The helmet whizzed past Milt Plum’s head, missing his melon by inches. The hurled headgear slammed against the locker room wall.
It was October 7, 1962.
A few weeks later, the country would be captivated and would squirm on their living room sofas, as they followed with racing hearts the tense missile crisis playing out in Cuba.
But in Green Bay, the Lions had a potentially explosive situation going on in their dressing quarters.
The Packers, sad sacks in the latter part of the 1950s, had been rebuilt by coach Vince Lombardi. The former New York Giants assistant had molded prior losers like Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jimmy Taylor et al into a unit that played for the NFL Championship in 1960, where they were edged by the Philadelphia Eagles.
In 1961, the Pack drilled Lombardi’s old team, 37-0, at Yankee Stadium to win the franchise’s first championship in 17 years.
The Lions were re-building something as well, under coach George Wilson.
League champions in 1957, the Lions lost their way in 1958 and struggled for a few years but by 1962, the team was reloaded and ready to end Green Bay’s two-year reign as Western Division champs.
Both teams entered the game with 3-0 records. The winner would capture first place in the division, which was important because neither squad looked like it was going to lose too many games that season. A one-game deficit in October would be difficult for the loser to overcome during the course of the fall.
On that fateful day in Green Bay in 1962, the field conditions were less-than-spectacular, thanks to heavy rains. Mud ruled.
The conditions didn’t lend themselves to much offense, and with the Lions’ stout defense, that was even more accentuated at City Stadium (renamed Lambeau Field in 1965).
The Lions managed to forge a delicate 7-6 lead. They had the football near midfield in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter.
A third down presented itself. A first down might have killed the rest of the clock, but a failed conversion and a subsequent punt would have pinned the Packers deep in their own territory.
The safe bet would have been to run the football then punt.
Alex Karras and Joe Schmidt, two stalwarts of the defense, were slapping each other on the back on the sidelines with congratulations on a victory that seemed certain.
Then they saw Lions quarterback Plum fade back to pass.
“What the hell is he doing?” Karras recalled saying in his book, Even Big Guys Cry.
Plum’s intended receiver fell down. Packers defensive back Herb Adderley intercepted and ran the ball deep into Lions territory.
The Packers ran a couple of token plays into the Lions’ line, then Hornung booted a 26-yard field goal to win it for Green Bay.
It was a cruel, bitter loss—perhaps one of the worst in Lions history, which is saying something.
Afterward, in the locker room, members of the defense screamed, asking who the idiot was who called the pass play.
No one responded, until Plum finally said, “None of your business.”
That set Karras off.
The defensive tackle flung his helmet at Plum’s head, barely missing his target.
On Thanksgiving Day that year, the Lions, bent on revenge, destroyed Starr and the Packers. But it was too late. Green Bay won the division with a 13-1 record. The Lions finished 11-3.
Had the game in Green Bay gone differently, both teams would have finished 12-2 and a playoff for the division would have been needed.
“No one would have heard of Vince Lombardi,” Karras wrote, lamenting the fate of the 1962 season.
Whatever ill will the football gods anointed over the Lions in Green Bay, it began on that muddy field in 1962.
In the 1970s and 1980s, both the Lions and the Packers were usually pretty bad, so wins and losses by the clubs on each other’s fields were mostly inconsequential.
The 1990s ushered in the Brett Favre Era in Green Bay, and the Lions stopped winning in Wisconsin. Period.
You all know the inglorious history of the Lions on the road in Green Bay.
No wins since 1991. Including playoffs, 23 straight losses.
Favre left Green Bay in 2008 but the misery continued for the Lions. Aaron Rodgers simply took the torch and has been burning the Lions with it ever since.
The thing about streaks—winning, losing, hitting, missing—is that they all end. Eventually.
In the 1970s, the Buffalo Bills could never beat the Miami Dolphins. Literally. No matter where the game was played.
The Bills beat the Dolphins in November, 1969, when both were members of the American Football League.
The Bills’ next win over the Dolphins didn’t happen until September, 1980. Twenty straight defeats to the Dolphins occurred in between.
All streaks end, for better or for worse.
The Lions, for all their ignominy of never winning in Green Bay through five-and-a-half presidential terms, have never played a game during The Streak as big in magnitude, in the regular season, in Wisconsin as the one they’re about to play next Sunday.
This one’s for the NFC North marbles.
This isn’t a mid-season game in October with the Lions foundering and the Packers gearing up for another successful season.
This isn’t a meaningless (for the Lions) contest played out on the frozen tundra with the Packers playoff-bound.
This isn’t an early-September game with optimism still high, only to be crushed as the season wears on.
This is for the division title.
Now, the loser still makes the playoffs. This isn’t being played under the no-wild card rules of 1962.
But the loser doesn’t get a home playoff game, which is crucial for both teams. The Lions are 7-1 in Detroit; the Packers are 7-0 at Lambeau Field.
Despite their team’s surprising success this season, few fans feel warm and fuzzy about the Lions on the road in the playoffs, even if the game is played at the winner of the NFC South’s field.
Trouble is, the fans don’t feel warm and fuzzy about the Lions on the road in Green Bay, either.
Yet Lambeau Field is where the Lions have to win, in order to capture their first divisional title since 1993.
The Packers are used to these moments. They are a battle-tested, playoff-veteran team, laden with individual and team success.
And they are playing at home, which is a double whammy against their opponents, though the Packers’ magic at home in the playoffs has taken a few hits in recent years.
But this is all new for the Lions.
The Lions don’t play for the division, head-to-head, on the last week of the season. They just don’t. In fact, they haven’t done so since 1981, at home. And they lost, to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
On Sunday, in a house of horrors that the forces have refused to smile on them even once in 22 years, the Lions have to find a way to win a stinking football game against odds, history, aura and the whole bit.
Three things have been certain since 1991: death, taxes and the Lions losing in Green Bay.
Maybe high stakes, which have never been higher for the Lions in Green Bay since maybe that game in 1962, will somehow change the course of football history.
Tee it up on Sunday and let’s find out.