Pride of the Lions

Posted Nov 22, 2009


They didn't come to Detroit as heralded first-round draft picks but Lem Barney, Yale Lary, Charlie Sanders and Joe Schmidt ended their Lions careers as four of the finest players to wear a Detroit uniform.

Sunday, those four joined eight other former Lions greats as the charter class of Pride of the Lions, a permanent stadium display honoring the best players in team history.

"It's something that's been talked about for quite a while, given the rich tradition that we have," said Lions president Tom Lewand. "There are a number of great players, guys who are in Canton (the Pro Football Hall of Fame), and it made sense to do it.

"We talked about it a little bit when we opened the stadium in 2002 and we discussed it again last year on our 75th anniversary. We felt now was the right time to do it and we were thrilled to have four of the members with us today."

Each of the great eras in Lions history are represented.  Dutch Clark and Alex Wojciechowicz played in the 1930s after the team moved from Portsmouth, Ohio. Clark led the Lions to their first NFL Championship in 1935.

Detroit dominated the NFL in the 1950s and Jack Christiansen, Lou Creekmur, Lary, Schmidt, Bobby Layne and Doak Walker were a major part of the Lions' success during those glory years.

The Green Bay Packers were the only team better than the Lions in the early 1960s when Night Train Lane was a fixture in the Detroit secondary.

Schmidt coached the Lions to a playoff berth in 1970 and two of the stalwarts of that squad were Barney and Charlie Sanders.  And when Detroit had some exciting offensive teams in the 1990s, Barry Sanders was a big part of that.

Those are the select dozen. Being honored by the organization each of them was a big part of was special.

"It touches your heart," Schmidt said. "I came here as a youngster in 1953 and nobody expected me to make the team. The good Lord blessed me to be on championship teams and to be able to coach. It's been a great blessing for me and a wonderful life."

Schmidt figured that being a member of Pride of the Lions is a fitting cap to an outstanding career as one of the great middle linebackers to play the game.

"I'm 78," he said. "I think this is going to be the last (honor). It's hard to explain what it means. I don't want to belittle the ones that I had before, but being here in Detroit and being honored on one specific day because you were an outstanding football player, before all the fans and my family -- I really don't know how to explain it."

Lary was one of the best cornerbacks and punters to play the game.

"This shows the tradition of the game," he said. "It's a privilege for me to be a part of that tradition of one of the greatest sports in the world. I'm proud to be a part of it and proud to be a Detroit Lion. It's a great city, a great sports city."

Charlie Sanders never dreamed that he would one day be recognized as one of the best players to play for the Lions.

"You couldn't script my life any better than what I've been involved in," Sanders said. "I've won ever since I got here in 1968. This is very special to me. I'm still here and I'm part of a great organization. We might not be winning now like the fans want, but it's still a great organization with some great people. I'm hoping we can get it done like the fans want it done. That would be icing on the cake."

Sanders didn't play football until he was in the 10th grade. He didn't follow the sport as a youngster, either.

"We didn't have a television," he said. "I used to watch the old Washington Redskins once in a while at a neighbor's house, but never did I ever think I'd be here today, doing this."

Barney was taken aback when the Lions drafted him in the second round out of Jackson State in 1967. He felt that he was destined to play for Dallas or San Francisco, or maybe even the New York Giants.

"I thought I'd be a Cowboy or a 49er," Barney said. "They scouted me for four years at Jackson State and the scouts told me I'd be a Cowboy or a 49er. The Lions took me in the second round in 1967, I gave it all I had and I'm still here."

Barney said he took the advice his mother gave him as a youngster.

"My mom always told me, 'once a job is once begun, never leave it till it's done,' and 'do it well or not at all,'" Barney said. "That's always been a part of me, so everything I ever went into I tried to give it my best with every step."

Schmidt and Lary had some bittersweet feelings about Sunday's ceremony. They wished that some of their old teammates would have been alive to share the moment.

"Unfortunately, some of them aren't here today," Schmidt said. "Bobby Layne, one of the greatest of all time, Jack Christiansen, Night Train Lane, Doak Walker. All of those guys were great playmakers. I considered myself a good football player. To me, they were EXCELLENT football players. There's a difference. They could give you the big play. That's what you need to win. They were always there all the time."

Lary said that having so many of his former teammates missing put the only damper on the day.

"A lot of them that I played with aren't here anymore," he said. "That's sad, but it's good to have them remembered. It's something their sons and daughters and other relatives can really appreciate."

Having the Cleveland Browns as the Lions opponent on Sunday, brought back memories for Schmidt and Lary. Detroit and Cleveland met in the NFL Championship game four times during the 1950s and the Lions won three of those contests.

"We had a lot of good games against the Browns," Schmidt recalled. "It was a great rivalry. They had great players like Dante Lavelli, Otto Graham and Jimmy Brown. Regardless of what the record was, it was a brawl."

Lary remembered fondly the battles with the Browns -- until Brown came on the scene in 1957.

"We had a good record against Cleveland when I played against them," he said. "We beat them three times for the World Championship. But Jim Brown was the toughest running back I ever played against, no doubt about it."

Lewand said that there's no timetable for adding more names to the Pride of the Lions, but he was confident there would be more joining the original 12.

"There will be others," he said. "It's not something we'll do lightly. The criteria has to be stringent, but we've got other who are already deserving and hopefully, we've got some guys on the field today that will become deserving of it."