Urban Legends of the NFL: The Curse of Bobby Layne

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterOctober 12, 2016

Bobby Layne quarterback of Detroit Lionsis seen in the locker room in Detroit, Dec. 15, 1952. (AP Photo/AE)
AE/Associated Press

Bobby Layne seethed with anger as he emptied his locker. The Lions had just traded him—one of the NFL's greatest players, a quarterback who helped them win three championshipsfor a prospect and some draft picks. It was just two games into the 1958 season. The Lions were the defending NFL champs. The trade was simply inexplicable. 

Teammates and beat writers milled about as the colorful, quotable and wildly popular Layne packed his belongings into a suitcase for Pittsburgh. As he left the Lions locker room for the last time, Layne delivered a parting shot at his foolish former employers. This team will not win for another 50 years, he said.

None of the professional sportswriters within earshot bothered to put the juicy quote in their newspapers. But the football gods heard Layne's decree and passed judgment on the Lions. The team spent five decades wandering in a wilderness of losing seasons, playoff failures and quarterback controversies. In fact, it's now going on six decades. The poor Lions still labor under The Curse of Bobby Layne.

Or so the story goes.

Like any good urban legend, there is both more and less to this tale than meets the eye. Layne almost certainly did not curse the Lions on the fateful day of his trade in 1958. But what did happen was pretty remarkable.

   

The Aging, Injured, Controversial Gunslinger

In an era when the NFL was not fractionally as popular as it is now, Layne was one of the league's most recognizable stars. He was the Brett Favre of the 1950s and the NFL's best quarterback in the first half of the decade.

Layne in 1948.
Layne in 1948.AE/Associated Press

The Lions, also, were one of the NFL's best in the '50s. They beat the Browns for the league championship in '52 and '53 before losing to them in '54. Yes, the NFL was once completely dominated by the mighty Lions and Browns. Football of the '50s takes some getting used to.

Layne had a "gunslinger" reputation; he is often cited as the innovator of the two-minute offense. He was also a notorious partier in an era when hard-drinking quarterbacks were considered charming rapscallions, not TMZ fodder. "When Bobby Layne said 'block,' you blocked, and when he said 'drink,' you drank," teammate Yale Lary said of Layne in an oft-repeated quote.

Fame turned Layne into a polarizing figure once the championships stopped rolling in. Layne heard boos in Detroit when the Lions dropped to 3-9 in 1955. A year later, he made the Pro Bowl as the Lions rebounded to 9-3, but late-season losses to the Packers and Bears kept the Lions out of the NFL championship game. Layne was knocked out of the Bears game with a concussion after a controversial hit from defender Ed Meadows, who "had blindsided Bobby with enough force to level any reasonably well-constructed brick building," according to historian Bob Carroll.

Head coach Buddy Parker, who had a reputation as a wheeler-dealer, traded for quarterback Tobin Rote in the offseason. Rote was an established Pro Bowl starter from Green Bay who was slightly younger and (again, slightly) less enamored of the nightlife than Layne.

Bobby Layne and Buddy Parker
Bobby Layne and Buddy ParkerWalter Stein/Associated Press

Whatever Parker had in mind for Layne and Rote never happened. Parker abruptly resigned as Lions head coach in August of 1957, calling the Lions "the worst team I've ever seen in training camp" and telling reporters that they had "no life…no go…it's a completely dead team." Offensive assistant George Wilson, a close friend of Layne's, took over as head coach.

Layne was then arrested for drunk driving just before the start of the season. Layne was reportedly driving on the wrong side of the center lane with five passengers (two men and three women) in the car and his headlights off. He reportedly kept poking the officer who pulled him over in the shoulder, forcing the hand of a patrolman who, in those days, might have given a famous quarterback a police escort home instead of a mug shot.

According to Detroit Athletic Co., Layne later claimed that he "only" drank six highballs that night and that the officer mistook his Texas drawl for slurred speech. Layne was acquitted in December. Again, 1950s football takes some getting used to.

