George Plimpton’s 1963 Detroit Lions Tryout: The Inspiring Story That Inspired a Book and Movie
“I finally decided to pack the football.”
So starts the first chapter of writer George Plimpton’s 1966 bestselling book “Paper Lion,” which is based on his experience “trying out” as the last-string quarterback at the Detroit Lions training camp while on assignment for Sports Illustrated 60 years ago this summer.
Plimpton, a 36-year-old Harvard graduate and editor of the Paris Review literary journal who had never played organized tackle football, won acclaim for “Paper Lion” for his insights and amusing stories. Despite this, he trained with NFL heavyweights like as Joe Schmidt, Roger Brown, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Gail Cogdill, Nick Pietrosante, Milt Plum, and Earl Morrall.
W.C. Heinz, a well-known football writer, hailed “Paper Lion” the “best book about football I’ve ever read.”
Plimpton was a forerunner in the field of participatory journalism. In 1960, he pitched to a lineup of baseball stars at Yankee Stadium, resulting in his book “Out of My League.” He then published novels about what it was like to box, golf, and play goal for the Boston Bruins.
Plimpton, a gangly 6 feet 4 inches tall, was a beloved Manhattan literary personality who came across as a blue-blooded highbrow with a self-described “Eastern seaboard cosmopolitan accent” and lockjaw delivery.
After being turned down by multiple teams, Plimpton received a positive response from Lions head coach George Wilson to practice with a professional football team.. He brought Plimpton to Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills for three weeks of training and invited him to play in an intrasquad game Aug. 3 at Wisner Stadium in Pontiac.
Plimpton received an unsettling warning from senior equipment manager Roy “Friday” Macklem before checking into room 122 at Page Hall on the beautiful Cranbrook campus:
I’ve worked for Detroit for 27 years, and if I had ever been tempted to leave, I wouldn’t be around to tell the story.
Macklem later assigned Plimpton the uniform number “0,” which had previously been worn by Johnny Olszewski in 1961.
One of Plimpton’s earliest initiations as a “rookie” came when he was made to stand on his chair in the Eliel Saarinen-designed dining hall to sing his alma mater’s fight song, a hazing custom initiated by the renowned quarterback Bobby Layne. Plimpton humbly chirped what he could remember with his right palm over his heart:
“Crimson in triumph flashing’Til that last white line is paster We’ll fight for Harvard’s name’Til……that last white line is past…”
“No one seemed upset,” Plimpton wrote. Everyone continued to eat, with perhaps one or two heads raised at the name of the college, a school with little association with professional football.”
The tight-fitting helmet that cruelly squeezed the writer’s ears was his main gripe. He put it on before going through a rope obstacle course and practising the five plays he was studying.
Throughout “Paper Lion,” Plimpton gave insights and advice from teammates at various positions on how the game is played, as well as stories about Lion players’ shenanigans, such as scaring each other in the dorms with fright masks.
He occasionally joined some of the players for a night of partying and dancing at Dearborn’s now-defunct Gay Haven nightclub, where they twisted the night away before returning to Cranbrook for bed check.
Plimpton also emceed the yearly “rookie show,” which featured skits and songs mocking the veteran players and coaches. Plimpton was booed by his teammates when portraying NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle in one skit because Rozelle had banned lineman Alex Karras and penalized a few players earlier in the year for gambling.
Finally, on August 3, 1963, in front of 7,000 Lion supporters at Wisner Stadium, Lion Assistant General Manager Bud Erickson addressed the crowd just before halftime. He explained to the audience that “Number 0 was a novice, a writer who had been practicing with the team for three weeks and had learned five plays, which he is now ready to perform.
As one could anticipate, it was a humiliating failure for Plimpton. Finally, he earned respectful applause from the audience for his efforts.
Plimpton mishandled the ball and was tackled for a 5-yard loss on the first play.
He returned for an intended 10-yard pass to Pietrosante on the second play, but slipped and fell down for a 2-yard loss.
Plimpton was meant to hand off to Danny Lewis on play three, but he was late and was grabbed by Brown, the huge tackle, who stripped the ball and sprinted in for a 10-yard score. However, the referee signaled the end of the game.
Plimpton threw an incomplete throw over the head of Jim Gibbons on play four.
Coach George Wilson exclaimed before the writer made his final play, “Last play, the ball’s on the 10-yard line, let’s see you take it all the way.”
According to Plimpton, one player inquired, “Which end zone is he talking about?”
Plimpton lateraled the ball to Pietrosante, who got tackled at the 1-yard line, just one yard short of the embarrassment of taking the team from the thirty-yard line all the way back into their own end zone, resulting in a safety.
Plimpton dressed for the Lions’ exhibition game against the Cleveland Browns a week later, hoping to get some snaps if the Lions led by 20 points or more near the end of the game. At halftime, though, Lion General Manager Edwin J.
Anderson advised him that under any circumstances, Commissioner Rozelle would not allow him to play.
Plimpton cleaned up his locker and left the next day, but not before the Lions presented him with an engraved gold football that read, “To the best rookie football player in Detroit Lions history.”
Sports Illustrated carried two lengthy pieces about Plimpton’s Lions adventure in September 1964. Two years later, “Paper Lion” was released.
The film “Paper Lion” was released in 1968. It starred members of the ’67 ballclub, including Alan Alda as Plimpton..
Plimpton was recognized alongside 26 of his 1963 teammates during halftime of a game in Detroit versus the Vikings in September 2003.
At a charity event the night before, Lions coach Steve Mariucci and team president Matt Millen presented Plimpton with his legendary, game-worn number “0” Honolulu Blue jersey.It was discovered many weeks ago at the bottom of Friday Macklem’s original equipment trunk at the Lions’ headquarters in Allen Park.
According to Plimpton, the jersey was lovely but needless because the keepsakes he has are recollections of his time with the squad.
“I had a great time,” remarked Plimpton. “It was a form of bonding.”
Unfortunately, the following Friday, the nation discovered that Plimpton had died in his sleep. He was 76.
Always a Lion.