Bobby Layne’s drunk driving charge hung over the Lions’ last championship season

Bobby Layne in court for his drink driving trial in 1957.

Bobby Layne in court for his drink driving trial in 1957.

With blonde-haired quarterback and hell raiser Bobby Layne barking out signals in his Texas drawl, the Detroit Lions became America’s team as they captured consecutive world championships in 1952 and 1953 and a division title in 1954, the same year he became the first football player to grace the cover of Time magazine.

And if it wasn’t for a dirty and vicious blind side hit on him by the Bears’ Ed Meadows, the Lions may well have won again in ’56 as they lost the division title to Chicago in the last game of the season after Layne was knocked out of the game.

As one of the NFL’s greatest field generals with an uncanny ability to win games in the final two minutes, Layne was also known as a late night carouser who loved Cutty Sark, cards, gambling, jazz, and a room full of drinking buddies singing “Ida Red.”

Layne’s teammate Yale Lary once famously said, “When Bobby said ‘block” you blocked, and when he said ‘drink” you drank.”

A night out with Bobby Layne was an adventure to say the least.

“Before I was married I used to go out on the town with him and although I didn’t always want to go it was hard to say no,” Lions’ legend Joe Schmidt told me in a 2007 interview. “It was like walking into a room with Babe Ruth, everybody knew him, table down front, drinks for everyone, and big tips to the musicians,” said Schmidt. “You’d have a good time but pay for it the next day. He was like a flame that never died, but he was always there ready to play.”

The Lions’ last championship season in 1957 first started out on a sour note when the team’s heralded head coach Buddy Parker shocked everyone on August 12th at a team dinner when he announced that he was quitting.

And then at 2 AM in the morning of September 27th, two weeks before the start of the season, Bobby Layne was arrested for drunk driving, an incident that would be splashed on the front pages of Detroit’s newspapers.

At his arraignment, two Detroit police officers testified that Layne, accompanied by two men and three women, drove on Grand River with his front lights out for more than a block on the wrong side of the center lane before the patrol car had to chase Layne’s car for three blocks before over taking it. The officers said Layne’s speech was slurred, and after the Lion hero kept poking one of the officers in the shoulder they took him to the police station for booking. Teammate Jack Christiansen posted a $150 cash bond for his release.

After the arrest, Layne offered to quit when he met with the newly appointed Lion head coach George Wilson, but Buddy Parker’s former assistant would have nothing of it.

Layne would share the quarterback duties in the ’57 season with newly acquired quarterback and fellow Texan Tobin Rote, but the specter of his upcoming drunk driving trial hung over Layne’s head all season.

Layne’s trial would not take place until December 6th, an experience the quarterback called “an ordeal, worse than any football game I ever played.”

In front of a jury consisting of eleven women and one man, Layne testified that he had about six highballs, that the drinks did not impair his ability to drive, and that his speech was not slurred, it was just his Texas drawl.

After only 24 minutes of deliberation, the jury acquitted Layne much to the relief of the quarterback, teammates, coaches, and Detroit Lion fans. One woman juror leaving the courtroom remarked, ‘Bobby ought to give us women a big kiss for letting him off.”

Detroit fans were relieved and the team was so happy they held a party at a local tavern that hung a sign saying, “Ah ain’t drunk…..Ah’m from Texas.”

Finally relieved of carrying the burden of the drunk driving charge, two days after his acquittal Layne was ready to take on the Cleveland Browns at Briggs Stadium as the Lions were fighting for the division title race with a 6-4 record and two games remaining.

But as fate would have it, in the second quarter as Layne faded back to pass he was leveled by Cleveland’s Don Colo and Paul Wiggin. Carried off the field on a stretcher, the Lion quarterback’s season ended with a broken ankle.

Although Lion fans were distraught over Layne’s injury, the trade for Tobin Rote now looked better than ever.

Rote soon became the hero of the ’57 Lions as he lead the team to victories over Cleveland and Chicago before spearheading a historic come from behind victory in a playoff game against San Francisco. Finally in the World Championship game at Briggs Stadium, Rote led the Lions to their fourth and last championship.

As it turned out, Layne’s Golden Era with the Lions ended the following season after the second game, when to the shock of nearly everyone, Detroit’s original ramblin gamblin man was suddenly traded to Pittsburgh for quarterback Earl Morrall and draft choices.

I won’t call it a curse, but as we all know, since Bobby Layne took his partying ways to the Steel City, for over half a century the once roaring Detroit Lions have, to put it mildly, been rather tame.

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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.