40 years ago in Michigan Stadium - NFL football

Submitted by Section 1 on August 22nd, 2011 at 12:02 AM


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. 



August 22nd, 2011 at 12:17 AM ^

I had no idea the Lions played an exhibition game in Michigan Stadium.  That's pretty cool.  It's crazy that a ticket was $6.00 because I just went to a Green Bay Packer preseason game on Friday and it was $69.00 face value.


August 22nd, 2011 at 11:23 AM ^

I decided to look back at the 71' Lion schedule and two things stood out:

1. The only remaining venues the Lions played in that year are Michigan Stadium and Soldier Field.

2. The attendance for the Lions/Colts game at Michigan Stadium was 91,745.


1971 Detroit Lions (NFL)

Day Date   Opponent Score     Location Stadium Attendance  
Sat 08/07/71 N New York Jets 28- 24 W   Tampa, FL Tampa Stadium 51214  
Sat 08/14/71 H Cincinnati Bengals 24- 31 L   Detroit, MI Tiger Stadium 54365  
Sun 08/22/71 H Baltimore Colts 23- 20 W   Ann Arbor, MI Michigan Stadium 91745  
Sat 08/28/71 A Miami Dolphins 24- 28 L   Miami, FL Orange Bowl 59567  
Sat 09/04/71 H Buffalo Bills 17- 31 L   Detroit, MI Tiger Stadium 51478  
Sun 09/12/71 A Philadelphia Eagles 49- 10 W   Philadelphia, PA Veterans Stadium 51543  
Mon 09/20/71 H Minnesota Vikings 13-16 L   Detroit, MI Tiger Stadium 54418  
Sun 09/26/71 A New England Patriots 34- 7 W   Foxborough, MA Schaefer Stadium 61057  
Sun 10/03/71 H Atlanta Falcons 41-38 W   Detroit, MI Tiger Stadium 54418  
Sun 10/10/71 H Green Bay Packers 31-28 W   Detroit, MI Tiger Stadium 54418  
Sun 10/17/71 A Houston Oilers 31- 7 W   Houston, TX Astrodome 45885  
Sun 10/24/71 H Chicago Bears 23-28 L   Detroit, MI Tiger Stadium 54418  
Mon 11/01/71 A Green Bay Packers 14-14 T   Milwaukee, WI County Stadium 47961  
Sun 11/07/71 A Denver Broncos 24-20 W   Denver, CO Mile High Stadium 51200  
Sun 11/14/71 H Los Angeles Rams 13-21 L   Detroit, MI Tiger Stadium 54418  
Sun 11/21/71 A Chicago Bears 28- 3 W   Chicago, IL Soldier Field 55049  
Thu 11/25/71 H Kansas City Chiefs 32-21 W   Detroit, MI Tiger Stadium 54418  
Sun 12/05/71 H Philadelphia Eagles 20-23 L   Detroit, MI Tiger Stadium 54418  
Sat 12/11/71 A Minnesota Vikings 10-29 L   Bloomington, MN Metropolitan Stadium 49784  
Sun 12/19/71 A San Francisco 49ers 27-31 L   San Francisco, CA Candlestick Park 45580  


Marley Nowell

August 22nd, 2011 at 12:19 AM ^

If DB can somehow arrange so the 2 NFL teams with the most Michigan alums (Eagles have 5) vs. Pats (bonus points for prominent starters) square off that would be cool to see them play in their stadium agaim.  It would also give another night games for recruiting purposes without actually having another night game during the season.  Has this been done anywhere recently?


August 22nd, 2011 at 12:25 AM ^

Canham was an original. He had a natural genius for the position that I doubt we will ever see again.


Brandon is your standard corporate automaton. His handling of the RR firing/Hoke hiring was awful and the raising of ticket prices in the middle of one of the worst economies in half a century is just plain stupid. His best ideas(Night Game, Outdoor hockey games) have already been done by other schools. He is not  adept at thinking outside the box like Canham was.

You can no more compare Brandon to Canham than you can compare Frank Beckmann to Bob Ufer.


August 22nd, 2011 at 12:34 PM ^

Canham was the best.  One of my favorite books was "From the Inside," which was written around 1996. 

There's some great stories in here.  Canham tells how he went about getting more fans at the stadium (the Big House was averaging just 67,000 fans by the late 60's).  The process of getting Notre Dame back on the schedule.  He also talks about how he hired Bo in 1968.  (His first choice was Joe Paterno and it was nearly a done deal.)  Detailed accounts of the controversial vote to send OSU to the Rose Bowl in 73.  And some non-football stuff too.  It's a great read.