In addition to a coaching controversy and a drunk-driving controversy, the Lions had perhaps the NFL's first truly great quarterback controversy on its hands. Wilson rotated Rote and Layne based on which quarterback had the best week of practice; it's easy to read between the lines and assume that Wilson started whichever quarterback had the most sober week of practice.

The rotation system ended when Layne broke his leg early in an important late-season Browns game. Rote relieved him and led the Lions to a 20-7 victory. Rote then beat the Bears, then the 49ers in the playoff game and then the Browns again by a 59-14 score for the Lions' third NFL championship of the decade.

Wilson entered the 1958 season planning to platoon Layne and Rote again. Rote relieved Layne in a 28-15 loss to the Colts in the season opener, and then both quarterbacks played in a 13-13 tie against the Packers. Wilson criticized both quarterbacks' play-calling after the game; the Detroit News would later report that Layne showed up for a team meeting intoxicated the Saturday before the game and that a rift had grown between Layne and Wilson.

In summary, Layne was a 31-year-old quarterback coming off an arrest and two straight seasons that ended with injuries. His backup/challenger, a younger veteran with a solid resume, beat the team's arch-rival twice to win a championship. The Lions were so friction-racked that their longtime coach quit on them during training camp a year earlier. Layne, the beloved leader of the team, was partying his way through training camp and (reportedly) road trips.

There should not be any mystery about why the Lions decided to trade Bobby Layne.

   

Tradin' Without Askin'

The Bobby Layne trade was major news in Detroit on Tuesday, October 7, 1958. It earned a banner headline above the masthead of the Detroit Free Press that day. Below the masthead were headlines about the health of Pope Pius X and an auto workers strike, the latter of which was extremely important to everyday life in the Motor City.

The Layne trade, in other words, received exceptional media coverage for an NFL story at the time. The Free Press quoted Coach Wilson at length discussing the details of the deal.

"I began working on it at 10 o'clock this morning [Monday]" Wilson said. "I talked with Parker about it by phone and worked it out. I've been thinking about it since the training camp at Cranbrook."

Layne on the Steelers sideline soon after his trade to Pittsburgh.
Layne on the Steelers sideline soon after his trade to Pittsburgh.WFS/Associated Press

"Parker" was former Lions coach Buddy Parker, the guy who quit during training camp in 1957 and had moved on to coaching the Steelers. According to a column by Chester L. Smith in the Pittsburgh Press two weeks later titled "Tradin' Man Parker Given Layne Without Any Askin'," Wilson and Parker sounded a lot like Chip Kelly and Rex Ryan suddenly deciding on a LeSean McCoy deal.

According to Smith, Parker called Wilson about acquiring some game film that Monday morning:

The voice on the other end of the line, belonging to Wilson, asked calmly, "Would you like to trade for a quarterback?"

"Who?" asked Mr. Parker.

"Bobby Layne."

There was a brief interruption while Buddy picked himself off the floor.

By the end of the phone call, the Steelers had Layne and the Lions had quarterback Earl Morrall, who was the second pick in the 1956 draft, plus a pair of draft picks.

According to the Free Press, Layne heard about the trade while he was at Detroit Metropolitan Airport, waiting for his wife to arrive from their Texas home. "I thought I would see him earlier in the day when he stopped in the office for his paycheck, but he didn't show," Wilson said. "Luckily, I was able to reach him at the airport just before the announcement of the trade was made."

Layne eventually spoke to the press while packing for a late-night flight to Pittsburgh. "It's just one of those things," he said. "I guess they always work out for the best."

"But actually, it hurts me," Layne added. "It hurts quite a bit. … I haven't got much complaint I guess…but regardless of what people think of me, I gave my heart and soul to play football. I really tried to play my best." (The breaks in the quote are from the original newspaper story.)

"I've got an awful lot of friends here and I hate to leave," Layne added.

Teammates reacted with shock and dismay. "It makes me sick," linebacker Joe Schmidt said. "I think it's a big mistake. He's still a damned good quarterback."

Tobin Rote (left) during his time with the Lions.
Tobin Rote (left) during his time with the Lions.Anonymous/Associated Press/Associated Press

As fate (or "The Curse") would have it, Rote "suffered a painful pull of the right leg" in practice the Tuesday after Layne left. Morrall took over, and "the newcomer seemed nervous," according to Free Press beat writer George Puscas.

