Layne did a lot of things that nobody else ever did, which is one
good way to have people remember what you did. We remember Bobby Layne
for the way he played football - and baseball - and for the play-hard,
party-hard attitude that he maintained on and off the field.
Name another baseball player who sipped 10 beers over nine innings
as a pain killer because he'd cut his foot badly on broken glass the
night before and didn't want his coach to know. Now name someone who
did that while pitching a no-hitter. Bobby Layne did that when he
was a University of Texas baseball player.
Layne was also named to the All Southwest Conference first
team eight times - four time for baseball and four for football, something
no one else has ever done. (The NCAA made an exception to its rule
against freshmen playing varsity ball during World
War II, making Layne one of a handful of college athletes of the
era with four years of eligibility. After the war, freshmen didn't
play NCAA varsity sports again until 1972.)
| Bobby Layne,
circa 1950, 1960
| Bobby Layne's
legend started at Highland Park High School in Dallas,
where he paired with classmate and teammate Doak Walker, who
was so good the NCAA named its annual award for the best running back
in college football for him. The two parted ways when it came time
to play college ball. Walker went to SMU and Layne went to UT. Alums
from both schools and a certain breed of sports historian like to
speculate about the records and legacies the dynamic duo might have
coauthored for either school if they had been in the same backfield
for four years. We'll never know, of course, but we do know that in
the 1946 Cotton Bowl, Layne ran, passed and kicked for every
point in 40-27 rout of Missouri. Nobody else has ever done that either.
Layne began his pro career with the Chicago Bears and spent
a year with the New York Bulldogs, who traded him to the Detroit
Lions. He was the heart and soul of the Lions teams - both on
and off the field - that won three NFL championships in six years.
As teammate Yale Larry once said, "When Bobby said block, you blocked.
When he said drink, you drank."
Layne was the first in a long line of playboy quarterbacks who got
almost as much attention for what he did and said off the field as
he did for his play. Caught in a prostitution sting, Layne pleaded
"extreme entrapment." The judge asked him to explain what he meant
and Layne said, "Well, your honor, if you set a trap for ol' Bobby,
you're going to catch him every time."
The Lions traded Layne to the Pittsburgh Steelers early in
the 1958 season, and he - allegedly - placed a curse on the Lions,
vowing that they wouldn't win another championship for 50 years. They've
exceeded that dire prediction by almost another decade. The year the
curse was supposed to expire - 2008 - the Lions went 0-16. We don't
know if Layne actually decided to hang half a hundred years of bad
football voodoo on the Lions or not. He might have, but no one recorded
it or noted it at the time. But as Detroit's football fortunes floundered,
fans might have started looking for an explanation.
"It was a whisper once and then it was like, maybe this thing is really
happening," Detroit columnist and best-selling author Mitch Albom
told ESPN a few years ago. "And then it just became an explanation
as to why we're going through this heartbreak."
But there may be hope for the Lions. They have a quarterback from
Texas named Matt Stafford, who broke Bobby Layne's 55-year
old team record for passing yardage. And here's the kicker. Stafford
played for Layne's high school alma mater, Highland Park, and even
grew up on the same street that Layne did. If there is a curse to
break, Stafford might be the guy to do it.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
2, 2017 column