The Blond Bomber
That steamy August night in the faraway hills of central Pennsylvania, Bobby Layne stomped the ground like a man snuffing out a grass fire. His full-throated Texas twang sounded like the whine of a distant crop duster. He yanked the spent Marlboro from his lips and fired it into the grass.
Unfolding before his eyes was the horror of losing the biggest game of his coaching life. Never mind it was his coaching debut. On August 1, 1964, Layne’s team of Texas high school all-stars was faltering against a bunch of overfed, heavy-legged Pennsylvania boys by the score of 12–6. The scene in Hershey grew more hopeless with each tick of the scoreboard clock.
The Texas team had traveled fourteen hundred miles to participate in the Big 33 Football Classic. It was called the Big 33 because thirty-three players were selected for each team. Weeks earlier, the all-stars from both Texas and Pennsylvania had graduated from high school. The vast majority were about to embark on college football careers. The contest had been arranged by a group of Pennsylvania promoters who were dead set on proving their state played a better brand of high school football than the arrogant Texans. A few months earlier, Sports Illustrated had ranked Texas as the No. 1 high school football state in America, followed by California and Pennsylvania. This was not surprising. After all, Texas high schools bragged of more football teams than all of America’s colleges combined. Texas was known for cattle and oil, but the state’s most prominent identity was derived from the Friday night lights that glowed from Dalhart to McAllen, and from Orange to El Paso.
So much was at stake in the final two minutes of the inaugural Big 33 game between Texas and Pennsylvania that Bobby Layne had worked himself into a menacing mixture of foot stomping and foul language. Nothing revealed the madman inside Layne like failure. His longtime friend Doak Walker once said, “Bobby never lost a game in his life. Time just ran out on him.”
Just three years earlier, Layne had walked away from a legendary fifteen-year NFL quarterbacking career that included back-to-back championships in 1952 and 1953 with the Detroit Lions. From 1950 to 1955, Layne was reunited with Walker, his best friend since high school days at Dallas Highland Park. Fans in the Motor City once considered Bobby Layne bigger than General Motors. His worshippers compared him to Mickey Cochrane, the catcher/manager who led the Detroit Tigers to their first World Series title in 1935. In an era when stars were measured more by magazine covers than TV exposure, Layne was the first football star to grace the cover of Time. The story read, “The best quarterback in the world is Robert Lawrence Layne, a blond-haired, bandy-legged Texan with a prairie squint in his narrow blue eyes and a athletic paunch on his ample, 6-1, 195-pound frame.”
Before Layne, the pro game ranked just a notch above championship wrestling. There were only fifteen million television sets in America in 1952, and the players operated in a sea of electric snow. Those in the stadium, though, knew that Layne was cocky and fun to watch. He played with a constant chatter that pleased the crowd and angered opponents. More than anyone else, he delivered the pro game into the golden age that officially began with the 1958 Colts-Giants championship game that went into overtime and almost sent America into cardiac arrest. Johnny Unitas was standing on Layne’s shoulders late that afternoon as he drove the Colts down the field in the shadows at Yankee Stadium. Alan Ameche’s 1-yard touchdown burst in sudden death overtime won the championship for Baltimore and changed the game for all time. They all could thank Bobby Layne for wallowing in the muddy trenches before the game was finally delivered to the masses on a clear Sylvania screen.
Before retiring in 1962, Layne held NFL passing records for attempts (3,700), completions (1,814), yards gained (26,768), and touchdowns (196). He was also credited with starting the two-minute offense. If he had thrived during the sports TV boom of the 1960s, he would have been Roger Staubach with a drinking problem.
After leading the Lions to a third straight NFL title game in 1954, and losing to the Browns, Layne began to battle injuries that included a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Still, no one was surprised that he stared down the pain. By 1957, his loosely hinged throwing shoulder felt like it had been stuck with a hot poker. He often medicated himself in the locker room with shots of straight whiskey. Baltimore tackle Art Donovan once sacked Layne and upon smelling his breath asked, “Bobby, have you been drinking?” “Hell yes,” Layne snapped, “and I plan to have a few more at halftime.”
Bob Hope once quipped, “He’s the only football player who had a water bucket on the sideline with a head on it.”
As the late nights took their toll, Layne’s football mystique began to fade in 1957. Still, he led the Lions to the brink of yet another NFL title game before shattering his right ankle in a late-season game against the Browns. He was viciously high-lowed by tackles Don Colo and Paul Wiggin. The lower right leg and ankle collapsed with a cracking sound, three bones breaking at once. His replacement, Tobin Rote, steered the Lions all the way to the NFL championship game, where they pounded the Cleveland Browns 59–14. The third league championship of the decade should have belonged to Layne, but the toast of the town turned out to be Rote.
