The football helmet flew across the Lions locker room. It missed its intended target by mere inches.
“Who called that play?!” Lions defenders demanded to know.
“None of your business,” mumbled quarterback Milt Plum.
That’s when the helmet, hurled by defensive tackle Alex Karras, nearly hit Plum square in the cranium.
Of all the ignominious losses suffered by a franchise filled with them, the Lions’ bitter 9-7 defeat in Green Bay in 1962 divided the team and may have had lasting effects for years.
The Packers were defending NFL champions. Both teams entered the game on October 7 with 3-0 records. The Lions were the biggest threat to the Packers’ dominance of the Western Division.
For 58 minutes, the Lions suppressed the Packers’ vaunted offense. The week prior, the Pack hung 49 points on the Chicago Bears.
The day was soggy and muddy, which didn’t help the offenses. Still, the Lions’ defense—maybe the best in the league at the time—did a number on Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, Jim Taylor and company.
But in the final two minutes, a still mysterious play call torpedoed the Lions’ chances of a huge victory.
Leading 7-6 and with the ball near midfield, the Lions faced a third down with about six yards to go for a first down. Conventional wisdom screamed for a running play—a safe call—and then a punt deep into Green Bay territory. The Lions would then rely on their defense to ice the game and take a one-game lead in the division.
But Plum faded back to pass.
Karras, standing on the sidelines, was incredulous at what he was seeing. He turned to linebacker Joe Schmidt.
“My God, what is he doing? He hasn’t passed all day!”
Plum looked for Terry Barr, but Barr slipped in the mud of City Stadium (before it was renamed Lambeau Field).
Herb Adderley stepped up and intercepted Plum’s pass. Adderley raced down the sideline and wasn’t tackled until he was deep into Lions territory.
The Packers ran a couple of plays into the line to eat up time and then Hornung booted a game-winning 26 yard field goal.
The Lions were devastated—especially the defense, which played its heart out.
Nobody in the Lions’ locker room wanted to confess to calling the boneheaded play. The defense wanted answers and the offense wasn’t offering any.
When Plum finally muttered that it wasn’t anybody’s business who called the play, Karras lost it.
“I was absolutely violent. Joe Schmidt was absolutely violent. The entire defense was absolutely violent,” Karras related to George Puscas of the Detroit Free Press in 1971.
“It was like, when that happened, we felt like that we just could never win a championship. That something would always happen to prevent us,” Karras lamented.
“We were so down, that even the press guys, who were usually like pallbearers, were trying to cheer us up on the plane [back to Detroit],” Karras recalled.
The loss created a fission between the offense and defense with the Lions. Even a vengeful destruction of Starr and the Packers on Thanksgiving Day couldn’t totally ease the pain or heal the emotional scars.
The 1962 season ended with the Packers at 13-1 and the Lions at 11-3. No wild card back then.
Had the game in Green Bay gone the way it should have, both the Lions and the Packers would have finished with 12-2 records, necessitating a one-game playoff prior to the NFL Championship tilt against the Eastern Division champion New York Giants.
Speaking of the Giants, they were a team whose defense sneered at the plodding offense. A definite rivalry existed between the two platoons.
Several years ago, Pat Summerall and Frank Gifford confirmed with me during a conference call that the Giants’ defense and offense of the late-1950s, early-1960s simply didn’t like each other.
“You guys think you can keep the ball for more than three plays?” linebacker Sam Huff would derisively tell the offense as he and his defensive brethren came off the field.
The Lions’ loss in Green Bay in 1962 created a divisiveness and distrust that simmered for several more seasons. The Lions of the 1960s always had one of the league’s best defenses—and one of the NFL’s worst offenses.
Whatever horror the Lions have experienced in Green Bay since 1992—they won there in 2015 for the first time in 24 years—has as its roots a mind-boggling loss in 1962, which started a trend that continues to this day.