Bando Calrissian

August 22nd, 2011 at 4:04 PM ^

Canham was great, but he wasn't always the most appreciated or liked guy on the scene. He wasn't always the friendliest or easiest person to deal with, that's for sure.  There's a certain school of thought that views the infamous 1973 AD vote as not only a vote against Denny Franklin's traitorous collarbone, but a vote against Canham as well.

Personally, I thought the book was pretty damn interesting.  He was operating on an entirely different plane, yet not with dollars and cents as the primary goal (as we see so often today, ahem), but rather Michigan.  The guy never lost sight of what the University was, and what he could do within that identity to make it better.  The block M went from mock-ups on his kitchen table to pretty much every inch of the globe (and beyond).  

And, man, could he ever pull off the maize and blue plaid blazer.


August 22nd, 2011 at 12:35 AM ^

I was an incoming freshman in fall '71, and it's sort of odd that the first football game of my college days at Michigan Stadium was a Lions game. My main memory from that day is that it was fucking hot, and the game itself was pretty boring.

Speaking of the Lions and exhibition games, they have the dubious distinction of being the very first old NFL team to lose to an AFL team. A series of exhibition games were played in the summer of 1967 between teams of the two rival leagues, and the Lions managed to lose to the Denver Broncos.


Section 1

August 22nd, 2011 at 1:20 AM ^

One of the two or three hottest days I remember ever in the Stadium.  Up there with the time that Bobby Bowden brought Amp Lee and the Seminoles into Ann Arbor, or one of the Miami games, or the Lloyd Carr debut against Virginia.

And I was sitting in the South endzone, with the sun shining right down on us the whole time.


August 22nd, 2011 at 12:17 PM ^

1998 was when we played EMU.  I went to that game and I do remember burning in the sun.

Titanic was the big movie that year and I remember the band forming the ship at halftime and then having it sink.  The crowd ate that up.  

The game was ho-hum.  59-20 victory.  In those days, I got ticked off if teams scored 20 points on us.  My how things have changed. 


August 22nd, 2011 at 6:13 AM ^

A terrific piece of Big House history.  I remember George Plimpton and the TV coverage of his stint at QB and the movie.  I had forgotten, assuming I knew, that the game where he played a couple of series took place at Michigan Stadium.

Thank you for the diary.

Section 1

August 22nd, 2011 at 11:12 AM ^

...in writing this up, I found no easily-accessible webhosted pictures from the game.  Not one, actually.

The one photo above of Plimpton in a Colts practice uniform was from a regular practice, not the game day.  I think it was a still from the CBS-TV program on Plimpton at that time.  (Plimpton, one of the savviest self-promoters in 20th century American letters, finally did get his acting gig; he played the prissy academic psychiatrist in Good Will Hunting.)

If you think that "the Lions, in Michigan Stadium, against the World Champions, with a CBS television film crew, filming George Plimpton with his good friend Alex Karras trying to kill him" would be sort of a big deal at the time, you'd be right.  Of course the game itself meant nothing for pro football and the '71 season.  But the Lions were again becoming a serious pro team at that time, with a lot of younger players coming into their own.  Lem Barney, Mel Farr, Steve Owens fresh off his Heisman Trophy,  Greg Landry beginning to take over the team at QB, and Charlie Sanders developing into an All-Pro TE, were all creating a lot of interest, even if the preseason meant no more in those days, than it does now.

So it was really weird to me, that I couldn't easily find any pictures from the game.  Maybe somebody else will find some to post.

Bando Calrissian

August 22nd, 2011 at 12:07 PM ^

Meh, I don't know if it's that so surprising.  You'd be really shocked at how badly the 60's-early 70's era NFL was documented.  Very little of that era has popped up on the internet, and even though there's the noteworthiness of the game being at Michigan Stadium, at the end of the day, it's still a single preseason game that happened in 1971.  There aren't even that many regular Michigan Football pictures on the internet from that era.  

Compared to today, where someone going to the grocery store can spur a 100-picture Flickr slideshow...

Ed Shuttlesworth

August 28th, 2011 at 10:03 AM ^

I was at the game as a 7 year old.  Sat in the end zone where Larry Walton caught the winning TD pass with about a minute to go.  Think it was the south.  End zone stands were not full.

Colts were defending Supe champs; Lions were coming off a 10-4 season that earned them the wild card and a gut-wrenching 5-0 playoff loss to the Cowboys at the Cotton Bowl.  On the DVD of the game, CBS color man Frank Gifford twice refers to the Lions as a "violent" team in his pre-game remarks. 

A couple months after the game, Lion WR Chuck Hughes had a heart attack in the middle of a game against the Bears and died.