Further, defensive coach Buster Ramsey hinted that players were dogging it with injuries. "When we were winning, we never had anybody hurt," Ramsey said.

Puscas quoted several on-and-off record Lions players saying that Layne's departure had cast a pall over the team. "Did you ever see a team with Morrall and no morale?" an unnamed Lions player said, though the line sounds suspiciously like the work of a sportswriter.

Rote and Morrall split time in the Lions' next game, a 42-28 loss to the Rams. The Lions ended the season 4-7-1, though Rote played well for much of the year. Layne, meanwhile, led the Steelers to a 7-4-1 record, their best mark in more than a decade.

      

The Incredible Disappearing Curse

Layne had a few decent seasons with the Steelers but never led the team to the playoffs. He retired after the 1962 season, entered the oil business and disappeared from the limelight.

The Lions, who obviously had some locker room problems by the late 1950s, faded for a few years but rebounded under Wilson with a great defensive team led by Alex Karras and Dick "Night Train" Lane (whose name says it all about his love for the nightlife; it's probably a good thing Layne and Lane were never teammates), plus some decent quarterback play from Morrall and Milt Plum. The 1960s Lions never reached the playoffs, but an intensive scan of the newspaper archives found no mention of any lingering Layne "curse."

Steve Pyle/Associated Press

Layne flipped the coin before Super Bowl XVI at the old Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, in 1982. The Lions had made the playoffs just once since Layne left 25 years earlier, and the team was in the midst of a never-ending quarterback controversy between Gary Danielson and Eric Hipple. A coin-flip press appearance sounds like the perfect time to bring up the old saw about how you once cursed your team in the heat of anger after a sudden trade. But the Detroit Free Press feature on Layne was devoted largely to drinking stories.

"Do you realize I've been to six Super Bowls now, and I've seen a total of about 12 minutes of the games?'" Layne joked to Free Press columnist Jim Hawkins, who noted that Night Train Lane and others were waiting for Layne to finish so they could have a drink together. Or two.

Layne died on December 1, 1986. Newspaper eulogies featured lots of tales from old columnists in various cities who stayed out until all hours of the night with Layne. They celebrated the rakish gunslinger, but none of the eulogists mentioned Layne's animosity toward the Lions or an old story about how an angry Layne cast a spell on the franchise that traded him.

In the 1990s, the Lions were a very good team; Barry Sanders led them to the postseason five times in 10 years. But they kept losing in the playoffs, in large part because of a run 'n' shoot offense that made mediocre quarterbacks look like Layne-esque gunslingers—until the playoffs brought tough defenses and cold weather. If the "Curse of Bobby Layne" was invoked by anyone after Lions quarterbacks threw six interceptions in a 58-37 loss to the Eagles after the 1995 season, it did not make its way into any source of record.

The phrase "Curse of Bobby Layne" does not appear in any newspaper I could find until October 12, 2001. Jerry Green, a legendary Detroit football writer, began his column in the Detroit News with a brief primer about Layne: He was great, he drank a wee dram now and then, he led the Lions to championships, he was traded. Fast-forward 43 years, and the team that shuffled Plum and Morrall, Hipple and Danielson and other doomed platoons was swapping between Charlie Batch and Ty Detmer.

"Perhaps, just perhaps, the Lions are gripped by the Curse of Bobby Layne," Green wrote.

Charlie Batch was one of a long list of Lions quarterbacks who struggled to return the Lions to the type of glory they enjoyed with Layne under center.
Charlie Batch was one of a long list of Lions quarterbacks who struggled to return the Lions to the type of glory they enjoyed with Layne under center.HENNY RAY ABRAMS/Getty Images

The tone of the article suggests Green was introducing readers to a new idea. If he was citing some well-known local lore, he probably wouldn't have spent four paragraphs reminding readers about who Bobby Layne was. Green, who covered the Lions for decades, writes nothing at all about Layne's muttering a curse under his breath; his only quote from the era is one from Joe Schmidt: "They traded away the guy who made pro football in Detroit." There is no mention of a "50-year curse."

