Gregg Krupa/ The Detroit News
Detroit — The Vince Lombardi who arrived in Detroit for the game against the Lions was a man and a coach, not yet the legend.
By November 1962, he had resurrected the Green Bay Packers, a team in decline for two decades. In a few years, Lombardi would embody America’s ideal of a football coach.
Before the legend, though, comes the playing of the games.
As he walked into Tiger Stadium early on that raw, slate-gray Thanksgiving Day with a few snow flurries flying, Lombardi and his powerful Packers were four wins shy of the first perfect season in NFL history. Other than the Lions, the Packers would play only the lowly 49ers and, twice, the hapless Rams.
But, in the Lions locker room, a great menace stirred.
“To this day, I don’t know if I have ever been in a locker room quite like that one,” said Dick LeBeau, a Lions defensive back and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who has coached in the NFL for 39 years, including in six Super Bowls.
“It was a group of men who came together with a singleness of purpose that they were going to win a game that day.”
The Lions have played more games on Thanksgiving than any franchise. Their most frequent opponent is the Packers.
They will face each other Thursday with the best records for both teams in the 20 Thanksgiving games they have played. The Packers are 10-0, and the Lions 7-3. On November 22, 1962, they were 10-0 and 8-2.
Loss primes rematch
Anticipation for that game burst the boundaries of the city.
It was the only game that day, and it drew 30 million viewers. At the time, it was the largest television audience ever for CBS.
“People today forget that big national, TV audiences were still a little bit new, then,” said Joe Schmidt, the eight-time all-Pro middle linebacker and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“It was an opportunity to show people across the United States the kind of football team you were.”
The concept of people in one part of the country showing interest in two teams from another had yet to be tested.
“That game is one of the prime movers in the NFL becoming a national spectator sport,” said LeBeau, defensive coordinator for the Steelers.
“That television audience was one of the first ones that made them think, ‘Hey, people want to watch this!'”
Outside Michigan, few believed the Lions would win.
But the Lions had deep determination, born in a loss to the Packers that season.
Detroit had a 7-6 lead in Green Bay when, inexplicably, with the clock nearly expired, quarterback Milt Plum dropped back to pass.
Plum tossed an interception.
A few plays later, the Packers kicked a field goal to win 9-7.
“A few guys raised Cain with Milt Plum for throwing the ball,” Schmidt said. “It wasn’t Milt Plum.
“The play was called in from the sideline, and the receiver, Terry Barr, slipped. It was a well-thrown ball. If Terry hadn’t slipped, he would have caught the ball.”
Jerry Kramer, the great Packers guard, recalls the scene he heard emerging from the Lions locker room.
“They were throwing garbage cans around the locker room and cursing mightily,” Kramer said.
The game still jabs at Schmidt’s gut, 49 years later.
“Of all the games I played in and all the games I coached, this Green Bay situation remains in my mind,” said Schmidt, who coached Detroit from 1967-72. “As great as the players were that we had that season, it just goes unnoticed, to this day, because we lost that first one to Green Bay.
“To this day, no one knows who we are.”
Lions held the aces
That regret glowed red hot for the Lions on Thanksgiving Day.
“We had a vendetta,” said Roger Brown, the first 300-pound lineman in the NFL, who played defensive tackle in both games for the Lions as part of the first “Fearsome Foursome.”
“We gave them a gift up in Green Bay, and we wanted to set the record straight.”
It started unceremoniously for the Lions, who drove to the Packers 17 only to fumble.
The Packers moved the ball, a bit. But, on three consecutive plays, the Lions began what is considered one of the greatest defensive performances in history.
*On second down from the Packers 47, defensive tackle Alex Karras, the four-time all-Pro, broke through Kramer to dump a running back for a three-yard loss.
*On third down, Karras, Schmidt and defensive end Darris McCord broke through and sacked Bart Starr.
*After the play was negated by a delay of game against the Packers, Brown drove through Packers guard Fuzzy Thurston on third down to drop Starr for a 15-yard loss.
Then, the Lions offense went to work with uncharacteristic speed and precision.
“We had a thing all year, Milty and I, where I was doing a lot of simple curls and crossing patterns,” said Gail Cogdill, a Lions wide receiver.
“Well, on Thanksgiving Day, instead of running out a little and turning one way or the other, I just kept going straight. I think we caught them off guard.”
Plum and Cogdill combined for two touchdowns — 33 and 29 yards — in the first half.
“All I can say is that the whole game felt like we were playing cards and you knew we had the best hand,” Cogdill said.
With a 14-0 lead, the Lions kicked off. It hardly mattered.
A play later, Brown broke through Thurston again, forcing Starr to fumble. Defensive end Sam Williams picked up the ball and, as the scorer for the game typed on the score sheet, “waltzed” into the end zone.
The Lions kicked off — and the Packers may have wished they had not.
On the first play, Brown tackled Hall of Fame running back Jim Taylor for a loss.
A play later, Brown, a man both fast and huge, was free in the Packers backfield, chasing Starr.
Brown grabbed him in the end zone for a safety.
“As far as anything extracurricular that we did, I would say the whole darned thing was motivation,” Brown said.
“We had some stunts and some nutty sorts of things, but we were determined to get to Bart Starr.”
‘A little bit of a nightmare’
With a brilliant plan drawn up by the 32-year-old defensive coach Don Shula, who would leave Detroit at the end of the season to become defensive coordinator in Baltimore, the Lions repeatedly were stunting ends, tackles and linebackers.
Officially, the Lions sacked Starr 11 times for 110 yards. It left the Packers with 49 yards passing.
Karras often was called “Tippy Toes” because of his great deception and a habit of running on his toes with short choppy steps. But on one play, available on YouTube, Karras simply bull rushed Kramer, pushing him from about the Packers 10 into the end zone, where he shoved the guard aside with a slip of his left shoulder and flip of his left forearm.
Starr somehow avoided a second safety.
“Along with Merlin Olsen, Karras was the greatest defensive tackle I ever faced,” said Kramer, a five-time all-Pro.
“The Lions absolutely kicked our butts all day long. They played with extreme emotion.”
A photograph, which over the years became a symbol of defensive tenacity in the NFL and still hangs in the Lions offices at Allen Park, shows Starr beginning to fall as he nearly disappears in the arms of four Lions, Williams, strong safety Bruce Maher, Karras and Schmidt.
“Bart has nothing but respect for the Lions and the way they attacked that day,” said Keith Dunnavant, a biographer of Starr, whose book, “America’s Quarterback,” was published in September. “He talks about Alex Karras and Roger Brown and those guys, and it’s the most respect a guy can have.
“But it probably remains a little bit of a nightmare for him. How could it not?”
When Green Bay rushed, it did not go much better. Detroit had five tackles for loss.
“I recall looking down at my jersey in the fourth quarter,” LeBeau said. “Now, remember this was November at Tiger Stadium, and it could be a little mucky out there.
“But I looked down at my jersey and I recall there wasn’t a mark on it. Our front seven played so well that day, I was never on the ground.
“They really didn’t even have to launder the thing.”
The Packers scored twice in the fourth quarter, one on an interception return by Plum.
The Lions won 26-14.
After the game, Lombardi smiled wryly and said, simply, “Well, you didn’t think we were going to win them all, did you?”
The most common opponent for Detroit on Thanksgiving Day is Green Bay. The teams play their 20th game Thursday (records before the game):
Sources: Elias Sports Bureau, NFL