40 years ago today -- August 22, 1971 -- saw the only NFL game ever to be staged in Michigan Stadium history; a preseason exhibition game between the Detroit Lions and the Baltimore Colts. It is a factoid now, just a trivia question. But it opens up a series of stories that are instructive on the past, present and future of our Stadium and our Athletic Directors.
The 1971 preseason game between the Lions and the Colts was a classic bit of showmanship by Don Canham. In those days, the Lions still shared Tiger Stadium with baseball, and in August, it was still a minor problem to arrange dates and reconfigure the field for the two sports. A Lions game at Michigan had been talked about for some time, but it was not until 1971, three years into Canham's reign at Michigan, that he had the power and wherewithal to pull it off.
The game was even bigger for a lot of personal stories. One is that I was there, so I remember what a blistering hot day it was, and how badly they worked the refreshment concessions. It was not a regular game-day operation. Still, there was a lot else going on, that made it fun and memorable.
There was a major film crew on hand that day. They were there to film George Plimpton, who played a series of downs as a quarterback for the Colts. It was Plimpton's second stint as the Walter Mitty-QB: In 1963, Plimpton had played in the Lions' summer camp that was conducted at Cranbrook and memorialized his experiences in the bestselling 1966 book Paper Lion:
That book became a feature film in 1968, starring Alan Alda in the role of Plimpton (Plimpton had wanted to play himself) and a lot of the then-real Lions, including Alex Karras and John Gordy. Frank Gifford was featured, along with the previous year's rookie of the year, Lem Barney. Vince Lombardi was given a couple of speaking lines, the model Lauren Hutton was cast as Plimpton's wife, and they found a role even for Sugar Ray Robinson!? Karras' walk-on role brought him to the attention of Hollywood, and it changed his life. He got other movie roles (Blazing Saddles, etc.), a spot on the Monday Night Football team with Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell, and then a feature role in the tv series Webster.
The 1971 Lions' exhibition game in Michigan Stadium was not Karras' first game there; Karras had played for Iowa, where he famously butted heads with Iowa's head coach (and Michigan man) Forest Evashevski, getting into physical fights with his coach. Karras eventually won the Outland Trophy and finished second in the Heisman voting, when he wasn't getting suspended.
Against the Colts, Karras knew that his career was coming to an end. It was his 13th year in the NFL, and as it turns out, Karras was cut by the Lions before the 1971 season began.
The game also marked the return of three of the Colts who had played at Michigan; All-Pro safety Rick Volk, the remarkable defensive back Tom Curtis and Ann Arbor's own Bill Laskey, a linebacker.
But Plimpton was the star of the show, as he frequently was. He was given one series, starting on about the Lions' 20 yard-line (the south endzone), to run a series of plays with film cameras rolling for a television feature.
The Plimpton-led Colts offense ended up picking up 18 yards, 15 of them on a roughing the passer penalty inflicted on Plimpton by Karras (who named one of his sons George, after Plimpton). It was that kind of day.
Michigan has not seen an Athletic Director with that kind of verve and showmanship since Don Canham. Until now. And we now have a Stadium, with lights and luxury boxes, that might make possible something else, something new, like that NFL exhibition game, 40 years ago today.