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One Missed Field Goal

September 18, 2009

 

Goodbye, Monte. I can't forget that you were the Lions coach for the last three years of Kenny's life. We both put our hope and faith in you leading our football team to victorious glory. But in over 50 years of my life, after Bobby Layne, no one has been able to break the Lions curse. No Lion coach in five decades has ever found another head coaching job after leaving the Lions. Monte, you tried, and came as close as anyone to making our day but you were robbed by a simple missed field goal on the last day of 1983.

 

When I read that Monte Clark died, I thought of the song, “Another One Bites the Dust,” once used by the Detroit Lions as their theme song. Monte had been a right tackle for Dallas and Cleveland during his playing career and a line coach for the undefeated Miami Dolphins of 1972. When he accepted the coaching job for the Detroit Lions in 1978, he quipped, “I don’t have all the answers. If I did, I’d be a cab driver.” (Monte Clark: 1937-2009: “‘Thank God’ for him,” Detroit Free Press, Sept. 18, 2009)

            I remember at age 21, being hopeful when Clark was hired, especially after he improved the team to a 7-9 record his first year. But then, the team slid to 2-14 and it wasn’t until running back Billy Sims and kicker Eddie Murray were drafted in 1980 that hope was reignited. I lost interest in football after the 1982 Super Bowl in Detroit in which I had tickets. My brother, Kenny, and I went to the game but scalped the tickets for $100 each right before it started, after sitting in a long line of cars on the snow-covered slippery Opdyke Road outside the Silverdome. A devout Lions fan, I really didn’t care that the San Francisco 49ers won their first Super Bowl over Cincinnati. I only cared because I gave up the tickets to the only Super Bowl that my brother and I could ever attend.

            After Kenny died on the way home from a Detroit Tigers’ game in the summer of ’82, I cared less about the Lions but they made the playoffs anyway that year in a strike-shortened season. The next year, after the Lions started by winning one game and losing four, Coach Clark said to reporters, “See you at the cemetery.” Instead of the cemetery, the Lions actually got hot and won the next 8 out of 11 games, winning the division with a 9-7 record and making the playoffs, ready to face the San Francisco 49ers on a New Year’s Eve game on the last day of 1983.

            I didn’t think much about the playoffs as I was ready to leave on a trip during Christmas week to Las Vegas with my friend, Rob, and his wife, Kim, his sister, Janet, and their Uncle Jack, who loved gambling. I was surprised that Kim would let me go with them since I had rented a basement room from them in their Oak Park house after they married in the summer of 1979. Rob spent a little more time with me than his newlywed wife after they married, both of us coming home from work to drink no-name beer, watch sports on TV, and play softball with our other guy friends. After it was strongly suggested I move to my own place and let them resume being a newlywed couple after all, I didn’t see Rob and Kim that often. But Kim forgave me enough to let me go on a trip with them three years later.

            I hadn’t been to Vegas since the NLSA convention a week before Kenny’s death. But I needed to live and have fun and was happy to do something frivolous with my old friends. So we took off and visited Vegas and laughed and gambled for a couple of days, ready to leave on Thursday before the New Year. We went to the airport and packed our bags, ready to leave for Detroit. We packed our luggage, the plane was delayed, and so we waited at the airport and realized that we could fly one way to LA for $29. Maybe we could stay with Kim’s Uncle Buzzy, we thought, and then drive to San Francisco to catch the game on New Year’s Eve.  We wondered what it would be like to make the Detroit Lions playoff game. Seeing the Lions on TV was rare enough but actually going to a Detroit Lions playoff game, with the team that won the Super Bowl just two years earlier: Priceless.

Uncle Jack took the next plane but Rob called his parents to pick up our luggage and we flew to LA. and rented a car. When we got there, we had no clothes so we went to a store and bought two day’s worth of shirts, pants, and underwear. Rob and I both bought the special LA underwear with horizontal flaps, the first and last time we ever saw such a product. After a night at Uncle Buzzy’s, we drove all the way up the coast, not on the scenic highway, to San Francisco and checked into a hotel not far from Candlestick Park. We walked around downtown and ended up at a small restaurant in Chinatown that had no customers. I ordered something I never ate in my life, abalone, which is supposedly some kind of sea delicacy. For me, it was the worst Chinese food I ever ate in my life and I have never ordered it again in 25 years.

The next day, we went to a store near the hotel and bought some paint and brushes and put the bed sheet on the floor and started painting the caption that was obvious to us. We colored in the lines and painted the huge headline on the bed sheet based on Clint Eastwood in Sudden Impact: “GO AHEAD, LIONS, MAKE OUR DAY!!”

            We took a bus to Candlestick Park a half hour before the game, hoping to find some tickets. Rob’s brother, David, met us at the game with his girlfriend and we were lucky to find, only a few minutes before the game, six scalped tickets on the upper deck’s sixth row right on the 50 yard line for the actual ticket prices. Excited, we walked around the stadium with our huge bed sheet and were accosted by three motorcycle-jacket-wearing men who started tugging on the bed sheet. We thought: do we want to give up the sheet or act like Clint Eastwood and tell them, “Go ahead, punks, make our day.” It was an easy choice for two Jewish guys from the suburbs: the sheet slipped right out of our slippery hands.

