Read an Excerpt
"Then Madden Said to Summerall ..."
The Best NFL Stories Ever Told
By Matthew Shepatin
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2009 Matthew Shepatin
All rights reserved.
What does it mean to be a gunslinger? Back in the early days of the NFL, throw over six passes a game, and you'd probably qualify. Consider trigger-happy Arnie Herber of the Green Bay Packers, whose league-high 37 completions and nine touchdowns in 1932 would have made him a fantasy league stud in those times. Imagine a quarterback today making first-team All-Pro with numbers like that, but Herber did, while also completing just 37 percent of his passes and throwing as many interceptions as touchdowns. Enter "Slingin' Sammy" Baugh, who, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, sent a jolt of electricity through the league, posting passing numbers that, back then, were ridiculous. In the first three games of the 1947 season, Baugh completed 47 passes, 10 more than Herber's 1932 league-high total for a full season.
The gunslinger legacy born with Baugh would bloom madly over the next 50 years, as NFL football evolved from a grind-it-out ground war to a game featuring enough wild and complex passing schemes to implode the mind of a first-time Madden '09 player. Over the game's many eras, gunslingers have come and gone, each with their own throwing style, their own flair for the dramatic. Sammy Baugh was Buffalo Bill — the flashy, tobacco-chewing sharpshooter. Bobby Layne was Sam Houston — the brash, swaggering Texan. Brett Favre was Billy the Kid — the irrepressible grin, the reckless streak. But all these quarterbacks share one thing in common: a knack for thrilling you with every shot they took.
Over his 16 seasons with the Washington Redskins, Sammy Baugh lit up the scoreboard, throwing for a the-unheard-of 21,886 yards and 187 touchdowns while leading the league in passing six times — a record he still shares with Steve Young. Spectators watched with amazement as Baugh scattered the field with pinpoint passes, even from inside the 20-yard line, a virtual no-fly zone in those days. But Baugh wasn't just a cannon-armed quarterback, he also wowed fans as a ball-hogging defensive back and one of the all-time great punters. In 1943 Baugh pulled off a statistical Triple Crown, leading the league in passing, punting, and interceptions. (Steve Van Buren and Dudley Clark are the only other players to accomplish a Triple Crown.) From 1940 to 1943, he led the league in punting, averaging an NFL-record 51.40 yards a punt in 1940. His career punting average of 45.10 yards is fourth behind Raiders punter Shane Lechler (46.47). He's also the first player in league history to snag four picks in a game — a record that's been tied but never broken. By the time he retired in 1952, the forward pass had changed from an occasional weapon to the centerpiece of modern offenses. In addition, he gave the people in the nation's capital a new tradition decidedly more riveting than watching mealy-mouthed politicians deliver long-winded speeches about finance policy — of course, with it came an increased risk of pretzel-choking.
While he achieved iconic status for rifling footballs down the field at a time when young soldiers were rifling grenades into German bunkers, Baugh actually earned the nickname "Slingin' Sammy" for his powerful bull-whip throw to first as a star third baseman at Texas Christian. "He didn't have overly large hands," recalled former Redskins receiver and teammate Joe Tereshinski. "But his arm was so good he was going to play shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals." Even after Baugh led Washington to the NFL title in his rookie season, he left to pursue his primary goal: a career in the big leagues. Signed by ex-superstar Rogers Hornsby, then a scout, he joined the Cardinals farm team, where he was converted to shortstop. "For some reason, he didn't think he would beat out Marty Marion, so he stuck with football," said Tereshinski. "And he and Unitas became the game's two greatest passers."
It was another lanky prospect, a 17-year-old by the name of Ted Williams, who caught Sammy Baugh's eye in the minors. "He'd go out to right field, turn his back on the pitcher, and do jumping jacks and crap like that," recalled Baugh. "He'd look over his shoulder for the pitch and do exercises in between. These old-school guys thought, What a goddamned bush-leaguer. But you know, that crazy sonofabitch would get up there and knock a goddamn board off the fence. ... I always thought how a manager would handle him — not many would put up with that bullshit. But if you make the sonofabitch mad at you, he'd just leave. And how would you like to be the sonofabitch who let Ted Williams get away?"
Once he signed with the Redskins in 1937, it didn't take long for the Texas gunslinger to make an impact. In his first season, he led the Redskins to a 28–21 victory over the Chicago Bears in the NFL Championship Game. Once, during his rookie season, Redskins coach Ray Flaherty drew up a pass play on a blackboard. He told Baugh, "When the receiver gets to this point, you hit him in the eye with a pass." To which Sam replied, "Which eye?"
