The Curse of the ’55 Detroit Lions

My favorite Detroit Lions team of all-time was the 1954 squad.

The most exciting team during my time as a Lions’ fanatic was the 1957 World’s Championship bunch, that put together a series of astonishing comeback victories on their way to stomping Cleveland in that year’s title game at Briggs Stadium … the first Lions game, oddly enough, that I ever attended.

The 1952 and ‘53 championship squads were legendary, just as the 1956 Lions — robbed of a chance at the championship by the blatant mugging of Bobby Layne in Chicago on the last Sunday of the regular season — were almost tragic.

In that mix of the oldtime Lions teams, the most bizarre bunch … the squad that has chased me down through the ages … was the last-place 1955 Detroit Lions. How did they end up in the cellar? An examination of the Lions All-Time Player Roster is instructive. There are classic careers recorded there, such as:

Layne, Robert, QB Texas, 1950-58
Sanders, Charlie, TE Minnesota, 1968-77

Those were, obviously, healthy NFL careers.

Now, the 1955 Lions team should have been of championship calibre. Consider that the team was coming off those two successive World Championships in 1952 and ‘53, and an appearance in the 1954 title game. Post-1955, the ‘56 Lions finished a half-game out of the championship game, and the ‘57 squad won it all. What, then, happened in 1955?

A look at that same Lions All-Time Roster tells an interesting tale:

Jenkins, Walter, LB, Wayne State, 1955
Riley, Lee, B, University of Detroit, 1955
Topor, Ted, LB, Michigan, 1955
Ricca, Jim, T, Georgetown, 1955
Fucci, Dom, B, Kentucky, 1955
Woit, Richard, B Arkansas State, 1955
Atkins, George G, Auburn, 1955
Yoworsky,Walt E, Kentucky, 1955

Beginning to see a pattern here?  Ever hear of those guys?  Buddy Parker was the Lions coach during the glory years, and he was known as a bit of a wheeler-dealer in his time. And the temptation, in looking over that ‘55 record, is to guess that practically every personnel move he attempted that season blew up in his face. I mean, hardly anybody survived that 3-9 Lions season to continue their careers with the team.

And I have to add, with great subjectivity and whining on this subject … why me? Here’s why. I was a tremendous Lions fan back in those days, consumed as a kid by the fortunes of our Lions. If they won on Sunday, I was elated and high all week. If they lost, which they seldom did but mostly did through ALL of 1955, I was depressed without end. So you can see it wasn’t a banner year for me.

Worse, my dear old Dad gave me the greatest gift of my life at Christmas, 1955. My father was a tax attorney, and he did work for Dr. Richard Thompson, the Lions team physician. And that year he arranged to get an autographed Lions football for me from Doc Thompson. It was a thing of beauty … as I say, the finest gift of my life.

There, in beautiful blue and green ink, written across a brand new Rawlings football, were the scribbled names of my all-time heroes: Bobby Layne, Doak Walker, Jack Christiansen, Joe Schmidt, Jim Doran, Jim Martin, Jug Girard, Lou Creekmur, Dorne Dibble, Harley Sewell, Darris McCord, Charley Ane, Dick Stanfel, Leon Hart, Jim David.

Also there, in indelible ink: Richie Woit, George Atkins, Lee Riley, Dom Fucci, Ted Topor, Walter Jenkins … you get my drift.

I’m not complaining. Well, maybe a little. I mean, no knock on those guys, they did play in the NFL. But why did they have to put their names on my football?

And here’s the kicker, so to speak. I said this team has followed me down through the years. In 2002 I got a call from a friend of mine in New York, a guy who grew up in Royal Oak. His family was disposing of some old possessions, and his brother had sent him one from their childhood — an autographed football from the Lions glory days. My friend wasn’t sure of the year, but yup — it had the names of the greats on it, Layne, Walker, Hart, Schmidt. Did I want it?

Did I want it? By the time the ball got here in a box from New York, I was excited as the kid I had been at Christmas in 1955. And when I opened the box I was taken back to those days. Because — and of course you’ve already guessed it — there on the ball, a white one with black stripes, were also … Ted Topor, George Atkins, Walter Jenkins, Dom Fucci, Lee Riley, Richie Woit …. the last place Detroit Lions of 1955.

I bet I’m the only guy in the country with two autographed 1955 Lions footballs. Two mementoes of a 3-9 year. It makes me feel sort of lucky. In a very strange kind of way.

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About Tom DeLisle

Tom DeLisle is a native Detroiter. The east side resident was a city desk reporter for the Detroit Free Press from 1967 to '71, and a member of the Free Press staff that won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize for reporting the Detroit Riot. After serving as an Executive Assistant and speechwriter to Detroit Mayor Roman Gribbs from 1971-74, he worked as a television writer and producer in New York and Los Angeles, including a variety of bad sitcoms and comedy specials. He wrote monologues for guest host Richard Dawson for "The Tonight Show" from 1978 to '81. Returning to Detroit, he worked in television and radio with Dick Purtan and Tom Ryan, winning five Emmy Awards for local documentaries and comedies, including the 1981 primetime "Dick Purtan Comedy Special" and 1990's "Sparky Anderson Special" (with guest Pres. Richard Nixon) for WDIV-TV. He wrote for a variety of Tigers and Red Wings specials for Channel 50 in the 1990s and 2000s, including the "Stanley Celebrations," while appearing as "The Nervous Person" for three years on the '"Ray (Lane) and Mickey (Redmond) On Ice" specials at WKBD. He is currently completing a novel, and generally slowing down, because he's fairly tired.