We were just smart enough not to be on the San Francisco news and went to our seats instead. It was a perfectly sunny beautiful day and the guy sitting next to us who had lived in San Francisco his whole life said he had always been a Lions fan since he had rooted for Bobby Layne in the ‘50s. Wow, we thought, it had to be a one-in-a-million chance to find a San Francisco man rooting for the Lions.

            The guy next door was more optimistic about out chances in the game than we were, especially after quarterback Gary Danielson’s 5 interceptions. But Billy Sims got hot in the 4th quarter, rushing for two Lions touchdowns and quieting the crowd and we took a 23-17 lead with seven minutes to go in the game. Rob and I looked at each other, thinking, is it possible for the Lions to win today? Joe Montana led the 49ers to a touchdown to take a one-point lead with a couple minutes to go. Yet, the Lions weren’t done and drove down the field, all the way to the San Francisco 26 yard line. We were confident in our field goal kicker, Eddie Murray, but scared to death because of Lions history. The man next to us said if Murray made the field goal, we should be silent because San Francisco fans could get really mean.

I was hoping that this field goal wasn’t going to be as disappointing as the one on November 8, 1970. I could never forget as a 13-year-old, when Tom Dempsey of the New Orleans Saints, missing a right hand, and with only half a right foot, lined up to try a 63-yard field goal. Alex Karras stood there, laughing on the defensive line, as the football sailed a record-breaking 63 yards to beat the Lions. Up to that point in my 13-year-old life, the Dempsey field goal was one of the lowest moments in my short, sports-obsessed life.

            On the day before the 1984 New Year, the crowd cheered the SF defense and Rob, the guy next to us, and I prayed for mercy for Detroit, just one 43-yard kick, that’s all we wanted. Please God, just help Eddie make one little field goal. I could have asked myself another Clint Eastwood quote, “Do I feel lucky? Now, do ya, punk?”

The ball was snapped and Murray kicked it far enough but it started to push right and looked like it might come back right inside the right post. But the kick went a little to the right and the San Francisco crowd went crazy. Lions’ fans were unlucky again and I was so upset I felt like crying as the noise of the crowd seared my insides. Greg Eno summed it up on his blogspot.com website, “What sealed it for me was the now infamous camera shot of coach Clark on the sidelines, hands clasped together in prayer, face looking skyward. As soon as I saw that image, I said a four-letter word that is another way of intimating you have to use the little boys’ room—sitting down. I guess the Lions’ history of ineptitude ingrained in me the Pavlovian reaction of assuming the worst when someone from the Lions hopes—or prays—for the best.” (“Out of Bounds: Murray’s Leg Betrayed Lions at the Worst Time,” www.gregeno.blogspot.com)

Another one bites the dust, another Lions’ loss. After the game, we took a bus to the airport and took a $69 flight to Vegas and went to the Tropicana, then slept in the Vegas airport, awaiting a standby flight which was an extension of our original return flight several days earlier. Tired and bummed out after the Lions loss, we gambled a little but our hearts weren't in the New Year yet. How sweet the New Year would have been following a Lions’ playoff victory in San Francisco.

Today, it’s easy to wonder what would have happened if Murray would have made the field goal. It sure would have been a happier New Year instead of the disappointing one it became. The Lions were only one game away from the Super Bowl; maybe, just maybe, they could have won it. If Eddie made the field goal, maybe Billy Sims wouldn’t have been hurt later that year and maybe Monte wouldn’t have been fired afterward. Could Murray have remained a Lion instead of helping the Dallas Cowboys win a Super Bowl a decade later?

Personal memory is fickle. Rob asked me last week if I remembered going to a Michigan Wolverine game with him, my dad, and Kenny on Rosh Hoshanah, when Kenny made a humorous comment about a hot dog he ate. I not only didn’t remember the hot dog but I didn’t remember going to the game on Rosh Hoshanah with them. I completely erased it from my memory.

Thanks to the Internet, we can find all sorts of statistics and game replays and photos of Monte Clark and Eddie Murray, which helps bring out memories long forgotten. I vaguely remember Monte Clark praying for Eddie Murray to make the field goal but who knows what was in his heart after the missed opportunity. I can only think of his comment, “See you at the cemetery” at his earlier press conference, realizing the terrible irony today.

Goodbye, Monte. I can't forget that you were the Lions coach for the last three years of Kenny’s life. We both put our hope and faith in you leading our football team to victorious glory. But in over 50 years of my life, after Bobby Layne, no one has been able to break the Lions curse. No Lions coach in five decades has ever found another head coaching job after leaving the Lions. Monte, you tried, and came as close as anyone has to making our day but you were robbed by a simple missed field goal on the last day of 1983.

Now, after 18 regular season consecutive losses by the Detroit Lions, we have reached the lowest low in Lions’ history. So the past, including the years led by Wayne Fontes and Monte Clark, seems like the good old days. But there is no glory in remembering things past, just nostalgia for what we had and a sad longing for what we lost or never had. Today, all we can do is hope and pray for a new Lions quarterback and new Lions coach to lead us to glory in the coming years.

Better yet, we should just accept what we have and realize that we can make our own days the way we want. We have the chance to jump on a plane and go to a city we’ve never been and do something wild that we would normally never do. It’s up to us to make the year beginning tonight with Rosh Hoshanah a very good year. Even if the Lions go winless again this season, it can still be the best year of our lives.

One day in the future, if we are lucky to live a few more years, we will understand that these–yes these–are the good old days

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