For 37 years Baugh held the record for completion percentage in a season, managing a gaudy 70.3 percent in 1945. Two years later Baugh was involved in one of the greatest shoot-outs in league history, battling Philadelphia Eagles rookie receiver Pete Pihos on the opening day of the season. When the dust had settled in Philadelphia, a then-record 12 touchdowns had been scored and 87 points put on the scoreboard. It remains the most points ever for an opening-day NFL game. Unfortunately, Baugh came out on the short end of a 45–42 score. But perhaps Baugh's toughest loss ever was in the 1940 title game, when the Chicago Bears pasted the Skins 73–0 in the most one-sided score in NFL championship history. After the game, a reporter asked the QB if things might have been different had a Redskins tight end not dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone earlier in the game. "Yeah," Baugh drawled, "it would have made it 73–7."
Baugh would return the Redskins to the top of the football heap in 1942, knocking off Chicago 14–6 for their second title. Sadly, the team's next two trips to the championship game resulted in defeat: first to the Bears 41–21 in 1943, and then to the Cleveland Rams 15–14 in 1945. Win or lose, the colorful Baugh maintained a great sense of humor — even about getting clobbered by an opposing player. The story goes that when Baugh was asked to describe a devoutly religious linebacker, he responded, "He knocks the hell out of people, but in a Christian way." In 1940 he costarred in a 12-episode Western serial called King of the Texas Rangers, but he was far more comfortable on an actual Lone Star ranch than a Hollywood soundstage. "Ah, shit on celebrity," he told writer Dennis Tuttle in 1995. "It didn't make sense to be showboating all over Hollywood and spending a lot of money for a steak when I could take that money back to Texas and buy a whole cow."
His No. 33 is the only number the Redskins have officially retired.
In the late 1950s the NFL emerged from the shadow of the college game — all hail, Notre Dame! — to become a major sport, turning regular Joes with names like Huff, Marchetti, Ameche, and Brown into national heroes. But of all the players thrust into the spotlight, none of them began so low and rose so high as Johnny Unitas, who went from shoveling coal in dirt-poor, rural Pennsylvania to a figure so universally beloved that he no longer required a full last name. Like theS on Superman's chest or the Z that identified Zorro, one letter sufficed: U.
To be sure, Unitas was a superstar in the 1950s and '60s because he was a brilliant passer, a three-time champion, and one helluva clutch player; but what made him a "bronze statue in the making" were the broad-shouldered values he symbolized. Stoic confidence, grace under pressure, hard work, moral fiber, and, most of all, guts. Unitas was the last man to read a self-help book, do mind-expanding drugs, or listen to Dylan. Coal mills, cowboys, communion, commitment — that was Johnny U. Beer, bowling, bruising tackles, punishing blocks — that was Johnny U.
In a 1958 regular-season game against the Green Bay Packers, Unitas suffered three broken ribs after defensive back Johnny Symank kneed him in the chest. Unitas checked out of the nearby hospital so he could watch the rest of the game from the rain-soaked bench. A couple of broken ribs wasn't going to keep him from rooting for his teammates.
That night, back at his house, Unitas had trouble breathing. The next day doctors discovered he had more than broken ribs — he also had a punctured lung. Surgeons immediately operated on him. But that wasn't the end of his season, as Colts teammate Art Donovan recalled, "They put some kind of a steel cast halfway around John's body, and of course that weasel bastard Weeb [Ewbank] didn't inform the league. John was some kind of tough. That's how he led, really. Norm Van Brocklin had been an underwater demolitions guy in the Navy. Bobby Layne was a merchant marine gunner. But without having gone to war, John was a tougher quarterback than either of them, and a better leader. Most of the players had been in the service. You were used to being told what to do, and you did it. But to do it well, you had to respect the guy who was giving the orders. We respected Unitas most of all for his toughness."
"That crew-cut hair," a 25-year-old Joe Namath told a reporter days before the long-haired rebel — the anti-Unitas — would go on to deliver on his "guarantee" to upset the vaunted Baltimore Colts, for whom an aged Unitas still played, in Super Bowl III in 1969, "those high-top shoes. On Sixth Street in Beaver Falls, I wasn't Joe Namath. I was Joey U. My number was 19, too. For our away games in high school we didn't have a 19 jersey, so I wore 29. It wasn't even a quarterback's number, but it was the closest I could get to him." Namath wasn't the only future Hall of Fame quarterback who grew up in western Pennsylvania revering Unitas. There was also Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, and Joe Montana, who also wore No. 19 as a kid. Today players like Peyton Manning still look to Unitas for instruction on how the game should be played. "I wore black high-tops at Tennessee because of him," Manning said. "If you call a play you believe in, what does it matter if it's first-and-10 on the opening drive of the second half, or if it's fourth-and-5 with 30 seconds to go? If this is the play you believe in, this is the play you call. You make it work. That's Unitas."
