Last time Lions won an NFL title, fans would buy tickets just to watch Joe Schmidt

Joe Schmidt’s voice, which once commanded the Detroit Lions defense, is quieter now, softened by his 92 years of living.

“Thank you for remembering me,” the Hall of Fame middle linebacker said from his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

His sincere humility was disarming, considering Schmidt was a legitimate NFL star in his day, the centerpiece of a championship defense. Undersized and overachieving, he was Dick Butkus before the football world knew who Dick Butkus was.

“He was the only defensive player that people would buy tickets just to see him play at that time,” said longtime coach Jerry Glanville, who grew up an ardent Lions fan and was a teenager in the stands when Detroit won its most recent NFL championship in 1957.

“People would buy tickets to go see a quarterback or go see a running back. But if Joe Schmidt was coming to town, people would buy tickets to go watch him play.”

In the 1950s, Detroit and Cleveland basically handed the championship trophy back and forth, the Lions winning it all in 1952, ’53 and ’57, and the Browns winning in 1950, ’54 and ’55.

There were others — the Rams in ’51, New York Giants in ’56, Baltimore Colts in 1958 and ’59 — but Detroit and Cleveland were the embodiment of grind-it-out grit.

Who could have guessed that more than six decades later, the Lions and Browns would be two of the four franchises who have yet to reach the Super Bowl?

Detroit intends to change that Sunday when it plays at San Francisco in the NFC championship game, just the second conference title appearance by the Lions in the Super Bowl era. The first came in the 1991 season when the Washington Redskins beat them 41-10.

Schmidt is one of the few surviving members of that ’57 championship team, which delivered a 59-14 drubbing of the Browns at Briggs Stadium in Detroit.

“With that team, it wasn’t, `Today we’ll play good and tomorrow we’ll take a day off,’ ” said Schmidt, generously listed at 6 feet and 220 pounds. “We played hard all the time.”

Schmidt, a standout at the University of Pittsburgh, played 13 seasons for the Lions, from 1953 through ’65, reaching the Pro Bowl 10 years in a row. Twice he was voted the NFL’s most valuable defensive player. He was named to the NFL’s 1950s All-Decade team and inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1973.

He retired as a player after the 1965 season, then coached the Lions from 1967 through ’72, even playing himself in the 1968 film “Paper Lion.”

“Acting made me uneasy because I had no experience in that type of thing,” he said. “Everybody would be standing around watching what you were doing. It wasn’t scary or anything but you were worried about making a mistake or embarrassing yourself.”

There was nothing Hollywood about the way Schmidt played the game.

“There are guys like Joe from the early days who were tougher than anybody ever dreamed of,” said Matt Millen, who won four Super Bowls as an NFL linebacker and later served as president of the Lions.

“To go out and play with what they had, and how they were hitting? There were no, you-can’t-touch-the-quarterback rules. Holding? Are you kidding me? Mauling was probably the call. It was a completely different game, but it was the beginning of what would become today’s game.

“The rules were very loosely enforced — just like the teeth of the players.”

Cleveland had six future Hall of Famers in that ’57 championship game, and Detroit had seven.

Most compelling was what felt like a one-on-one matchup, a colossal clash between Schmidt and Cleveland running back Jim Brown, regarded by many people as the greatest player in NFL history.

“Joe Schmidt was the only guy who could tackle Brown by himself,” Glanville said. “He did it all the time. … Joe was the first NFL guy who built himself up in the weight room.”

Said Schmidt of Brown: “Our anticipation was, if we could keep him below 100 yards we would win the game. That was our goal and most of the time it worked. On occasion, he would get out there and do his deal. At that time — and even now — I don’t believe there was anybody of his quality or his ability. That’s my opinion. I might be wrong.”

There‘s a gentleness to Schmidt that belies his ferocity as a player. He has a beautiful singing voice and even recorded a couple of songs during his playing days. He and teammates Dick LeBeau and Bruce Maher, performing as the “Joe Schmidt Trio,” crooned the jazzy “Lonesome One” and “Cry Out Freedom.”

“He’s a softie, such a sweet guy,” Kerry Schmidt, one of five siblings, said of her dad. “To this day, when I talk to him, which is basically every day, every time we get off the phone he’s like, `Can I do anything for you? Is there anything you need? You need some money? I’m always here for you.’ ”

Among her most treasured possessions is a video recording of her father singing “You Are So Beautiful” at her wedding.

“Total surprise,” she said. “I’m such a daddy’s girl and it was so moving. Everyone just stopped and was listening to him sing. It was the best part of my wedding. Sadly, that marriage didn’t last, but I will always cherish that moment.”

Schmidt didn’t tell anyone he was going to sing with the band, but he secretly practiced the song for a month leading up to the wedding. As for his own marriage, he and his wife, Marilynn, celebrated their 64th anniversary in December.

Sunday, they’re hoping to celebrate again.

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