| Special to The Detroit News
It was late on a Sunday pro football afternoon, and the media mob stood anxiously at the elevator in the pressbox at the tiptop of Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, awaiting the ride below. This game was over. Two seconds remained, and the Lions had rallied and survived – 17-16.
Or so it seemed!
They were deep in contention for the playoffs, after 13 barren seasons.
In a drive fashioned out of Bobby Layne’ playbook, Greg Landry – off the bench in place of starter Bill Munson – had guided the Lions downfield to gain proper field goal-position in the 60th minute. Landry called the timeout with 17 seconds left. Eric Mann kicked the sure-shot 18-yard field goal for the Detroit.
We pressed forward, jostling, elbows sharpened, prepared to board. Work to do!
Mann kicked off with 14 seconds left. Al Dodd returned the kickoff to the 28. New Orleans would attempt a couple of desperation plays, and it would be over. I was sure that it was impossible for the Lions to lose this gray Sunday in 1970, a half-century ago.
Never could happen!
The Saints tried one pass, Billy Kilmer to Todd for 17 yards to the Saints’ 45. The game clock was down to 2 seconds.
We elbowed forward toward the elevator door.
Below, the Saints field-goal unit dashed onto the field.
Up above, a voice spoke.
“Wait a second, I want to see this,” said the imperious speaker. It was John Mecom Jr., owner of the Saints. He was the boss.
I stepped back to look at the presumed comedy on the field below.
Tom Dempsey stood at the Saints’ 37-yard line – 63 yards distant from the goalposts on the goal line – swinging his flat-fronted boot and maimed right foot. The Lions’ defensive line stood there, no need to rush against an impossible placekick. Alex Karras giggled and perfunctorily waved his arms.
Dempsey’s boot pounded, thunderously, into the football. It went off end over end.
“That game still rings in my mind,” Joe Schmidt, then the 38-year-old coach of the Lions, told me the other day. “I was happy standing there.
“Then he kicked, I’ll never forget the sound.
“It got to be a certain height. I was waiting for it to fall. But it stayed at the same height and kept going and going.
“And it cleared by about three or four inches.”
The football flipped over the crossbar, 63 yards from Dempsey’s boot; the impossible field goal
Saints 19, Lions 17.
Then we boarded the elevator and stopped several decks below. Flabbergasted!
In the Lions’ lockeroom, there was pained silence. The coach’s blackboard was knocked over, on its side. There was a gaping, ragged hole near the top, stomped by an angry Schmidt. The playoffs fantasy seemed doomed.
Not 6-2 as I had imagined, but 5-3 – and fading.
This was a team that had just died.
The next week after a 24-20 loss in Minnesota, the Lions dropped to 5-4. Their chance to finish first in the NFC Central was finished.
But no, the Lions had not died in New Orleans.
They had been reborn and gradually, they revitalized – themselves – according to Schmidt.
There was no evidence then. But the finest, gutttiest Lions team since championship 1957 had emerged.
Fifty years later, in my deep reflection, the 63-yard field goal was the catalyst to a near championship season. A shot to reach Super Bowl V. By an inspired, resourceful, angered multi-talented and well-coached football team. In my judgment that season – and still in 2020 – the best team in the NFL.
And the best Detroit Lions team since vintage NFL championship 1957. In the pre-Super Bowls netherworld.
Reeling, groggy, but upright at 5-4 after New Orleans and then the division-leading Vikings, the Lions were confronted by a daunting schedule. The next four opponents would be first-place occupants of other divisions in the newly merged NFL with its inaugural crossover schedule.
Ahead were the 49ers, in first then in the NFC West, at Tiger Stadium. With Landry promoted to starting quarterback, Lions 28, San Francisco 7.
Four days later, on Thanksgiving, the Lions played the Oakland Raiders, first in the AFC West due to the clutch performances of George Blanda. Lions 28, Raiders 14.
Next, the Lions met the St. Louis Cardinals, leaders of the NFC East. Lions 16, Cardinals 3.
The following week the Lions were in Los Angeles to play the Rams, new leaders of the NFC West, on Monday Night Football, in its inaugural season. In an historic game, Lions 28, Rams 23.
The finale was back home in Tiger Stadium, vs. old-rival Green Bay. Lions 20, Packers 0.
The Lions – courageously – with conviction – had finished their schedule at 10-4. They were in the playoffs, the first wild-card team in the history of the NFL.
‘Not too much’
Somewhere between gloom in New Orleans and magic in Los Angeles, Schmidt had cajoled and urged his football team to become the best team in pro football – my longtime view.
With the mirror flashing back a half century – through so much history – I asked Schmidt what he had done to rally his team. It was a conversation between two codgers – an old Hall of Fame middle linebacker and coach nearing his 89th birthday and an ancient, impatient elevator passenger/journalist, now 92.
“Oh, not too much,” Schmidt said, still understated. “We had good football players – (Mike) Lucci, (Lem) Barney, (Dick) LeBeau, (Wayne) Walker.”
There were plenty more – Mel Farr, Charlie Sanders, Steve Owens. And more.
“They were good, spirited team players,” Joe said. “And we had good coaches; Chuck Knox, Bill McPeak, Jimmy David, John North.
“The players were stimulated and did it themselves.”
I said, Joe, you must have delivered a pep talk after New Orleans.
“Pep talks?” said Schmidt. “I was like a player. I had stopped playing just a few years before that.”
Whatever. He had rallied his players from Dempsey’s field goal. And he had stimulated his Lions from a quick, 14-0 deficit on Thanksgiving vs. the Raiders and a standard bearer of the extinct AFL.
It was the season, when in October and November, the wizened Blanda had come off the bench to bulldoze the Raiders in five successive games to four victories and a tie. Blanda then 43 and in his 21st season – Tom Brady’s age and experience today – did it in dual form. He thrived as a desperation quarterback and late-moment placekicker.
On this Thanksgiving, the Raiders were quickly ahead, 14-0 on duel between eventual Hall of Famers. The Raiders’ Fred Biletnikoff and the Lions’ Barney. The lead made the Raiders giggly at their bench adjoining the Lions’ in the Tiger Stadium outfield.
This was the game in which Landry-to-Charlie Sanders established itself as one of the most formidable pass combinations on the NFL.
At the end, the Lions two TDs ahead, Blanda tried valiantly to create another victory for the Raiders.
It ended with the Lions moving onward.
“Not today oldtimer,” Wayne Walker, the late, wondrous outside linebacker, told me that day the words he said to Blanda.
“At the beginning they were laughing at us when they scored those two touchdowns. We could hear them and see them.”
Another turning point of 1970, my choice as the Lions’ best season in the past 63. And counting.
Oh, the playoff game?
The Lions – plus goggle-eyed media – flew off on Christmas Day for Dallas, to play the Cowboys. Eastern NFC winners, in the first round of the Super Bowl playoffs.
The next day, the Lions lost the infamous 5-0 game – on a field goal and a safety.
The Cowboys played on and would reach Super Bowl V, losers to the Baltimore Colts, 16-13. The two contestants, somehow, contrived to commit 11 turnovers.
The Lions could have – would have – beaten them both 50 years ago when Joe Schmidt was a kid NFL coach and John Mecom Jr. stopped the elevator in New Orleans to watch Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal.
“Never kicked one harder,” Dempsey told me a few months later amid the Super Bowl revelry in New Orleans’ Jean Lafitte’s Old Absinth House, since 1807, the favored pro-football roost on Bourbon Street.
Tom, because of his half-foot and congeniality, is on my short, all-time list of genuine sports heroes. He lived 50 more years, until this past August, then died.
Jerry Green is a former Detroit News sports reporter.