The curse disappears from the record again until 2008, when Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News did a thorough examination of the legend because a) the "50 years" were about to expire, and b) the Lions were in the process of going 0-16. Wojnowski sought out Schmidt. "I don't recall Bobby saying it," Schmidt said. "But if he did, it was probably in jest or frustration. Bobby gets credit for a lot of things he never did."

Green weighed in again on Layne in November of that doomed Lions season, sharing another round of tales about Layne's gifts for "revelry and camaraderie." Green then brings up the curse he mentioned seven years earlier in a similar column.

"There has been much speculation and conjecture about a 'Curse of Bobby Layne,'" Green wrote on November 12, 2008. "It is sheer nonsense. There never was anything reported back then that Layne vowed the Lions would be cursed with defeat for the next 50 years."

Those are strong words…from the first newspaper writer to ever mention the very thing he is condemning!

ESPN.com's Greg Garber interviewed Layne's son Alan in 2013 in an effort to track down the curse. Alan Layne said he had never heard anything about The Curse until 10 years before the interview. "He was astonished to discover entire websites dedicated to his father's alleged words," Garber wrote. "But, he admitted, it was totally consistent with who his father was."

Mitch Albom, a Detroit columnist before he became a bestselling author, weighed in during Garber's article. "As the years went past, the curse got more body to it," Albom said. "It was a whisper once and then it was like, maybe this thing is really happening. And then it just became an explanation."

The curse seems to have spontaneously generated about the time that Green wrote his 2001 column. The early 2000s were a fertile period for internet memes: not the Crying Jordan memes we know and tolerate today, but ideas that spread quickly across email chains and message boards when instantaneous communication at that level was still news to us.

Perhaps Green's musings got retconned, mixed with a general sense that the Lions were "cursed" in some way, grafted with their own narrative and found themselves part of "established" local lore.

That's the perfect recipe for an urban legend.

   

The Curse Is Foiled Again

Bobby Layne is a character from a forgotten world, one where quarterbacks called their own plays and telling a judge you drank six cocktails before taking the wheel was a wise legal strategy.

That said, he played in an era when the NFL received substantial media coverage. Reporters wrote long stories and columns that sometimes included negative quotes, anonymous sources, gossip and scandal. The Lions in particular were a daily source of soap opera intrigue that was being chronicled breathlessly by several competing newspapers.

There is absolutely no way Layne said anything juicy within earshot of anyone in the press pool on the day he was traded without some version of the quote immediately ending up in the newspaper. The quote would have had just as much "sizzle" then as it has now. But the evidence points to the fact the quote was never uttered.

Even as a framing device for Lions history, the Curse of Bobby Layne doesn't hold up. The team had good reason to trade him and received fair value in return. Earl Morrall became one of the best backup quarterbacks in pro football history; he went 13-1 and started Super Bowl III in relief of Johnny Unitas in 1968 and won nine games for the undefeated 1972 Dolphins, among other accomplishments. One of the draft picks the Lions received in exchange for Layne became Roger Brown, who would be named to five Pro Bowls as a lineman for the great Lions defenses of the early 1960s.

Roger Brown (#76) sacking Bart Starr. Brown was one of the players acquired in the "cursed" Bobby Layne trade.
Roger Brown (#76) sacking Bart Starr. Brown was one of the players acquired in the "cursed" Bobby Layne trade.Anonymous/Associated Press

The Curse of Bobby Layne may just be a case of old sportswriter romanticism. Layne is a symbol of a light-of-the-jukebox era when writers and players got tipsy and chased women together. The Lions traded Layne for modern, business-oriented reasons. Of course they were cursed by the angry football gods!

Over the years, a hunk of sour-grapes conventional wisdomthis team ain't been the same since they traded ol' Bobbygot passed down from parents to children, old beat writers to young, talk radio callers to impressionable listeners. Jerry Green whipped up The Curse of Bobby Layne as a column hook, and it sounded like something everyone had known for years.

But it never happened.

   

Note: Archival sources for this article come from Newspapers.com, NewsLibrary.com and other databases. Some links will not work without subscriptions to these services.

    

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.