Another football training camp has begun. Another opportunity for nostalgia.
Harry Gilmer, the beleaguered coach of the Lions between George Wilson and Joe Schmidt in the mid-1960s, stared out at the confounding young running back on the practice field.
The running back was easy to spot, for he was the only one not wearing a helmet on his bemusing head.
“Coach,” Gilmer calmly said to one of his assistants, “tell that boy to put a helmet on his head.”
The young running back, Joe Don Looney, might have played some football sans helmet, at some point in his life.
It’s another day at Cranbrook, the high brow school whose campus the Lions used for training until the early-1970s. Again, Looney is the focus.
Joe Don didn’t want to practice that day. Gilmer sent team captain Schmidt up to Looney’s dorm room to talk to him.
Schmidt found Looney on his bed, strumming a guitar.
“Joe,” Schmidt began, sitting across from Looney. “The team needs you on the field. I’ve played in this league for 12 years and I’ve never missed a practice.”
Looney, according to Schmidt’s re-telling, looked up from his guitar.
“Well then, Joe, I’d say you’re due for a day off! Stay with me.”
It’s the mid-1990s, and the Lions are training at the Silverdome, on a field outside of the big plastic bubble.
I’m one of the interlopers, with a TV camera man in tow, hoping for some good sound bites after practice.
I’m daydreaming, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, when I hear some raised voices and some “Whoas” and “Look outs”.
I turn just in time to see a golf cart zooming toward me.
Behind the wheel is a moon-faced man chomping on a cigar.
“Hey fellas!” Wayne Fontes says brightly as he stops to give us his post-practice report.
Alex Karras played 12 marvelous seasons for the Lions, as one of the best defensive linemen to ever grace their roster. And, dare I say, one of the best to not be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But he almost didn’t make the team as a rookie, to hear Alex tell it.
The late, great Bobby Layne, for whatever reason, took a shining to Karras when the latter arrived as a rookie in 1958.
Just a bumpkin from Iowa, Karras once described himself.
And now he was a rookie in the NFL, playing for the defending world champions.
Layne took Karras under his wing, which in the world of Bobby Layne took on an entirely different meaning than from what you and I take that to mean.
Karras (top) became Layne’s sidekick during the 1958 camp, for whatever reason
Karras re-told the experience in the early-‘70s to the late Detroit Free Press sports writer George Puscas, who Karras grew close to while playing for the Lions.
Seems Layne turned Karras into his personal drinking buddy during that 1958 camp.
“I was drunk all the time,” Karras told Puscas. “I have no idea how I made the team because I was hungover at every practice.”
Karras wasn’t a drinker, per se, and definitely not one to partake of hard liquor. But Layne loved his Cutty Sark, which meant Alex had to love it, too.
Layne, according to Karras, only required one, two hours of sleep per night. The two of them would stumble into the dorms at Cranbrook after a long night of partying at a bar in Pontiac, and while Karras struggled to squeeze a little sleep into his body, Layne would head into the shower and sing his favorite song, “Ida Red”, fresh as a daisy.
Karras said that he believed that Layne’s lack of sleep was due to fear of sleeping, because when Bobby was a kid he was in a car accident and spent an entire night stuck in the overturned car with a dead body. That’s what Alex had heard, anyway.
If true, I can see that theory.
But on the practice field, while Karras battled hangovers, Layne was spry, imparting his knowledge of quarterbacking to his receivers and even the coaches.
“Tell that boy to take that route one more step before turning raght,” Layne would say in his Texas twang. And, Karras said, when the receiver did it, he found the ball perfectly delivered by Layne.
“The coaches listened, because they knew that nobody knew quarterbacking better than Bobby Layne,” Karras said.
The routine was daily: practice would end for the day, and Layne, after dinner, would come looking for “Tippy”, which was short for Karras’s nickname, “Tippy Toes”, so garnered for the way Karras would make his moves toward the quarterback on the tips of his toes.
“Hey,Tippy! Time to go out!”
Karras said that one day, he hid under his bed, hoping that Layne wouldn’t find him. But he relented and made himself visible.
The odd couple combo of veteran QB and rookie defensive tackle would head into Pontiac, where Layne would throw down Cutty Sarks and listen to the live band perform.
Karras said the band would want to take a break, and Layne would implore them to keep playing.
“But we’re tired, Mr. Layne,” one of the band members said.
Layne would dismiss that and throw money into one of the horns. The band would keep playing.
One night, on the way back to Cranbrook, Karras said Layne was singing “Ida Red” and sticking his head out the window, which Bobby had done before.
But this time was different. The car was traveling at breakneck speed, faster than normal. To Karras’s horror, he saw that Layne had placed a brick on the gas pedal and was halfway out of the vehicle, singing at the top of his lungs.
“The car was moving so fast it was shaking,” Karras related. “I was begging him to slow down, to stop the car.”
Layne didn’t have a great camp on the field, but the quarterback blew that off.
“Just wait till the regular season starts,” Layne told Karras at the bar one night. “That’s when ole Bobby will shine. Yes sir!”
The regular season indeed began, with Karras on the roster, to his surprise.
The Lions opened with a loss in Baltimore, and followed that with a tie in Green Bay, when Layne, who also placekicked, scuffed the infield dirt with a potential game-winning field goal.
After that game, Layne was suddenly and mysteriously traded to Pittsburgh.
The following season, the Lions played the Steelers.
“Layne was scrambling and was headed for the sidelines,” Karras said. “I lined him up and really let him have it. I mean, I creamed him. It was almost an illegal hit because he was mostly out of bounds. I’m not sure why I did it.”
According to Karras, Layne looked at him and smiled.
“He liked that. He said, ‘How ya doin’, Tippy?’”