Detroit — He was the toughest guy I ever met.
That’s in 65 years of covering and absorbing sports in Michigan.
Times were when I told Mike Lucci that after he retired from the Lions, he’d just smile. A bashful smile, and then he’d switch the subject to guys he played with — and the teammates who’d passed on before him. Wayne Walker, who played linebacker with him in the old days when the Lions were realistic contenders. Mel Farr, who lugged the football until he bled. Charlie Sanders, who made acrobatic catches as a tight end in those days at Tiger Stadium in the 1960s and 1970s. Alex Karras, whose greatness was overlooked for decades by Hall of Fame selectors until two years ago. Bill Munson, the first quarterback traded to the Lions by the Los Angeles Rams.
Mike joined them Tuesday, succumbing down in Florida. He was 81.
The obituaries that I read on the internet did not state the cause of death.
But those who knew him, and saw him at events in Detroit, knew he had pancreatic cancer for the last 15 or 20 years.
Doctors have told me that “you can’t beat pancreatic cancer. It’s incurable.”
Well, Mike beat it. He’d show up at events, some of them funerals for his teammates. He’d be gaunt. He’d shuffle.
And he’d be tough.
He was alive. And living. And showing up.
That’s why I consider him the toughest guy I ever met.
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He lived on with that terminal disease, fighting it, beating it. Beating beyond the average age of death of American males — those who didn’t play professional football.
Back in those days — writing about Lucci for The Detroit News — I would call him the Lions’ “spirit leader.”
That he was — playing for Harry Gilmer and then Joe Schmidt.
Mike was the athlete who replaced Schmidt as middle linebacker for the Lions.
The mere process of replacing Joe Schmidt — the player who virtually invented the middle linebacker position, Hall of Famer, defensive cog of two-time NFL champions, 10-time All Pro — had to be tough.
Mike was the guy. Picked by Coach Schmidt himself to be his successor in 1967 as the MLB. Lucci went on to make All-Pro and be elected by his NFL peers to the Pro Bowl.
“I can’t say enough about Mike,” Schmidt said Tuesday in a sad telephone call to him in Florida.
“Mike was a special player, and a special person.
“He had natural ability about being a leader.
“He walked and talked like a leader.”
In 1970, the Lions had their best team in 64 years — precious, personal opinion. The best in all the decades between the three-championship dynasty of the 1950s and struggling seasons since. This was a team with a quarterback conflict between Greg Landry and Munson. It was the team that lost in New Orleans on Tom Dempsey’s 63-yard field goal, a record that existed through generations of kickers.
And it was a team with a 5-4 record that defeated each of their last five opponents — all divisional first-place occupants when the Lions beat them — and made it to the Super Bowl playoffs. They made it, OK, as a wildcard entrant. But they were an excellent NFL team. Conqueror of the 49ers, George Blanda’s Raiders, the (St. Louis) Cardinals, the Rams and the Packers.
That’s when I started referring to Lucci as the Lions’ spirit leader.
There was a night in Los Angeles when the Lions, still the joke of the NFL, played the Rams as a huge underdog. It was the first season of Monday Night Football, now a television epic.
All of America gazed in as the mocked Lions took it to the Rams, 28-23.
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Relationships were different between the sports journalists and the pro teams back then. We flew on the team airplane charters. We stayed at the team hotels. Sometimes we partied with the athletes. We watched their occasional barroom fistfights with hecklers.
That night, after the quick write-up of the victory, I was too late (as always) for the team bus back to the digs down in Long Beach.
I hopped into a car with some Lions’ front office personnel.
And Lucci. The MLB, who should have been the first star of Monday Night Football in that game.
The car hit the road.
“Stop here,” Mike said as we were driving past a late-night package store, as we called them then.
He came out with a couple of cases of beer.
That night the Lions partied in Long Beach. Press invited. On the beer that Lucci delivered.
I retain a haunting memory of that night. It is a vision of Chuck Hughes, behind the bar, grinning in victory with his teammates. Chuck, who would be stricken in action and died on the field of Tiger Stadium less than a year later, 50 years ago this month.
Lucci bellied up the bar, grinning.
The Sunday after upsetting the Rams the Lions ended their season with a victory over the division-leading Packers. The score was 20-0. A shutout for the defense that Lucci led.
And at 10-4, the Lions qualified for the playoffs with the NFL’s best second-place record.
After that, Lucci’s defense with Karras and Walker and Lem Barney and Dick LeBeau, would yield one more field goal in 1970. Three points.
It was in the lamented 5-0 playoff defeat by the Cowboys, the day after Christmas.
No Lions team has been any better ever since.
The Lions’ coaching/quarterback carousel started in the early 1970s.
It was the late Rick Forzano’s misfortune to serve as head coach of the Lions from 1974 into partway through the 1976 season. Then he caught the ziggy (Schmidt’s Detroit-only word for a firing).
The objective in those seasons was to win a game against the Vikings.
The Lions lost 13 games in succession to Minnesota from 1968 to the second meeting in 1974. It became one of the obsessions of the players under Forzano to be permitted to wear white football cleats, the trending, then-new style. Forzano was quite old-fashioned. And he had been head coach at the mostly black-shoe Naval Academy.
“You can’t wear white shoes until you beat the Vikings,” Forzano told his players. “Then I’ll let you wear white shoes.”
The losing streak was immeasurably painful to the Lions.
One Sunday night after a defeat in Minnesota, likely in 1973 or 1974 by a 7-6 score. Mike Lucci stood in the aisle of the team plane and spoke for all to hear him.
“My (groin area) aches,” he said, “I want to beat them so much.”
It finally happened in the second game in ’74, under Forzano. The Lions beat the Vikings, 20-16.
Next week the Lions, those who wanted, wore white cleats.
Now they are joined — Lucci, the spirit leader, with the great Karras, Walker, Farr, Forzano, Charlie Sanders, Munson — and Chuck Hughes.
And finally, at 81, death caught up with Mike Lucci.
The toughest guy I ever met.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports reporter.