When Layne was no longer the brightest star in Detroit, his drinking accelerated. The wary Lions traded him to the Pittsburgh Steelers after the second game of the 1958 season. The Steelers were the doormat of the NFL before Layne arrived. Pittsburgh turned out to be no place to send a thirsty man like Bobby Layne. The town was cold and lonely, and the Steelers were a hopeless bunch. Boos roared down on Pitt Stadium like a blizzard off the Monongahela River. Still, Layne cobbled together three winning seasons in five years.
Layne’s drinkathons were as famous as the binges of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle. Not surprisingly, Mantle and Layne hit the bars at full speed when their off-seasons overlapped back home in Texas.
When his controversial career ended in 1962, Layne still firmly believed he would become the next great head coach in the NFL. It was the same trap that Babe Ruth had fallen into during the mid-1930s. Ruth believed he could eat, drink, and chase women until dawn and still wind up a manager. He found out the hard way. “Ruth, you can’t even mange your own life,” Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert told him. “How can you manage a baseball team?”
Not a single NFL team was willing to roll the dice on Layne. He could not outrun his own reputation. His friendship with renowned football fixer Donald “Dice” Dawson had set in motion rumors that Layne bet on his team during the glory years of the 1950s. Dawson once admitted to fixing thirty games. There was no way that a competitor like Layne fixed games, but NFL players gambling on games in the 1950s was as common as helmets without face masks. Average salaries ranged from $8,000 to $10,000. Players could make mortgage money by betting on or against their own teams.
Layne’s friendship with Dawson was widely known. They spent time together in Detroit, and Dawson traveled to Lubbock during the off-season and stayed at Layne’s house.
During the late 1950s, Layne struck up a friendship with Green Bay running back Paul Hornung, who would be suspended by the NFL in 1963 for betting on games. Hornung and Layne were known for their carousing, and both loved to gamble. In a book titled Golden Boy that was published in 2004, Hornung wrote, “Bobby gambled more than anybody who ever played football, period. How did the league go all those years without ever getting him?”
Layne denied ever gambling on games. He wrote in his 1962 autobiography, Always on Sunday, “I know that I’ve been accused of gambling, especially when the team loses … But I would have to be crazy to endanger my livelihood for a few thousand dollars.”
The official crackdown on gambling began with the hiring of Pete Rozelle as the NFL commissioner in 1960. The game would have to be cleaned up if the league was ever to make megamillions off the TV networks. One of the first players to be summoned to Rozelle’s New York office to discuss gambling rumors was Layne. No action was ever taken against him, but the rumors still persisted.
As part of the cleansing, the commissioner suspended two of the league’s best players, Detroit tackle Alex Karras and Hornung. Ironically, Karras spent a good portion of his rookie training camp partying with Bobby Layne and learning the ropes.
Upon Layne’s retirement, the atmosphere was not right for his ascension to the head coaching ranks. When no one hired him, Layne took a part-time job with the Steelers, working the press-box phones and relaying information to coaches on the sideline. Not exactly the kind of job you would expect a two-time NFL championship quarterback to have.
For two long years, Layne did not receive a single call from an NFL owner. So he telephoned Buddy Parker, his former coach in Detroit and Pittsburgh, to ask why.
“Bobby, I hate to tell you this,” Parker said, “but Rozelle is trying to purify the game. You’re one helluva competitor, but you’ve got a bad reputation. Nobody is looking to hire you.”
Never in his life had Layne faced a challenge he could not conquer. He was the dogged street hustler. In the spring of 1964, though, Layne was on the outside looking in.
No one was surprised when he jumped at the chance to coach the Texas Big 33 all-star team. Men like Layne are forever searching for redemption. Old jocks do not readily adjust to life after football, especially when your name is Bobby Layne. He was pushing forty when he got his first coaching offer and a whopping $500 to lead the Texas high school all-stars into the biggest game of their lives.
Layne believed the Big 33 game before 25,000 fans at Hershey Stadium would be his ticket back to pro football. He visualized the national sporting press converging on Hershey for the single purpose of trumpeting his return to the national stage. He would buy the writers fresh drinks and regale them with old stories. Surely they would be smart enough to recognize the promise of his coaching prowess.
The Big 33 game was a grand experiment cooked up by a Harrisburg sportswriter and a team of promoters in central Pennsylvania. The Pennsys were pissed off that they were a distant third behind Texas in the most recent Sports Illustrated high school rankings. How could a state that had bred and reared such players as Joe Namath, John Unitas, and Johnny Lujack not be No. 1? The Pennsylvania promoters were itching to call out the Texans.
