(every Friday during the NFL season, OOB will run a nostalgic feature about the Lions’ upcoming opponents)
There are those things in life that give you that sinking feeling.
Seeing that your keys are in the car as you are slamming the (locked) door. Going to the fridge at work and realizing that your carefully-packed, yummy lunch that you made for yourself is sitting right there — on the kitchen counter, where you left it this morning. That kind of stuff.
For me, as a 17-year-old, still-passionate Lions fan, that sinking feeling was seeing Dave Williams race up the sideline. With the football. With no Lion near him. With the football game on his person, stolen for his Chicago Bears.
Overtime was instituted in the NFL for regular season games in 1974. And in the hundreds of OT games played since, only once has a team lost the game by surrendering a TD return on the kickoff.
Yes, that would be your Detroit Lions.
Of course, the Lions picked a glorious occasion for such nonsense: the annual Thanksgiving Day game, against the Bears in 1980. It was the “Another One Bites the Dust” year, except that the Lions’ brilliant 4-0 start had faded into a desperation Turkey Day game because the record was suddenly 7-5 when the Bears invaded.
But all looked good for three quarters.
The Lions led all game, and were up by 14 heading into the fourth. Then the Bears scored a touchdown to pull within seven. The Lions couldn’t handle RB Walter Payton, nor the Bears running QB, Vince Evans. The Bears got the ball back with under two minutes to play, needing a touchdown to tie.
The game came down, literally, to the last play. Inside the Lions’ ten, Evans dropped back to pass, only I’m not sure if that was his intention. After a cursory look for a receiver, Evans’s feet started dancing again. And the Lions, again, couldn’t get him into their grasp. Evans lunged over the goal line as the clock read 0:00. I cursed and raved. The Lions needed the game badly; 8-5 was tons better than 7-6 during the playoff push.
There was a coin flip, and the Lions lost. Rookie kicker Eddie Murray booted the ball and it was taken by Williams at his five yard line. Williams briefly tried going up the middle, but quickly found that there was no daylight. So he bounced outside, to the near sideline, and it was quite evident that the Lions had over-pursued the middle of the field. Only Murray had a chance, and Williams wasn’t even to midfield yet. But Murray was slow, had no angle, and Williams basically ran the final 50 yards without a Lion in sight. Nor a penalty flag anywhere to be found.
Those final 50 yards broke my teenage heart. The Lions had blown the game by giving up two touchdowns in a matter of 30 seconds or so — Evans’s to tie the game, and Williams’s to win it.
A quick check of Williams’s stats at pro-football-reference.com shows that the kick return for a TD was his third and final one in his four-year career. But it remains the only one in NFL history to occur in overtime.
The Lions finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs. Had they held on against the Bears on Thanksgiving, they would have made the post-season.
Just another cautionary tale in a franchise’s history that is wallpapered with them.