Published Aug. 4, 2019
It had been so long, Johnny Robinson thought he had been forgotten.
It was another case of clock mismanagement by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which has had plenty of it over the years. Just last week I wrote about Charlie Sanders, another whose bust in Canton waited far too long to be cast.
Robinson, the former Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs safety (1960-71), finally was granted entry into the HOF with the Class of 2019.
“It’s been 47 years since I last played professional football,” Robinson said in his videotaped acceptance speech. “After all this time, I thought I’d been forgotten.”
I sure haven’t forgotten. And I haven’t forgotten that Robinson should have been inducted as a Detroit Lion.
As should have been Fred Biletnikoff. And John Hadl should have amassed his career quarterback numbers with the Lions. And Gerry Philbin should have terrorized quarterbacks and running backs as a Lion.
They all got away from the Lions, which probably doesn’t surprise you, even if you didn’t know it.
The Foolish Club
They were called The Foolish Club. Eight men from varying business backgrounds, all with dreams of getting involved in the business of professional football.
In the late-1950s, pro football was beginning to seriously challenge the college game in terms of popularity and, by extension, money. Network TV coverage on Sundays lifted pro football to the point where it not only closed in on college football, but also on Major League Baseball when it came to gate receipts and advertising dollars.
The Foolish Club wanted a piece of that action–so they got it by starting their own pro league, the NFL be damned.
The American Football League pumped air into its first pigskin in 1960–determined to not only exist, but to compete with the established, buttoned down NFL, which had a 40-year head start on the new league.
Competing seriously with the NFL in popularity and credibility meant that the AFL would have to be competitive in player procurement as well.
Enter the bidding wars.
Johnny Robinson thrilled Louisiana State University fans, but he was primarily a running back in college. He earned all-SEC honors with the 1958 LSU team that went undefeated and were mythical national champions.
The Lions drafted Robinson third overall in the 1960 NFL draft. The new Dallas Texans of the AFL also drafted Robinson. Guess who won out in the bidding war?
Hank Stram, coach of the Texans, and owner Lamar Hunt teamed up to lure Robinson into the new league, eschewing the idea of he playing for the established Lions, who were just three years removed from a championship. Yes, it was a lonnnng time ago.
Robinson strapped it on for the Texans, who became the Chiefs in 1963, and played 164 games for the franchise, switching to defense full time in 1962. He amassed 57 interceptions and for many years, Robinson was the AFL’s best safety by consensus.
Robinson played in two Super Bowls with the Chiefs, winning SB IV in 1970. And the Lions? You don’t have to ask, do you?
More who got away
Biletnikoff is arguably still, to this day, the best receiver in the history of the Raiders franchise (1965-78). He was drafted by the Lions in the third round of the 1965 NFL draft, out of Florida State. The Raiders drafted Biletnikoff in the second round in the same year. The Lions, who had a plodding offense in 1965 but a fearsome defense, badly needed a skill player of Biletnikoff’s ilk. So naturally, they let themselves get outbid by the Raiders.
John Hadl was perhaps the most gifted QB in the history of Kansas University. The Lions drafted Hadl in the first round of the 1962 NFL draft. The San Diego Chargers snapped up Hadl in the third round.
Hadl played 16 seasons of pro ball—for the Chargers, Rams, Packers and Oilers—throwing for more than 33,000 yards and tossing 244 TD passes. Guess at what position the Lions struggled with most in the 1960s?
But the Chargers won out over the Lions for Hadl’s services.
Gerry Philbin didn’t play at a college football powerhouse; he went to Buffalo University. But Lions scouts became enamored with the defensive end’s exploits at Buffalo. So much so, the Lions used their third round selection in the 1964 NFL draft on the 6’2″, 245-pound Philbin. The New York Jets, one year away from nabbing Joe Namath out of Alabama, also drafted Philbin in the third round.
Guess who won out for Philbin’s signature?
Philbin was a perennial All-AFL defensive end for the Jets as part of his brilliant nine years with the franchise. In 1968, the year the Jets won the AFL and World Championships, Philbin recorded 14.5 sacks.
Philbin is a member of the All-AFL, All-Time Team.
How different would the Lions’ history of (lack of) success in the 1960s and 1970s had been, with Johnny Robinson, Fred Biletnikoff, John Hadl and Gerry Philbin all wearing Honolulu Blue and Silver at the same time—which they could have done from 1965-1971?
Ironic, ain’t it, that it was the AFL owners whose nickname was The Foolish Club? What does that make the Lions?
“I’ve been very fortunate to have played in some of the most significant games in professional football history,” Robinson said in his videotaped message. “The journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame may have been long, and the road may have been hard at times, but I found that sometimes you have to go through the valley in order to stand up on top of the mountain.”
Some 59 years after drafting Johnny Robinson, the Lions are still wandering around in the valley.