The Fascinating Story of George Plimpton’s Famous Book, “Paper Lion”

If you are a football fan, and especially a Detroit Lions supporter, George Plimpton’s 1966 classic book “Paper Lion” is a must read, especially if you are looking for insight into what a football training camp is all about.  (At least what it was like 36 years ago this summer.)

The book is now available in a new edition and includes an Afterward that I wrote that covers what happened to the players and coaches from the 1963 Lion team.

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George Plimpton, wearing number 0 stands with his teammates prior to his 1963 scrimmage with the Lions.

George Plimpton, who was the editor of the Paris Review, a freelance contributor to a number of magazines, and considered a pioneer in “participatory journalism” was given permission by the Lions to “try out” as a quarterback with the team during the 1963 training camp at Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills while on assignment for Sports Illustrated. The coaches were aware of the arrangement but the players were not, at least not until the skinny Harvard grad (who had never played high school or college football) was busted by linebacker Wayne Walker who recognized him as the author of “Out of My League”, Plimpton’s book about pitching against major league all stars at Yankee Stadium.

Paper Lion is full of tremendous insight and hilarious stories as Plimpton, then thirty-six, demonstrated how unlikely it would be for an “average” person to succeed as a professional athlete. When he was inserted at quarterback during an intrasquad game at Pontiac’s Wisner Stadium, he lost yardage on every play.

When the book was published in 1966, it was highly acclaimed by the reviewers. Here is just a sampling:

“Paper Lion is the best book written about pro football-maybe about any sport-because Plimpton captures with absolute fidelity how the average fan might feel given the opportunity to try out for a professional football team.”
-The Saturday Review

“This has been called the best book ever written about football. We think it is one of the best books written this year about anything-and not only because Plimpton combines a smooth-flowing style with high good humor. Its fascination lies rather in its unmistakable air of reality…An utterly engaging book.”
–The Wall Street Journal

“It is unquestionably the heavyweight champion of its field.”
–Red Smith

“The best book about football I’ve ever read.”
–W.C. Heinz

In 1968, the book was turned into a movie, starring Alan Alda as George Plimpton with the 1968 Lions playing themselves. Although the videotape is now out of print and a DVD edition has never been produced, if you are lucky it sometimes show up on cable. (Although the dialogue is weak, it is a fun movie to watch, especially if you are a Lion fan. The movie launched the movie career of Alex Karras.)

In 2002, I called Plimpton in his New York office and asked him if he would reunite with his ’63 Lion teammates for some type of charitable event. He kindly agreed, and for the next year I worked with the Lion Alumni Association and the Detroit Lions, to put together a 40th anniversary of the ’63 training camp.

In September 2003, a charity dinner was held in Dearborn as more than 25 players and coaches including Alex Karras, Gail Cogdill, Milt Plum, Earl Morrall, were reunited with Plimpton. At the dinner, Plimpton said perhaps his greatest compliment regarding the book occurred when a “cowboy looking fellow came up to me in the Dallas airport and said, the only book he ever read was Paper Lion.” Needless to say, it drew quite a few laughs.

The following day Plimpton and the ’63 Lions were honored at halftime, and that evening I had the great fortune of having a private dinner with him. As we walked through the lobby to dinner, former Lion Keith Dorney approached Plimpton and said he was in town promoting his new book, “Honolulu Black and Blue”. Plimpton asked him if he would join us. I was bummed because I assumed all Dorney wanted to talk about was football and sports.

As it turned out, Dorney is a high school English teacher in California, and like me, he was also more interested in talking with Plimpton about the famous writers he had worked with, including Hemingway. It was an evening I will always cherish.

However three days later, a photo researcher at Sports Illustrated called me to say that Plimpton had died. Of course I was stunned and saddened. I am however forever grateful that I had been able to spend some time with such a wonderful and generous man who just happened to have written of one of the greatest sports books in history.

I will guarantee you that after reading Paper Lion you will have a greater appreciation of the game, training camp, and a nice slice of Detroit Lion history.

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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.