Friday, July 29, 2005

Hot Fun In The Summertime -- Football Style

It’s NFL training camp time again, and everything is so pristine. Around here, that means the Lions haven’t fumbled a snap on an extra point, haven’t allowed a team to convert 3rd-and-18, and haven’t thrown a six-yard pass when they need seven.

Anything is possible for your favorite team in July and August. The offensive line doesn’t look...offensive, the defensive secondary appears capable of being a strength, and all the running backs and receivers look like big playmakers through the rose-colored glasses of summertime.

Coaches love this time of year, too. Every head coach in the NFL fancies himself as a molder and leader of men, and for them, training camp is like the x’s and o’s of their chalkboards have come alive as real people. This is the time to reinforce to the veterans how things will be done, and to let the rookies know that this ain’t college anymore, baby. Around the league, hundreds of 21 and 22 year-olds will be working their fannies off trying to impress everyone from the strength and conditioning coach to the curious fans gathered around the practice field.
They say there is a light on Broadway for every broken heart that’s tried to make it there. In the NFL, the same thing applies for every blocking dummy, every whistle toot, every wind sprint. Way more rooks will get cut than not, and dozens of veterans will suddenly find out that their career after football is about to begin sooner than they thought, or were prepared for.

The Lions have held camp at the Cranbrook school off Woodward in Bloomfield, Oakland University in Rochester, the grounds of the Silverdome, and now in Allen Park. From Bobby Layne’s nightly carousing to the filming of the movie "Paper Lion" to the death of a head coach to Darryl Rogers’ country clubs to Wayne Fontes’ golf cart to Barry Sanders’ almost yearly holdouts to Bobby Ross’ supposed one-way tickets out of town, the Lions have had a rather rich and colorful history of football, summertime-style. Maybe it’s been more fun than their autumn football, when it comes right down to it.

Former defensive tackle Alex Karras once co-wrote a couple of columns with the Free Press’ George Puscas in which Karras reminisced about his early days as a Lion. What struck me was his prose about his rookie year, and a training camp which saw him tabbed by the great quarterback Layne to be Bobby’s personal chauffeur and designated drinking partner.

"I can’t believe I made the team, because I played so poorly," Karras wrote. "And the reason I played so poorly was because I was hungover every day." Apparently, Karras drove Layne around Pontiac, back in the Cranbrook days, and almost drank himself to death trying to keep up with Layne’s whiskey binges. Ah, the good old days.

Karras (left) was Layne's reluctant drinking buddy in 1958's camp

1967’s camp saw a Hollywood movie crew invading Cranbrook to film scenes for "Paper Lion," the film adaptaion of George Plimpton’s book, which was his diary of posing as a rookie trying to make the Lions roster as a quarterback. The movie featured Karras and offensive lineman John Gordy, as well as rookie head coach Joe Schmidt. If you ever get a chance, rent it. It’s a wonderful nostalgia trip, and the only time you’ll see Alan Alda in football gear, guaranteed.

There was tragedy, too, in Lions camp. Head coach Don McCafferty, about to begin his second season in Detroit, suffered a fatal heart attack early in camp in 1974. Talk about a horrible way to kickoff a season. McCafferty’s death thrust little-known Rick Forzano into the spotlight as head coach, and just when you thought the Lions couldn’t have had a more unassuming head coach, Forzano gave way to another no-name, Tommy Hudspeth, in 1976. When both men left town, everyone was still saying, "Who?"

Who can forget the images of Fontes toting around in his golf cart, smoking a cigar, kibitzing with reporters and hugging owner Bill Ford? And remember Sanders and his fondness for avoiding camp, supposedly because of contract matters? Of course, Barry needed training camp to get ready for the upcoming season about as much as God needed his seventh day to get ready for the upcoming world. But the one player who could have used training camp the most, quarterback Andre Ware, missed almost all of 1990’s, and the rest is ghoulish history.

So now here we are, in 2005, and as usual, the Lions’ roster looks so much better in July than it typically plays in November. There is a juicy QB controversy just waiting to develop, another usual thing, and another coach is on the hot seat. So what else is new when it comes to summertime football in Detroit?

Enjoy your two-a-days.

By the way, check out "Cheap Seats", a new addition to the "Out of Bounds" blogroll. The Bleacher Guy has a very entertaining, informative Detroit sports blog. You can visit him at

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