The recent death of longtime broadcaster Pat Summerall, closely followed by the usual hoopla surrounding this year’s NFL draft, calls to mind the often overlooked fact that Summerall was drafted by Detroit and spent his first of many NFL seasons as a teammate of Bobby Layne, Doak Walker, and other legendary Lions.
Detroit coach Buddy Parker had a new aide for the 1952 season: Russ Thomas, a former Lions tackle whose playing career had been halted by a knee injury in 1949. Thomas’s duties included scouting collegiate talent and assisting general manager Nick Kerbawy in signing some of the team’s draft choices. This was valuable early training for Thomas, who would develop a reputation as a tough and tight-fisted negotiator during his long career in the front office.
Arkansas end and placekicker Pat Summerall was Detroit’s fourth-round pick in the 1952 draft. The future broadcaster discovered that, when it came to haggling, Thomas already had a few trick plays in his playbook. Before Thomas left for Fayetteville to talk money with Summerall, he implied that the collegian had already made the team and was in line for a healthy contract. “After I heard that,” Summerall remembered, “there were several nights of hard partying at our favorite bar, Hog’s Heaven, and I put round after round on my tab.”
However, when the two met at Hog’s Heaven, Summerall was disappointed to find out that the Lions were only willing to offer him a $5,000 contract with no signing bonus. Thomas explained that all players on the club made the same $5,000 salary – a sacrifice for the sake of team unity. Furthermore, Thomas said, the Lions didn’t give signing bonuses because that would mean raising the salaries of everybody else.
Summerall was incredulous. “I couldn’t believe that big-name Lions such as Doak Walker, Bobby Layne, and Leon Hart would have the same salary as a rookie who hadn’t played a down yet. Things didn’t seem to add up to me, and I let Thomas know it. After a lot of back and forth, he backed down and agreed to increase his offer to $6,000 a year with a $500 signing bonus. When he finally caved, I remember thinking, ‘At least it’ll pay off my bar tab.’”
Summerall made the final 33-man roster in 1952. Two other rookies of note were defensive backs Yale Lary and Jimmy David, both of whom played their entire careers with Detroit. However, Summerall broke his arm during a kick return in the second game of the season, at Los Angeles, and missed the rest of the season. He was a spectator as Layne & Co. went on to win the NFL title. The following year Summerall was dealt to the lowly Chicago Cardinals. In 1958 he joined the New York Giants, excelling as a placekicker and playing in three championship games before retiring after the 1961 season. The following year he launched his long and distinguished broadcast career at CBS.
In retrospect, it was probably just as well that Summerall didn’t stick around with those hard-drinking Lions of legend. He might not have made it out of the ‘50s. As it was, Summerall’s alcoholism caused him to undergo a liver transplant late in life; he was clean and sober several years when he died.