Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Heart of a Lion: The Wild and Wooly Life of Bobby Layne by Bob St. John

Heart of a Lion: The Wild and Wooly Life of Bobby Layne


Bobby Layne never lost a game in his life. Once in a while time just ran out on him. ~ Doak Walker lifelong friend and teammate. 

This is the third in a series of four biographies I am reading/reviewing about Detroit sport legends: Ty Cobb, Gordie Howe, Bobby Layne, and Isiah Thomas. Each the greatest to ever play their respective games.

And while that superlative statement may genuinely apply to Cobb and Howe, I wouldn’t seriously say Bobby Layne is the greatest Football player of all time, or even the greatest quarterback ever. But at one time, he was the best.

When Time magazine ran its November 1954 edition with Bobby Layne on the cover (the first football player to ever grace the cover), the article read: 
The best quarterback in the world is Robert Lawrence Layne.

When he retired after the 1962 season, Bobby Layne was the NFL record holder for most touchdown passes, with 196. He won three NFL championships (before they were called Super Bowls) in the 50s, and is inducted into eight different Halls of Fame:
     -- NFL Hall of Fame
     -- National Quarterback’s Hall of Fame
     -- College Football Hall of Fame
     -- Texas High School Football Hall of Fame
     -- University of Texas Hall of Fame
     -- Texas Sports Hall of Fame
     -- State of Michigan Hall of Fame
     -- State of Pennsylvania Hall of Fame

He probably could have had a career as a professional baseball player as well. In his freshman year at Texas he was a perfect 26-0 as a starting pitcher.

But I think his success on the field had more to do with intelligence, attitude, integrity, and work ethic than sheer athletic ability. He was gracious in defeat, but he always played to win. He said
Winning is the greatest thing in the world. Hell, I wouldn’t give you a nickel for any guy or any team that’s interested in finishing second. Second or last, there’s not a damn bit of difference.

He once stunned his general manager when he demanded a pay cut after a sub-standard season. 

And he was all about teamwork. He demanded full effort and execution from his teammates and would dress them down when they didn’t give it, but then…he established a team meeting the day after each game – 100% participation required – usually held at the bowling alley to go over any problems, patch up any personal grievances, and then to relax and bond as a team. 

As quarterback, Layne was paid three or four times more than other players, but when the team was collectively punished for a curfew violation, and each individual was given the choice of a fine or special workout – Layne knew the fine was not easily affordable to his teammates, so he did the grueling workout along with them.

Bobby Layne is also known for wearing no facemask on his helmet, and only minimal pads.

In addition to his legendary accomplishments on the gridiron, Bobby Layne possesses a rather notorious reputation – that of being a legendary carouser – “legendary” being a key word, as it turns out it is mostly just legend. He did like to party, but the stories of Lions coaches bailing him out of jail Saturday night so he could play Sunday morning, or the smell of alcohol on his breath in the huddle are just untrue. 

He was in fact – rather a prince of a human being.

When the wife of a teammate died suddenly due to a pregnancy complication, her parents flew to Detroit and were quickly overwhelmed by the big city and the enormity of their grief. Bobby took them personally under wing, helping them with arrangements and costs.

He was a devoted family man, fiercely loyal friend, successful business man outside of football, charitable to a fault, and seemed to always look on the bright side. He had a determined ability to put bad things behind him. And there were some bad things.

His father died when Bobby was eight, and a few months later his mother decided she could not cope and sent Bobby to live with an Aunt and Uncle. But according to Bobby’s sons, he never expressed bitter feelings toward his mother, but when recounting his childhood, he focused on what wonderful “parents” his aunt and uncle were.

He died young (59), happy, respected, and loved. He was planning a big Texas shindig to celebrate his and lifelong friend Doak Walker’s 60th birthdays – but borrowing from the Doak Walker quotation – time just ran out on him.

Excerpts:

I have no complaints. Life’s been good. I wake up every morning and I say, ‘Good morning God.’ I never say, ‘Good God, morning.’

Bobby Layne never lost a game in his life. Once in a while time just ran out on him. ~ Doak Walker lifelong friend and teammate

Most of the stuff written about me was an exaggeration or a darn lie.

The best quarterback in the world is Robert Lawrence Layne, a blond, bandy-legged Texan with a prairie squint in his narrow blue eyes and an unathletic paunch puffing out his ample 6’1”, 195 frame. ~ Time Magazine Nov 54

I never even encouraged them [his two sons] to play football. I left it up to them. Everything was up to them and their coaches. They can play a piccolo if they want, as long as they’re good at it.

Trivia: Layne is rumored to have cursed the Lions when he was traded mid-season 1958. Legend has it that Layne said the Lions wouldn’t win a championship for 50 years. In the ensuing 50 years, the Lions were the most hapless team in the NFL, rarely making the playoffs, and in the final year of the curse posting the NFLs first ever 0-16 season. They still haven’t won a championship, and it’s now over 60 years, but they have been winning a bit more. That started the year after the curse expired and the Lions drafted Matthew Stafford – who attended the same high school as Bobby Layne.

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