Tobin Rote belongs in Canton

In his stellar career, quarterback Tobin Rote helped three different teams win championships.

The sheer size of some of the quarterbacks who have entered the National Football League over the last several years is truly remarkable. Hefty signal-callers like Cam Newton, Ben Roethlisberger, Jamarcus Russell, and Daunte Culpepper could have composed an All-Pro-caliber defensive line back in the 1950s, an era when 260-pound linemen were considered exotic specimens. In those days, there was only one truly effective quarterback built along the same physical dimensions as today’s Buick-sized bunch, and his name was Tobin Rote.

Rote, of course, is known to knowledgeable Lions fans as the man who quarterbacked the team to its last NFL title in 1957. Acquired from Green Bay before the season as a kind of insurance policy for the injury-prone Bobby Layne, Rote took over Layne’s duties when his fellow Texan snapped an ankle late in the season. Rote rallied the Lions to a divisional playoff win at San Francisco after Detroit had fallen behind by 20 points early in the third quarter. At the time, it was the greatest comeback in NFL postseason history. The following Sunday, Rote threw for four touchdowns and ran for a fifth as Detroit annihilated Cleveland, 59-14, at Briggs Stadium for the championship.

Several players from that ’57 squad were subsequently voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. In addition to Layne, inductees included linebacker Joe Schmidt, tackle Lou Creekmur, defensive backs Yale Lary and Jack Christiansen, center Frank Gatski, and fullback John Henry Johnson. A good case can be made that Rote also belongs with this select group, not only for what he accomplished in Detroit but for what he was able to do elsewhere.

Rote, who had quarterbacked Rice University to a pair of Southwest Conference titles and a Cotton Bowl win his senior year, was drafted by Green Bay, then considered the Lower Slobovia of the NFL. For seven seasons (1950-56) with the lowly Packers, Rote was practically a one-man gang, though he didn’t get anywhere near the press he deserved. During his time in Green Bay, only Layne and Norm Van Brocklin threw for more touchdowns. And no QB ran the ball as well as the rangy Rote, who led all quarterbacks in rushing a record six times during the 1950s.

In 1956, Rote used his arm and legs to account for 29 of Green Bay’s 34 touchdowns. He tossed 18 TD passes, seven more than anyone else in the league, and ran for 11 more, a record for quarterbacks that would last decades. It remains one of the most remarkable individual seasons in pro football history, even though hardly anybody remembers it today.

Then came 1957 and Rote’s heroics down the stretch as the Lions rolled to a title. Rote was good enough that the club felt safe trading Layne to Pittsburgh early the following season. But the supporting cast got old almost overnight and Rote was gone from Detroit after a couple so-so seasons. He wound up in the Canadian Football League. During his first year with Toronto, he led the Argonauts (who had finished 4-10 the previous season) to their first divisional title in nearly a quarter-century. Along the way he set CFL records for most TD passes in a game (seven, twice) and a season (38).

After three seasons in Toronto, Rote signed a $35,000 contract with the San Diego Chargers of the American Football League. Once again he took over a 4-10 team and immediately turned it around, his performance earning him MVP honors from the Associated Press. The ’63 Chargers finished 11-3 and met Boston in the title game. Rote scored the game’s first touchdown on a short run in the first quarter. After that the rout was on, the Chargers blasting the Patriots, 51-10. Rote completed 10 of 15 passes for 173 yards and two scores.

Rote, who had been brought in to help groom John Hadl to take over at quarterback, saw his playing time diminish in 1964. However, when the Chargers returned to the championship game that December, it was the veteran Rote who was called on to start. After throwing a TD pass on the game’s opening drive, Rote was stifled by Buffalo’s swarming defense. The Bills won, 20-7, and Rote, who was just a couple weeks shy of turning 37, announced his retirement. Two years later, he was talked into an ill-advised comeback with the Denver Broncos that lasted just two games. Rote, who had settled his family in Michigan, died of a heart attack in 2000.

Since then, there have been sporadic attempts to get voters at the Pro Football Hall of Fame to recognize Rote, who among his many accomplishments was the only man ever to quarterback a team to championships in the NFL and AFL. Last year, Rote was inducted into the Texas Sports Hall of Fame. It’s not Canton, but for now it’ll have to do.



About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side. He is the author of many articles and books, including biographies of local sports legends Joe Louis and Ty Cobb and histories of Tiger Stadium and Detroit's Negro leagues.