Here's a shocking revelation: Detroit didn't always suck. Hard to imagine after 2008's record-setting act of futility, a perfectly putrid 0–16 record. But here's the crazy thing. The Lions used to be cool. And nobody was cooler than Bobby Layne, a blond Texan who always managed to pull off some improbable victory no matter how tough the odds, mean the defense, or brutal the hangover. The hard-partying gunslinger led the Detroit Lions to a glorious dynasty in the 1950s, highlighted by back-to-back championships in '52 and '53 and one more in '57. But he was more than just one of the NFL's greatest money players, as Detroit News sports columnist Jerry Green explained, "He was the symbol of this city. The toughest and the best. He played without a face mask, and he was at his finest against the clock. ... When the Lions were on the coast, dinner would be permitted to turn cold until Bobby coaxed the Lions to their victory in the final minute."
Indeed, Bobby Layne is sort of the Godfather of the Two-Minute Drill. Long before Elway, Montana, and Brady, it was Layne who mounted a drive for the ages in the 1953 championship game. The Cleveland Browns were leading 16–10, and Layne was starting at his own 20-yard line with just over four minutes left in the game. The Browns' legendary quarterback Otto Graham stood helpless on the sideline, huddled in his parka, as his devil-may-care adversary worked his magic, moving his team down the field with one great pass after another. Not all his throws were beauties, to be sure — some wobbled in the air like a wounded duck. But as usual, they found their target. One of those targets was Jim Doran, a defensive back who had come in as an emergency receiver. The story goes that he kept telling Layne that he could beat his guy deep. Layne ignored his pleas the whole game. The Lions had driven down to the Cleveland Browns' 33-yard line. Two minutes on the clock, everything on the line. After calling a timeout, Layne met the Lions head coach Buddy Parker on the sideline to discuss the crucial play. After Parker gave him the call, Layne told him in his cool southern drawl, "Know what I think? I think a cigarette sure would taste good about now." In the huddle, Layne turned to Doran. "Can you still beat that feller?" Doran smiled to himself. He was ready. Layne dropped back, spotted Doran rushing down the field, and released the ball. As Doran sprinted past the cornerback, the ball sailed through the air — not one of those perfect, tight NFL Films spirals but a shaky bomb defying the laws of aerodynamics. Doran hauled in the pass and ran into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. Few NFL fans had ever seen such a heart-stopping late march down the field. Layne was so great under pressure because, well, that's the way he was built — Captain Sparrow in cleats. "If I'd had overthrown Doran or if he'd dropped the ball or if I'd gotten my ass buried by Lenny Ford and a couple others, there wouldn't be nobody feeling sorry for themselves," said Layne. "We'd have gone out and had something cool to drink anyway."
And we're not talking about one or two drinks, either. Even as Bobby Layne was racking up Hall of Fame numbers, he seemed to be on permanent shore leave. One story goes that before a game two linemen had to hoist Layne up by his ankles and drop him in a barrel of ice-cold water to get him coherent enough for battle. Former teammate Harley Sewell recalled, "When I was a rookie, I went with Layne to get a tube of toothpaste and didn't get back for three days." And good ol' boy Don Meredith once said, "In my next life, I want to come back as Bobby Layne's chauffeur. He stays out late, goes to interesting places, and tips well."
Amazingly, Layne, a man so intent on victory that he'd go to church to pray for a win, never let his partying effect his play. Actually, Layne believed just the opposite. "Maybe I'm a better player," he once said, "because I start having fun at midnight, get to bed when everybody else is waking, and sleep all morning. Makes me fresh as a daisy for the game." At the University of Texas, Layne was not just a great football player but also a dominant pitcher. One time he cut his foot on broken glass horsing around with his roommate. Already on thin ice with his head coach, he didn't let on that his foot was in agony when he took the mound the next day against archrival Texas A&M. To get through the game, he had the student manager bring him beer on the mound. Spotting Layne's limp, the Aggies beat their drum as loud as possible. After the game, Layne thanked the Aggies players with a one-finger salute. That was, of course, after he had thrown a no-hitter against them.
Whether it was quarterback of the Texas Longhorns or Detroit Lions or later the Pittsburgh Steelers, Layne was always the ringleader, on and off the field. "Once you were on the team, you were part of the gang," explained former Lions defensive back Jim David. "There would be a spirit party of sorts. There was rookie afternoon at some showbar in town. If you didn't show, we'd send a taxi for you. Bobby was the leader, and we all followed. He knew the game and he knew people and he knew how to have a good time. There were some nights he'd be throwing $100 bills into a saxophone 'til all hours, and there were other nights when some of us would kinda commandeer a trolley for a while. But when it came time to play, we were ready. They'd tell jokes that, when we'd form the huddle, you could smell liquor and stuff like that. But that never happened." He paused. "Not during regular season, anyway."
Excerpted from "Then Madden Said to Summerall ..." by Matthew Shepatin. Copyright © 2009 Matthew Shepatin. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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