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This will not sit well with Detroit Lions fans, but the team actually owes its origins to the state of Ohio. The franchise began in 1928 as the Portsmouth Spartans, a small city in southern Ohio on the banks of the Ohio River, and joined the NFL in 1930. They were decent on the field, winning 11 games in 1931 and six games each in 1932 and 1933.
Off the field, however, the Spartans were a financial mess and were actually paying players by giving them ownership shares. The saving grace came in 1934 when the owner of WJR radio in Detroit bought the Spartans for $8,000 and moved the team to Michigan. He named the team the Lions as a nod to the Detroit baseball team, the Tigers, but also because, as owner George Richards said, the new team would be “king of the NFL.” And while the kingly results haven’t come recently, Richards was right about ruling the NFL in the early days. In their inaugural season of 1934, the Lions won their first 10 games, recording seven shutouts. But they lost their final three games and finished in second place. However, the next year, 1935, the Lions became the kings of the NFL jungle.
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The Detroit Lions are a professional American football team based in Detroit, Michigan. The team plays in the National Football League (NFL) as a member of the NFC North division. The Lions have a long history, with a tradition of tough, hard-nosed football and a passionate fan base.
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Championships by the Detroit Lions
1935 NFL Championship
The Giants had been to three straight championship games and were the defending NFL champs. The Lions were in just their second season in Detroit. None of the history mattered as the Lions scored two first-quarter touchdowns on their way to an easy 26-7 win.
The Tigers won the World Series in October, and a few months later, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. For the first and only time, one city was the reigning champion in three major sports. It’s also noteworthy for Detroiters that at the time, Joe Louis was the heavyweight boxing champion.
1952 NFL Championship
In 1952 the Tigers lost 100 games. But the Red Wings were still great, and so were the Lions, winners of the NFL Championship with a 17-7 victory over Cleveland. It was a clash of future Hall of Famers, with Bobby Layne and Doak Walker leading the Lions, against Paul Brown and Otto Graham. Both Layne and Walker had touchdowns, Graham was held in check by a great Detroit defense, and the Lions had their first championship in 17 years.
1953 NFL Championship
For the fourth consecutive year, the Browns were in the championship game, and for the second straight year, they would come up short against the Lions. It was a finish for the ages, as the Lions drove 80 yards in eight plays in the final four minutes of the game, snatching the victory with a 33-yard touchdown pass from Bobby Layne to Jim Doran. A last gasp by the Browns resulted in an Otto Graham interception, and the Lions were back-to-back champs.
1957 NFL Championship
The Lions got back to the championship game in 1954, but that time the Browns prevailed, 56-10. In 1957, and for the fourth time in six years. Detroit vs. Cleveland was once again the matchup. And to make up for their embarrassing defeat in ‘54, the Lions walloped the Browns 59-14. Detroit’s 59 points is the second-most scored in NFL Championship Game or Super Bowl history, only trailing the 73 points scored by Chicago in 1940.
Key Stats by the Detroit Lions
While the Lions have four NFL Championship Game wins and three wins that came in a six-season period, since that 1957 victory over the Browns, the Lions have won only once more in the postseason – a Divisional Round win over the Cowboys following the 1991 season.
The Lions have four conference championships, four division championships (the last coming in 1993), and they’ve appeared in the playoffs a total of 21 times. The NFL’s Thanksgiving Day tradition was born in Detroit in 1934, and the Lions have played on Thanksgiving every year since.
Top Players in Detroit Lions History
For a team that had so much success in the 1950s, it’s not surprising that the majority of Detroit Lions in the Pro Football Hall of Fame come from that era. Bobby Layne won three titles as the quarterback of the Lions and was inducted into the HOF in 1967. Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker was a two-time champ with Detroit. Dick Stanfel and Lou Creekmur were on the offensive line, Jack Christiansen and Yale Lary were defensive backs, and linebacker Joe Schmidt was an eight-time First-Team All-Pro to go along with his two championships in the 1950s.
Earlier players include center and linebacker Alex Wojciechowicz, quarterback Dutch Clark, and halfback Bill Dudley. Alex Karras, who became an actor after football, dominated the 1960s. So did Dick “Night Train” Lane – a seven-time First-Team All-Pro, and cornerback Dick LeBeau, who later coached in the NFL. Defensive back Lem Barney and tight end Charlie Sanders both made seven Pro Bowls, starring for the Lions in the 1970s. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson, who holds the single-season receiving yards record, was inducted in the Hall of Fame of 2021. And of course, there is Barry Sanders, a Heisman Trophy winner, an NFL MVP, a two-time Offensive Player of the Year, a 2,000-yard rusher, and a 10-time Pro Bowler. He is the greatest Detroit Lions player in history and one of the best ever in the NFL.
Top Coaches in Detroit Lions History
While the Lions have had plenty of great players, they are thin in the coaching ranks. The all-time leader in wins as a Lions head coach is Wayne Fontes with 66. But he ended his tenure in Detroit with a losing record, 66-67. He did, however, win NFL Coach of the Year in 1991. The 1950s championship seasons were broken up among coaches, with Buddy Parker at the helm for the first two (1952, 1953) and George Wilson as the head coach for the last one (1957). Wilson is one of only three coaches in Lions history to coach for more than 100 games, and he has the highest career-winning percentage of the three (.538).
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