Imagine the Detroit Lions as Super Bowl champions. OK, stop giggling and force yourself to remember this past NBA season when the Cavaliers triggered a party in Cleveland for 1.3 million folks. Now think about the earth spinning backward after the Chicago Cubs somehow won their first World Series title in 108 years.
Army even beat Navy.
That's why I'm thinking the Lions could go all the way. Anything is possible these days, and not only because of those shocking finishes by the Cavs, the Cubs and the Black Knights. Just like that, I've solved one of life's greatest mysteries with a phone call this week to Oklahoma City. It involves the Lions. After decades of debate among sports historians, I can tell you they really were cursed more than a half century ago by Bobby Layne.
"Actually, my dad did say the Lions wouldn't win another world championship for 50 years, but it wasn't a curse per se," said Alan Layne, 63, who explained in detail for the first time ever what his father did or didn't proclaim in 1958 after he was sent by the Lions to the Pittsburgh Steelers in one of the silliest trades ever. Bobby Layne was such a prolific player that he was named to the NFL All-Decade team for the 1950s. He was destined to become a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback long before he did more than anybody else in 1957 to push the Lions to the third of their trio of NFL titles in six seasons.
Then came the trade, but Alan was too young to remember. Even though he wanted details for years, his old-school father preferred not to discuss such things with his two children (Alan and the late Robert Layne, Jr., who was five years older than his brother), his wife, Carol, other family members, close friends and anybody else, for that matter. So Alan pulled his mother aside as an early teen during the mid-1960s for a discussion about whatever Bobby Layne declared to whomever after that trade.
"My dad never said anything about what happened to us or to anybody else because he never wanted to talk bad about anybody or any team, right up to his death [in December of 1986]," Alan said. "But my mother eventually told me everything that happened. She said they traded him to the Steelers, and he found out about it on the radio or something. They didn't even call him in, and he had done so much for the Lions. He was pissed off, to say the least. She said he loved his teammates so much, and then she paraphrased ..."
Alan laughed, adding, "My dad had a temper. That's why, as he was leaving town, heading for Pittsburgh, my mother said people were talking to him or something, and he turned around and said, 'Well, you no-good, lousy, blankety-blanks won't win another championships for 50 years.' Yeah, that's what she said he said, and he was just mad. That's why people around the Lions started telling everybody, 'We don't have a chance to at least get in the playoffs, and then win a championship for at least 50 years.' It was because of what my dad said, and that feeling has kept growing and growing to the point where I've seen websites and stuff about 'The Curse of Bobby Layne.'"
If it isn't a curse, it's something.
It's something awful.
The Lions spent their first 50 years after the Layne trade with the worst winning percentage in the NFL. They've won just one of their 11 playoff games since Layne left. I know, because I was there on Jan. 5, 1992 in Detroit at the Silverdome, where it felt like the Lions of Barry Sanders were preparing to roar for years. They knocked the stars out of the Dallas Cowboys featuring The Triplets, otherwise known as future Pro Football Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin. I thought back then The Curse was done, just like the Cowboys, but you know the rest of the story. The Triplets rose from the ashes to build a dynasty, and The Curse lived, with the Lions becoming the first team to go 0-16 for an entire season in 2008.
To save you the math, that was supposedly the last season of The Curse, and hope came for the Lions in the 2009 NFL draft. They used what was the first overall pick on Matthew Stafford, the Lions' best quarterback since You Know Who. He eventually broke Layne's team record for passing yards in a career, and among other accomplishments as a rising NFL star, he became the fastest person ever to reach 25,000 passing yards.
There were more Stafford-Layne things. They went to the same Highland Park High School in Dallas, and Stafford lived on the same street as the house of the uncle and aunt who took care of Layne.
"I didn't know any of that information until somebody began telling me about the coincidences and stuff a few years ago," said Alan, who was raised with Robert Jr., by Bobby and Carol Layne in Lubbock, Texas. The youngest son later shunned the family tradition of attending the University of Texas (the alma mater of his father, mother and brother, who was the placekicker on the Longhorns' 1969 national championship team) by going to Texas Christian University. Alan enjoyed the slower pace in Fort Worth compared to Hook'em Horns Country, and he played tight end for the TCU football team.
Afterward, Alan left for Oklahoma City, where he has worked most of the past four decades as an independent oil and gas producer. He also does land title work in the same occupation. Mostly, he evolved into the last of the experts on all things Bobby Layne when his brother died in 1990, and his mother passed away seven years later. Along with the glorious part of Bobby Layne's resume, Alan knows the gruesome part, when his father broke his leg in several places during the next-to-the-last game of the 1957 season. Alan knows his father's replacement, Tobin Rote, helped the Lions trounce the Cleveland Browns in the NFL championship game, and Alan knows the Lions began the following season 0-2 when his father returned at quarterback.
Now everybody knows the Lions unleashed their version of demons by sending the best player in franchise history to the Steelers, who had been the worst team in the NFL for most of the previous decade.
Thus, The Curse ... or The Whatever.
"My mother never said it was a curse, but she said they finally had a press conference after he was traded, and around the time it happened, she said my dad, well, I won't tell you what he called [Lions officials]," Alan said, easing into chuckle. "You couldn't print it. But after all of that happened with my dad, and he said what he said about the Lions and the trade, the curse just kind of evolved, really. Every year, people called it a curse, so it became, 'Oh, Bobby Layne cursed the Lions,' and it just took off from there."
All I know is, if the Lions really were cursed by Layne, his spell is lasting more than seven years past its expiration date.
Whatever the case, the Lions keep flashing signs of functioning as a team that overcomes voodoo as well as deficits. Courtesy of a lot of Stafford, along with an opportunistic defense and Matt Prater's clutch kicking, the Lions have set an NFL record in 2016 by coming from behind in the fourth quarter to win eight times. They lost Sunday at MetLife Stadium to the Giants, but who doesn't fail these days to that streaking bunch? And that defeat for the Lions on the road was just by nine points, and they still lead the NFC North by a game over the Green Bay Packers at 9-5.
No question, the final stretch for the Lions is brutal, with an upcoming Monday night game at Dallas and a possible battle for the division title when the Packers travel to Detroit on New Year's Day. Still, the chances aren't as extreme as you think of the Lions reaching the playoffs, prospering during them and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy at the end.
We're back to Cavs, Cubs and Black Knights.
"Oh, yeah, you've had those types of things happening this year in sports, and if the Lions do it, I'm all for it," Alan said, pausing. Then, before I could ask Bobby Layne's closest surviving relative if he could do Lions fans a favor by having them sacrifice a Michigan cherry or something to end The Curse, he added, "To tell you the truth, this whole 'curse thing' has been kind of a joke with our family. I mean, in our lives, it's not really important. It's just been whatever people have wanted it to be, but I do follow the Lions. I really like their quarterback, Stafford. I just don't know if they have a good enough team to get that far to the Super Bowl. They pull out all of those games late, and they don't really dominate anybody, but I don't know. Wilder things have happened in sports."
Especially this year.
Which is exactly my point.