O'HARA: Remembering Mel Farr

Posted Aug 4, 2015

Mike O'Hara remembers former Lions running back Mel Farr, who passed away Monday night at the age of 70.

Mel Farr’s debut with the Detroit Lions provided a real-life action shot of the spectacular game-breaking skills the team and its fans hoped that the star running back would bring to the franchise.

Ironically and unfortunately, Farr would become known in later life more for the campy commercials that portrayed him as the “Mel Farr, Superstar” auto dealer than for his performance on the field because of injuries that hampered and ultimately ended his career prematurely.

Farr died Monday night at his home in Metro Detroit. His passing sent shock waves through former teammates. He was 70 and appeared in good health as recently as when he attended the funeral of former teammate and all-time Lions great Charlie Sanders.

Greg Landry, the Lions’ starting quarterback for much of Farr’s seven-year career as a Lion from 1967-73, was stunned to hear the news.

Mel FarrMel Farr (Photo: AP Images)

“That’s a shocker,” Landry said Tuesday morning. “He played hard when he was on the field. He always seemed to be a very educated man who was looking to better himself.

“That’s what he did. He used all the opportunities that were afforded to him, and he capitalized on them.”

Farr was the Lions’ first-round pick and the seventh choice overall in 1967 after a great career at UCLA. That draft also brought to the Lions eventual Hall of Fame cornerback Lem Barney, linebacker Paul Naumoff and safety Mike Weger.

In drafting Farr, the Lions had added what was projected to be the co-star in the “Dream Backfield.”

In the 1966 draft, the Lions had taken running back Nick Eddy of Notre Dame as a future pick. Eddy did not join the Lions until 1967.

“The Dream Backfield” seemed like a reality when the Lions opened the preseason against the Buffalo Bills on a steamy August night at Tiger Stadium.

There was high anticipation for the game because of what Farr and Eddy were projected to bring to Detroit, and they did not disappoint.

Farr capped off the game’s first possession with a 38-yard touchdown reception. Farr caught Mile Plum’s pass at the 16-yard line and raced into the end zone.

That was the first shot in a double-barreled volley of rare exhibition-season drama.

The Lions’ defense held on Buffalo’s first possession, forcing a punt.

Eddy fielded the ensuing punt at his 25, made a sharp cut to avoid a wave of tacklers and raced 75 yards for a touchdown.

It was only an exhibition game, but the stars of the Dream Backfield had the town buzzing.

However, the Dream Backfield ultimately proved to be just that – a dream.

Eddy missed all of his rookie season because of the first in a series of injuries that would torpedo his career. He was limited to 29 games and eight starts over five seasons (1968-72) and accumulated only 523 yards rushing and 237 receiving.

Despite his own battles with injuries, Farr’s career was substantially more successful than Eddy’s. He rushed for 3,072 yards and 26 touchdowns and caught 146 passes for 1,374 yards and 10 TDs.

Farr made the Pro Bowl twice – in his rookie season, when he also was Offensive Rookie of the Year, and again in the 1970 season, when the Lions made the playoffs with a 10-4 record.

Farr was a popular personality in Detroit as a player, and well before “Mel Farr, Superstar” commercials hit the TV air waves.

Farr and Barney became friends with the late Marvin Gaye, who had reached star status as a singer by the time they got to Detroit together in 1967. Farr and Barney sang backup vocals on the hit “What’s Going On.”

Farr was a four-sport star at Herbert High School in Beaumont, Texas. It was a hot bed of prep talent, and Farr was one of the stars.

He came from a football family. His brother, Miller Farr, played defensive back for nine NFL seasons and finished his career as Mel’s teammate in Detroit in 1973.

Mel had two sons and two daughters. His wife, Jasmine, is expecting a daughter.

Mel’s two sons – Mel Jr. and Mike – played in the NFL after following in their father’s footsteps to UCLA.

Mel Jr. was drafted by Denver in 1988 and played briefly as a running back for the Rams in 1989.

Mike made the Lions in 1990 as an undrafted rookie and spent three seasons in Detroit before signing with New England in 1993, the first year of free-agency in the NFL.

Mike played 42 games with 30 starts and had 69 catches for 716 yards and a touchdown. His best season was 1991 when he caught 42 passes for 431 yards and a touchdown, playing all 16 games with 12 starts. He had five catches in the playoff victory over Dallas and six in the loss to Washington in the NFC Championship.

Mel Farr Sr. played his entire career in a 14-game schedule, which made reaching the 1,000-yard mark a more difficult chore than in the current 16-game schedule.

Farr often was among the league leaders in key categories.

His rookie rushing total of 860 yards was the highest of his career and ranked him eighth in the league on the rushing list that season. In 1970 he was 11th with 717 yards and tied for second in rushing touchdowns with nine, despite missing two games.

In 1968 Farr averaged 15.6 yards per catch on 24 receptions. Only two backs with 20 or more catches had a higher average – John David Crow (31 catches, 17.1-yard average) and Billy Cannon (23 catches, 15.7-yard average).

Farr’s tenure with the Lions and his career ended without fanfare after the 1973 season. He was notified in the offseason that he had been traded to the Houston Oilers (since relocated to Tennessee).

Although he was born in Beaumont, Farr chose to retire rather than to continue his career with his home-state. Injuries had caught up to him, forcing him to leave football at the age of 29.

Farr had an eye to the future early in his pro career. He attended night classes at Wayne State University after practice to finish work on his degree that he started when he was at UCLA.

After football he pursued business interests as an auto dealer, opening Mel Farr Ford on 8 Mile Rd. in Oak Park in 1975. His business expanded over the next two decades to the point where by the late 1990s his auto enterprise was the top African-American-owned business in the United States.

Farr encountered legal problems with customers. He eventually settled their claims and sold his dealership interests in 2002. They were closed down.

It was a sad and tawdry ending to what had been a stunning success story for a football player who made himself a highly regarded entrepreneur, but his accomplishments as a player stand apart from his business failures.

From one shining night in the summer of 1967 when Mel Farr first stepped on a playing field for the Lions through his final game in the winter of 1973 and the commercials that followed in his business pursuits, “Mel Farr, Superstar” was an iconic brand that has endured for many in Metro Detroit.

In the starring role of the “Dream Backfield,” Mel Farr brought the dream to life.