Two of the Lions greatest comebacks came in last championship season of 1957

Terry Barr

Lions defensive back Terry Barr is shown in action during the 1957 season.

With the Detroit Lions’ dramatic come from behind victories in the last two weeks I thought about the two unbelievable come back wins in 1957, the last time the team won a championship.

In the fourth game of the ’57 season on October 20th the Lions showed why they were a championship caliber team.

Trailing 27-3 with a quarter to play, rookie end Steve Junker, starting for the first time, caught a 14 yard touchdown pass from Tobin Rote to make it 27-10. A few years ago I interviewed Junker for a Detroit Free Press article on that season.

“That game is very memorable to me not only because of the great comeback, but also it was my first game as a starter, and the first pass to me I scored for a touchdown,” said Junker. “But I also I had the misfortune of being chewed out by Bobby Layne and you can never forget that.”

“Layne had this gravely, Texas whiskey drawl and I heard him call my pattern ‘8 right’ so  I cut across the middle,” recalled Junker. “But Bobby had actually said ‘8 drag’ where you go down the sideline. Layne threw it for an interception and God damn he was mad. He chewed my ass from the huddle to the sideline and he told George Wilson, ‘get that  f….ing rookie out of here’. I thought it was the end for me.  I got back into the game though, but from then on I looked at his lips in the huddle. Bobby would get on your ass, but that kept everybody on the ball.”

Down by 17 points with eight minutes left to play, the Lions stormed back as Layne threw a touchdown pass to Hopalong Cassady to make it 27-17, and with two minutes left, John Henry Johnson scored from the 1 yard line for a 27-24 score. With 50 seconds and the game apparently in hand for Baltimore, Lion defensive back Yale Lary forced Lenny Moore to fumble at the Colt’s 29 yard line. Layne then promptly threw a second TD pass to Cassady for an incredible 31-27 Detroit victory as 55,764 delirious Lion fans rocked the ballpark.

“That game was pivotal because it made us realize we could come from behind and win if we came together and played like we’re capable,” Hall of Famer Joe Schmidt told me.

And then arguably the greatest Lion game ever was played in San Francisco on December 22nd.

The 49ers and Lions were tied at 8-4 forcing a playoff game at Kezar Stadium where Detroit had suffered a heartbreaking loss seven weeks earlier when with 10 seconds left, Y.A. Tittle threw a Alley Oop touchdown pass to R.C. Owens for a 35-31 49er victory.

The playoff winner would host the Cleveland Browns for the World Championship.

Although it was a beautiful and sunny San Francisco day, by the end of the first half, a dark cloud hovered over the Lions as they entered the locker room at halftime trailing 24-7.

Back home, many Detroit television viewers turned off their TV sets in disgust while over the Kezar Stadium loudspeaker, 49er fans were instructed that championship tickets could now be purchased.

Meanwhile, with a thin wall dividing the two locker rooms, the Lions heard the 49er players screaming and celebrating as though the game had ended.

“Hearing that gave us the incentive to play our asses off because we had nothing to lose since we were behind by such a large margin,” said Joe Schmidt. “We decided to just blitz the hell out of them.”

On the first play from scrimmage in the second half, the outlook looked ominous when 49er back Hugh McElhenny ran for 71 yards. However Schmidt’s defense held their ground as San Francisco walked away with just a field goal for a 27-7 lead.

It would be the 49ers last score of the game.

As the Lion defense blitzed Tittle forcing five key turnovers, Lion quarterback Tobin Rote took over in Bobby Layne style. (Layne’s season had ended two weeks earlier when he broke his leg in a game against the Browns.)

Trailing by 20 points with 21 minutes remaining, George Wilson inserted Birmingham native Tom “the Bomb” Tracy, a little used halfback who in the course of a minute and a half scored two touchdowns, the second one, a thrilling 58 yard scamper to make it 27-21.  Just three minutes later after a long march, the Lions’ Gene Gedman scored from the two at the start of the 4th quarter.

Miraculously, the Lions took a 28-27 lead after scoring three touchdowns in a span of four and half minutes.

With San Francisco in possession with under three minutes to play, and the nightmare of Tittle’s closing seconds game winning Alley Oop pass the previous month still fresh in the Lions’memory, Joe Schmidt made, “the biggest play of my entire career.”

“I had been warned that Tittle liked to roll out and throw a little screen to McElhenny so I was looking for it, and sure enough here it comes,” says Schmidt. “Tittle sort of lobbed it, I cut in front of McElhenny, caught it, thought I would score, but I was tackled at the two.”

The Lions’ field goal making it 31-27 forced the 49ers to have to score a touchdown to win.

After Lion linebacker Roger Zatkoff intercepted a desperate Tittle pass, Detroit sealed the improbable victory as Kezar Stadium fell silent.

“Except for my wedding and my kids being born, I can’t look back and see anything better than that,” says Schmidt. “It maybe the best game in the history of the Lions for what it meant, how we came back against such a great team in their stadium, and the way so many guys came through.”

Who knows, with the recent come back victories it maybe a sign that we may witness something very special this season.

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About Bill Dow

Bill Dow has written numerous articles on Detroit sports history as a regular freelance contributor to the Detroit Free Press sports page, and some of his work has been published in Baseball Digest magazine. He also wrote the Afterword to the latest editions of George Plimpton’s book Paper Lion.