used to be seen around this town, my town, on a continuing basis in years past. I was reminded of that once again on Saturday. Sure, the old days weren’t perfect, and I may be a sentimental old coot. But I’m pretty sure — and after 40 years of evidence you may also suspect — that I’m right.

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