That One Time in Michigan…When the Detroit Lions Were Champs

(Image via Detroit Historical Society)

By Karel Vega

September 13, 2023

A look back at a remarkable era for the Detroit Lions, and how the team might get there again.

The Detroit Lions are an enigma of a football franchise. It’s rare to see a team that has so consistently performed below expectations, while simultaneously being so beloved by their fans.

Here’s the story of a time when the Detroit Lions were one of the best football teams in the US—and maybe, just maybe, it foretells a rising success story for this 2023 NFL season.

When The Lions Were Kings

Interestingly enough, the origins of the Detroit Lions didn’t begin in Michigan, but in Ohio.

In 1934, George A. Richards—the owner of Detroit’s WJR radio—decided it was time to bring a professional football team to the city. Fortunately, a small-town franchise in Portsmouth, Ohio, was looking for a move.

For $15,000, Richards bought those Portsmouth Spartans and moved them north, joining the National Football League as the Detroit Lions. (That’s about $340,000 in today’s money, btw.)

Why the “Lions?” Two reasons. 1) It was a nod to the Detroit Tigers, who were established as a major league baseball team in 1901. 2) Because lions are kings of the jungle—and according to Richards, his football team would be “King of the NFL.”

Right off the bat, the Lions’ first season saw them win 10 games in a row—but they lost the last three games to two teams that would become their lifelong rivals: The Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. During that same season, Richards crafted a clever agreement with NBC—the national network for his radio station—ensuring that all of NBC’s station affiliates would run the Lions’ Thanksgiving Day game. And so, the annual Turkey Day game tradition was born.

With a solid start to their Michigan career in the books, the Detroit Lions turned 1935 into a year of victories.

After placing first in the Western Division and advancing to the 1935 NFL Championship Game (a precursor to the Super Bowl), the Lions had a 26-7 win against the New York Giants—and became national champs.

But the ‘50s were a whole different story.

An Era of Domination

(Public Domain)

Flash forward about 15 (rough) years: Remember those 1935 champs? One of the players—Buddy Parker—becomes the Lions’ head coach. He’s so determined to bring back his winning team that Parker doesn’t even let the players wear the number 13.

And whether luck was involved or not, we’ll never know. But what we do know is that the Detroit Lions won back-to-back championships in ‘52 and ‘53, starting with a 17-7 win against the Cleveland Browns. In a stunning rematch, they again trounced the Browns the following year in a 17-16 victory (check out this awesome archival footage of the game). It’s important to note that this was a big deal—the Browns were considered the best team in the league during the ‘50s. In fact, Cleveland played in championship games seven times that decade.

1954 saw the tables turn as, once again, the Lions and Browns faced off for the championship title. Detroit wouldn’t be so lucky this time—the Browns crushed the Lions, 56-10.

The mid-‘50s saw another slump for the Lions, including a 1955 season where the team only won three games. But after winning the Western Conference in 1957, the Lions were on their way to the championship game once again, facing off against—you guessed it—the Cleveland Browns. This time, the Lions didn’t let the Browns off the hook. We took home the championship in a 59-14 win.

A Muffled Roar and Glimmers of Hope

Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell on the sidelines during an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

Mediocrity has followed the Lions in the decades following those big wins. Since 1957, the team has only won a single playoff game—back during their 1991 season—which means there are some diehard Lions fans who haven’t seen their team snag a postseason game win for their entire lives.

2008 was a particularly bad year for the Lions, who had the worst season of any major American pro sports team—losing every one of their 16 regular games. But in a story of history repeating itself, a former player may once again be the key to a Lions comeback.

Dan Campbell was the Lions’ tight end during that horrendous 2008 season, but now he’s head coach—and his mission is to turn the team around.

In his first news conference as coach, Campbell hearkened to the spirit of Detroit’s resilience: “This team is going to take on the identity of this city, and this city’s been down and it’s found a way to get up. …Before long we’re going to be the last one standing. Any loss that we take, we’re going to feel the full pain from it and not be numb to it.”

Is Campbell the next Buddy Parker? Although the team failed to make the playoffs in 2022, they famously ruined the Packers’ chances of heading to the postseason as well. And just this year, the team bested the Kansas City Chiefs (the latest Super Bowl champs) in the NFL season opener.

If you know a Lions fan, you know that the hope of being king again is just about all they can talk about. But why not? At a time when Michigan is rebounding in so many other ways, it feels good to get behind our gridiron heroes. Here’s their schedule, in case you want to follow along.

That’s this week’s story about That One Time in Michigan. Get these weekly historic glimpses of the Mitten State sent directly to your inbox on Mondays by signing up for our newsletter here. Know a story we should explore? Tell us here!

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

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