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Les Knutson: Remembering (a long time ago) when the Lions ruled the NFL

BY LES KNUTSON The Globe sports columnist Nearly 60 years ago, on the afternoon of Dec. 29, 1957 a capacity crowd of 55,263 fans filled up Briggs Stadium for the National Football League's championship game between the Eastern Conference champion...

BY LES KNUTSON

The Globe sports columnist

Nearly 60 years ago, on the afternoon of Dec. 29, 1957 a capacity crowd of 55,263 fans filled up Briggs Stadium for the National Football League’s championship game between the Eastern Conference champion Cleveland Browns and the host Detroit Lions, who had rallied with a late-season four-game winning streak to win the Western Conference title, outscoring their opponents 76-13 during the second halves of those four victories.

It was the fourth meeting, over a six-season span, between the Browns and the Lions in the NFL championship game. The Lions, led by stars such as quarterback Bobby Layne, tight end Leon Hart and all-around performer Doak Walker, had defeated the Browns in 1952 (17-7) and 1953 (17-16) giving them back-to-back titles. In ’54, the Browns, led by Hall-of-Fame quarterback Otto Graham, turned the tide and overwhelmed the Lions at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium by the final score of 56-10.

The Lions had won a previous NFL championship back in 1935, defeating the New York Giants, 26-7, before a mere crowd estimated at 15,000.

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But in the 1950s, fans were packing the stadiums for games and 54,577 saw the Lions edge the Browns at Briggs Stadium in the ’54 title game.

In 1955, the Browns repeated their title by defeating the Los Angeles Rams (38-14) before a gigantic crowd of 85,693 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

The Giants won the 1956 championship by beating the Chicago Bears (47-7) at Yankee Stadium, where two years later they would be edged by the Johnny Unitas-led Baltimore Colts in the historic ’58 overtime thriller, often referred to as the “Greatest Game of All-Time.”

I was a second grader during the ’58-59 school year and vividly remember watching that 1958 championship game and cheering for the Colts. Fullback Alan Ameche, who had played his college football for the Wisconsin Badgers and won the 1954 Heisman Trophy, capped the game-winning sudden-death drive with a touchdown plunge over right guard, giving the Colts a 23-17 victory.

The NFL needed a close game like that one, after the last four title games were one-sided blowouts, including the Lions’ awesome win in ’57.

Professional football fans from the ‘50s will remember names like Joe Schmidt (middle linebacker), Jack Christiansen (defensive back) and Yale Lary (defensive safety and return specialist) on the Lions’ defense, along with halfback Howard “Hopalong” Cassady and quarterback Tobin Rote on Detroit’s offense.

Playing for the Browns were legendary kicker Lou Groza (who also played offensive tackle), receivers Ray Renfro, Darrel “Pete” Brewster and Preston Carpenter and rookie fullback Jim Brown. Tommy O’Connell was Cleveland’s quarterback before being replaced midway through the game by the upcoming Milt Plum.  Ken Konz (one of my all-time favorites) was a defensive back and was the Browns’ punter -- something he did often that day.

The Lions intercepted five passes in the game -- one each by Bob Long, Gerry Perry, Terry Barr (19-yard “pick six” in the second quarter), Jim David and Schmidt -- as they stymied the Browns most of the day. Four of those interceptions, including Barr’s return for a touchdown, happened in the first half when the Lions built quarter leads of 17-0 and 31-7.

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Brown, who became one of the NFL’s best all-time rushers, scored Cleveland’s only first-half touchdown on a 29-yard romp early in the second quarter.

Cleveland opened the second half on an impressive 10-play, 80-yard drive which was capped by running back Lew Carpenter’s five-yard TD run. Groza added his second PAT kick and it was 31-14.

Detroit quickly answered with a 78-yard touchdown pass from Rote to Jim Doran. Rote (12-of-19 for 280 yards, four touchdowns) followed suit with a 23-yard TD strike to rookie tight end Steve Junker and a 32-yard touchdown toss to Dave Middleton, increasing the Lions’ lead to 52-14 early in the fourth quarter.

Backup QB Jerry Reichow’s 16-yard TD pass to Cassady (eight carries for 48 yards, two catches for 22 yards), along with Jim Martin’s eighth PAT kick of the game, completed Detroit’s lopsided 59-14 victory.

Martin, who also played outside linebacker for the Lions, booted a 31-yard field goal to start the game’s scoring. Rote (27 yards rushing on seven carries) and halfback Gene Gedman (12 carries for 28 yards) each capped Detroit drives with one-yard plunges before Rote hooked up with Junker on a  26-yard touchdown pass, making the score 24-7. Barr’s touchdown stretched the lead to 31-7.

I watched the game highlights this week on You Tube, following the play-by-play description of legendary announcer Ray Scott -- who did Twins’ broadcasts for several years in the 1960s. It was fascinating to watch. The goal posts were on the goal line and the game action just featured the highlights, which were all covered in a 27-minute segment.

In ’57, there were just 12 regular-season games, beginning on September 29 and ending on December 15. There were 12 teams -- six in the East and six in the West. The Lions defeated the San Francisco 49ers, 31-27, in a Division Playoff game on Dec. 22 at Kezar Stadium on the West Coast to advance to the title game after both teams finished the regular season at 8-4. Cleveland won the East with a 9-2-1 record and advanced right to its seventh NFL championship game in eight seasons.

The Browns were coached all of those years by Hall-of-Fame Coach Paul Brown. George Wilson was Detroit’s head coach in 1957. Five of Detroit’s players -- offensive linemen Harley Sewell (left guard) and Lou Creekmur (left tackle), along with defensive stars Schmidt, Christiansen and Yary -- were named to the 1957 44-member All-Pro Team of the Year.

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The Lions have not been back to a championship game since and the Browns have not been in one since winning the 1964 championship with a 27-0 victory over the Colts.

I sure hope area Lions fans such as Tom Schuller, Dave Cory and Doug Wolter appreciate this look back in time to when the Lions last won a championship -- where the Tigers also played their baseball games.  

In 1961, the name was changed to Tiger Stadium and the place witnessed World Series championships in both 1968 and 1984.  It was home for the Lions through the 1974 season and the Tigers played their last game there in 1999. The stadium was demolished in 2009.

Next week, a look at an area high school which played its final basketball season more than three decades ago, winning the final game in its home gymnasium in impressive fashion.

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