During the winter of 1963, the Pennsy organizers decided to contact Texas sportswriter Fred Cervelli and proffer a game. Cervelli was baffled to receive the Western Union wire, along with a phone call from Harrisburg Patriot-News sports editor Al Clark. Cervelli was just a small-town sportswriter from Orange, deep in the southeast corner of Texas. He was a kindhearted man without an arrogant bone in his body. He loved every high school kid he covered.
Clark asked Cervelli if he would pick the best thirty-three players in the state to represent Texas against Pennsylvania. He would also be in charge of hiring a head coach.
“I guess I can handle it,” Cervelli said. “But here’s my question for you, Al. Why didn’t you call one of the big-time writers from Houston or Dallas?”
“Because you know high school football better than anyone in Texas,” Clark said.
Having grown up in Texas, Cervelli could smell bullshit upwind or downwind. He knew Clark was not telling him the whole truth.
Without delay, Cervelli contacted Layne, his childhood hero, to ask if he would coach the team. The two had never met, but the sportswriter was certain that Layne was the right man for the job.
“Hell, yes, Fred, I’m your man,” Layne said.
To Layne, the Big 33 all-star game between Texas and Pennsylvania seemed larger than an NFL title game. He quickly picked Doak Walker, the Heisman Trophy winner at SMU in 1948, to be his No. 1 assistant. The two had been best friends since high school playing days at Highland Park High in Dallas and played together for several years in Detroit.
The giddiness of it all lasted two full days before Cervelli called Layne with the bad news. As it turned out, the Texans had been hornswoggled. The date of the Big 33 game, August 1, was the same as the Texas North-South All-Star Game. The Pennsylvanians had intentionally set the August 1 date to make sure the Texans would not be bringing their best players north. In effect, Layne would be coaching Texas’s junior varsity.
“Bobby,” Cervelli said to his new coach, “the Pennslvania promoters took advantage of me. I could smell a rat when they called. They already knew our all-star game was on August 1. I should have seen it coming. I’m real sorry, Bobby.”
“Hell, Fred, we all get caught with our panties down,” Layne said. “Your panties just happen to be bigger than most. Don’t worry, Freddie boy. We’ll still whip their asses with the fourth stringers if we have to.”
When the team traveled north in late July, Layne’s trademark cockiness never slept. He swaggered into his first press conference and said, “We came up here with our second stringers, but we’ll still whip these lard-ass boys from Pennsylvania. We’ve got speed and they don’t. Wait till those fat boys from Altoona see our quick little rabbits.”
On Layne’s roster was some decent talent. Still, his only blue-chipper was Palestine halfback David Dickey. (The town is pronounced Pal-uhsteen.) Layne had big plans for the swift, agile, and powerful Dickey until he tore two ligaments in his right knee on the first play of the game.
Layne’s playbook might have been thicker than a Baptist hymnal, but it was shredded before halftime. His pro-set passing offense was hapless without a strong-armed quarterback. Sports Illustrated writer Robert H. Boyle described the action as “three yards and a mushroom cloud.” He also wrote, “The teams played as though they were fighting over a bone instead of a ball.”
The Texans crossed the 6-yard line three times and came away with only 6 points. The game might have ended in a 6–6 tie if not for a breakdown in the Texas kicking game. With 5:30 to play, Texas punter Ken Hebert sent a high, 43-yard punt down the middle that was fielded by Ben Gregory at the 20-yard line. Gregory took two steps upfield, rammed into a Texas defender, then bounced to the outside. Gregory found his picket line of blockers down the left sideline and dashed 80 yards to the end zone.
After the game, Layne stormed off the field and dog-cussed everyone in his wake. The Hershey PA announcer bellowed, “Hey, Texas, do you want a rematch?”
Layne glared into the press box and wagged the dirty finger at the man. “Hell, yes!” he yelled. “We’ll be back next year with our real team!”
Layne would never forget the catcalls rumbling down from the overwhelmingly partisan crowd. The Hershey fans even blamed the Texas players for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy nine months earlier.
“Hey, Texas, you killed our president,” they yelled. Layne almost climbed into the stands, but Walker stopped him.
For weeks, Layne could barely sleep. The loss had been nothing short of blasphemy in a state where football outranked religion. Even more disheartening was the wild celebration in Hershey and the chest thumping that followed.
“We knew all along that we were the best football state in America, a lot better than those braggarts from Texas,” Pennsylvania governor William Scranton said.
No doubt, Texans had invented the art of full-blown bragging. So hearing a windbag like Scranton chattering on about planetary supremacy was a bit unsettling. Since the advent of the leather helmet, Texas had billed itself as the Cadillac of high school football.
Layne blamed himself for the defeat. “Doaker,” he said, “I feel so danged bad. Hell, I couldn’t coach frogs to jump.”
He promised himself that he would return in exactly one year with a better team and a superior game plan. He would win next time, even if it killed him.
Copyright © 2013 by Jim Dent