Sports

Bobby Layne and the Lions' glory days

Lions quarterback Bobby Layne gets a pass away in a 1953 game. Teammate Jim David, a cornerback, said of Layne: “Bobby just had a way. He got you there. Say what you want about him and how he lived his life, but he got you there.”

The 1950s were the glory days for the Detroit Lions, filled with nail-biting come-from-behind victories that led to exciting championship games. And the symbol of those victorious years was a quarterback from Texas named Bobby Layne. He wasn’t smooth, he wasn’t elegant, but he got the job done, and that was enough for Lions fans.

Lions fans who were around for the championship years and have suffered through the lean years since remember Layne as a bandy-legged blonde with a prairie squint in his narrow blue eyes and an unathletic paunch puffing out of his ample frame.

Layne, a T-formation specialist, led the Lions out of the National Football League’s cellar by calling the plays and firing the wobbly passes that took them to the national championship in 1952 and 1953 and the 1957 title game that he had to watch from the sidelines.

Robert Lawrence Layne hailed from the small town of Santa Anna, Texas. Only 6 years old when his father died, he went to Fort Worth to live with an aunt and uncle. During junior high his adopted parents moved to Dallas where he teamed up with a boy named Doak Walker on the football field of Highland Park High School.

Layne in his collegiate days at Texas University.

Bobby began his career as a guard, but soon he began calling signals from the tailback slot. Every afternoon, when the rest of the squad had finished practice the two boys would work at place-kicking, Bobby holding, Doak booting, until it became too dark to see the goal posts. After the football season ended, Bobby played basketball and pitched the local American Legion baeball team to the state championship. He got to the University of Texas on a baseball scholarship, and in four years never lost a conference game.

But Bobby’s heart beat football. As a senior he worked with coach Blair Cherry who taught him his first lessons in the intricacies of the T- formation.

During his college career, he completed 210 of 400 passes for 3,145 yards and 25 touchdowns and held a 39-7 won-loss record as a pitcher. In between he found time to marry a pretty Texas coed, Carol Ann Krueger.

Layne joined the Chicago Bears in 1948 but ended up with the lowly New York Bulldogs the following season.

“Brother what a team” said Layne as he remembered those days in Manhattan. “What a nightmare! At the end of 1949 I was ready to give up football, but I got traded to Detroit.”

The Lions, like almost every other National Football League team at the time, had money troubles and coaching problems. But with new quarterback Layne and new Coach Buddy Parker, the Lions problems melted away and they began to roar with a new vigor.

“They don’t make them like Bobby any more,” said Buddy Parker in 1960. “He’s a case of don’t-do-as I-do, but do-as I-tell-you. He’s a one-man team who goes against all the rules. But by golly, it works.”

By driving himself harder than anyone, Layne got away with stuff no one else would dare. Like his love of after-hours partying.

In his book “Always on Sundays”, he wrote, “I wanted to start this book by saying I was driving down the avenue early one morning, alert and happy, when a parked, swerving street car ran into me headon, but who would believe it?

“One thing that has always puzzled me is the reaction of people when they see an athlete out on the town. If you walk in the front door check your coat and go to the bar like eyeryone else, it only takes 10 minutes for the word to get all over town that Bobby Layne’s down at the Long Branch, hymn-singing drunk

Bobby Layne and coach Buddy Parker on the sidelines in 1952.

      “Yet another player can lock himself in his hotel room with a jug and get cockeyed without leaving himself open to public disapproval. I don’t like to sneak around. When I want to have a drink or see a show, I go in the front door like everybody else.”

Joe Schmidt, the old middle linebacker and later coach of the Lions, remembers one night he went out with Layne and running back Gene Gedman to Charlie Costello’s, a popular watering hole on East Jefferson. Unable to find a parking space, Bobby left his car on the sidewalk. When the cops showed up a few minutes later Schmidt and Gedman hid under the table while Layne got up to talk to the officers. Next thing he knew, Schmidt said, Layne was driving off behind a police car with its siren blaring. Layne had talked the cops into providing a police escort to the next watering hole.

“I’m just a born night owl,” Bobby once said of his Detroit playing days. “Maybe I’m a better player because I start having fun at midnight, get to bed when everbody else is waking and sleep all morning. Makes me fresh as a daisy for the game.”

In reference to hordes of reporters who covered his on and off the field antics Layne would remark, “One of the hazards of participating in sports is that you are constantly thrown into the company of the nation’s sportswriters, a bunch of guys who can be divided into (a) those who are looking for a headline, and (b) those who are looking for a drink.”

With Bobby Layne at the helm, the Lions won three straight divisional titles from 1952 through 1954, and they won the NFL championships in 1952 and 1953.

Layne is carried off the field on a stretcher in the second quarter of a game with the Cleveland Browns in 1957. He suffered a fractured leg, forcing him to miss the championship game which the Lions won 59-14.

      Layne scored one of Detroit’s two touchdowns in a 17-7 championship victory over the Cleveland Browns in 1952. The 1953 championship game against the Browns again showed Layne at his best. The Lions were losing to the Browns 16-10 when they took over at their own 20 yard line for a final drive. Layne completed four of six passes, the last for a 33-yard touchdown to Jim Doran for a 17-16 victory.

Layne helped lead the Lions to another division title in 1957, but suffered a broken leg late in the season and was replaced by Tobin Rote, who led Detroit to a 59-14 championship victory over Cleveland.

Detroit News sports columnist Jerry Green spelled out Layne’s hold on Detroit when he wrote: “Bobby Lane and television made Sundays bearable in this factory town. On Sundays some of us would rush to church and rush back home in plenty of time to flick on the old black and white gizmo. When the Lions were on the coast, dinner would be permitted to turn cold until Bobby coaxed the Lions to their victory in the final minute.

“He was the symbol of this city, the toughest and the best. He played without a face mask and he was at his finest against the clock. When a touchdown drive was necessary, he could make the last two minutes seem an eternity.”

Coach Buddy Parker left the Lions for the Pittsburgh Steelers before the 1957 season. He traded for Layne in the middle of the 1958 season, causing a storm of protest in Detroit. The fans loved Bobby and the feeling was mutual. Layne vowed to take the Steelers to a championship, but he couldn’t make good on his promise. An era was over. He retired after the 1962 season, never again achieving the kind of success he had enjoyed in Detroit.

Layne, right, gives instructions to offensive tackle Lou Creekmur.

      In his 15 years of pro football, Layne completed 1,814 of 3,700 passes for 26,768 yards and 196 touchdowns, kicked 34 field goals and converted 120 extra point attempts for a total of 372 points. He was named an All Pro in 1952 and 1956 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

Bobby Layne never missed a party or the opportunity to have a good time. But in 1986, suffering liver and related health problems, he died at the age of 59 in his home state of Texas.

At his funeral in St Paul’s Episcopal church his wife Carol, speaking of her husband of more than 40 years, quipped, “I used to say that I want to come back in another life as Bobby’s cabdriver because he tips so well.”

His old teammates came from across the country. Joe Schmidt, Yale Lary, Cloyce Box, Harley Sewell and Wyatt Ward were pallbearers.

His high school buddy and Lions teammate Doak Walker summed up Layne with his tribute to his friend: “Bobby never lost a game in his life. Time just ran out on him.”


“Bobby Layne was the leader and we all followed. He knew the game and he knew people and he knew how to have a good time.” — Teammate Jim David.

By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News