How the 1970 Detroit Lions Broke a Seven-Year-Old's Heart

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How the 1970 Detroit Lions Broke a Seven-Year-Old's Heart
(Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

I remember becoming a Detroit Lions fan early in the 1970 season. Naturally, it didn't take long for something to happen that, had I possessed more clairvoyance than what's normally ingrained in a seven-year-old, might have caused me to run for the hills, screaming like a banshee.

I have a few scattered memories of the team's games prior to Nov. 8, 1970, a date that shall live in infamy in my little world.

For that was when the half-footed, stumped arm kicker named Tom Dempsey put himself into the record book and the Lions into the loss column.

I was a follower for less than two months, a rookie seven-year-old, as I indicated. And already the team moved me to tears.

Not tears of joy, natch. These were the Detroit Lions, after all.

The game was on the tube, beamed from New Orleans. My dad and I watched from our family room in Livonia, a suburb of Detroit.

The Saints were awful in 1970. They won only two games all year.

The Lions, on the other hand, were pretty good. They had been improving every year under coach Joe Schmidt, still the last man to coach the team to leave with an overall winning record in Detroit.

And Joe's last season was 1972.

The Saints had fired coach Tom Fears earlier that week, and replaced him with assistant J.D. Roberts. The Lions game would be Roberts' baptism by fire as an NFL head coach.

But the 1-5-1 Saints played the 5-2 Lions tough. In fact, they led the Lions, 16-14, late in the fourth quarter.

Detroit quarterback Greg Landry, though, led the Lions toward a go-ahead score with a late, against-the-clock drive. Errol Mann kicked a field goal, putting the Lions ahead, 17-16.

There were less than 20 seconds left.

Those are the facts, culled from my almost-manic obsession with this piece of NFL history. It's like my Kennedy Assassination.

But as a seven-year-old, my only remembrance was my dad chuckling. I wondered why.

The Saints, after a kick return and a short pass, were going to try a game-winning field goal.

From 63 yards away.

My dad laughed. According to DT Alex Karras, the Lions laughed, too. No joke. Some of them were giggling as they lined up for the kick, according to Karras's many re-tellings of the story.

Dempsey, born with half a foot and a stub of a left arm, was an erratic kicker throughout his NFL career. But he had booted three FGs in this game, and was being called on to shatter an NFL record by some six or seven yards.

The snap was good. The placement was precise. And the kick was better than any in league history, turns out.

My dad and the Lions weren't giggling when the ball went end-over-end and landed just over the crossbar, with perhaps inches to spare.

Saints win!

I think I cried. I did that a lot when the Detroit teams lost. Now I do that when I stop for gas.

So that was my introduction, my first real introduction, to Lions football.

What a way to find out about the team, eh?

Anyhow, that 1970 team remains my favorite in Lions history. Maybe because it was the first season I can actually remember.

But maybe also because the '70 Lions rocked. They finished 10-4, winning their last five games. They had the distinction of being the very first Wild Card team in NFC history.

The AFL-NFL merger made its debut in 1970, and back then only one Wild Card was allowed into the playoffs. And the Lions made a mad rush to the finish line to be that team.

Then, in the playoffs, more Lions-ish behavior.

The 1970 Lions were a high-scoring club with a shutdown defense. A good combo, hence the 10-4 record.

They went into the playoffs against the Dallas Cowboys, in the Cotton Bowl.

And the Lions lost, 5-0.

You heard me.

5-0.

The Cowboys' offense could only manage a field goal, and the defense chipped in with a safety. And that's all they needed to beat the Lions, who were shutout for the only time all season.

Naturally.

I DEFINITELY cried after that one.

Who loses a playoff game, or any NFL game for that matter, 5-0?

Why, the Detroit Lions, of course!

The Lions barely crossed midfield all day, but they had one last gasp drive in them. Landry had been replaced by Bill Munson in an effort to shake things up.

Munson led a gallant effort in another against-the-clock, frantic drive.

The Lions crept closer to the Cowboys' goal line. They made it to around the 35 yard line.

But Munson's pass to Earl McCullouch near the 20 was a tad high, and the ball went off Earl's fingertips, to be intercepted by Mel Renfro, I believe.

Yep, I'm sure I cried.

One of my prized possessions is a 1971 Lions Media Guide, procured by my dad from someone at his work.

Inside is a game-by-game recap of that 1970 season.

I'm embarrassed to tell you how many times I've cracked that tiny media guide open and read those game capsules.

Suffice it: a lot. That's 38 years now, you know.

I remember reading once how Hall of Famer Lem Barney maintained that if the Lions could only have gotten past the 'Boys, they would have won the Super Bowl.

I tend to agree, mainly because the 49ers upset the Vikings in the other playoff game, and the Lions had big time trouble beating the Vikings back then.

Come to think of it, they don't fare too well against the Vikes today, either.

So the 1970 Lions will forever remain close to my heart. Despite the 63-yard field goal and the 5-0 playoff loss.

They were one of the few "might have been champions" Lions teams that have ever existed, post-1957.

Another was the 1962 club, but that's another story. Literally.

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