By Mike O'Hara
Even now, when they are together on the field to get their rightful recognition many games and seasons and years and decades removed from when they terrorized football’s trenches, there is something regal about the big men who thrived and survived in close-quarter competition.
Link by link, player by player, the men who forged the Detroit Lions’ long tradition of great defensive linemen are united in an unbreakable chain that joins them forever.
As they made plans to be honored at the traditional Alumni Day ceremonies during halftime of Sunday’s Lions-Saints game at Ford Field, the shared memories and experiences of this special group of men were so spectacularly good that they had to be true.
To be honored as one is to be recognized as a unit – a “Band of Brothers,” as the Lions’ current group of defensive linemen who form the foundation of the NFL’s top-ranked defense call themselves.
“You do feel a lot of camaraderie and affection with all the defensive linemen -- the ones before you and the ones after you,” said Doug English, a four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle on the “Silver Rush” line of the 1970s and ‘80s.
“You put a hundred ex-ballplayers in a room, and by the end of the night, all the defensive linemen will be in a corner together. To be able to be honored and line up with the best there’s been and have my name included with really fantastic athletes, it just feels good.
“Those are my guys.”
They are English’s guys, each other’s guys – and they belong to the fans who cheered them during their careers and again on Sunday.
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell has referred to defensive linemen as one of the units that are “the heartbeat of your team,” and the Lions made pulses race on opposing linemen who had to block them and quarterbacks and running backs who tried to evade them.
From Les Bingaman, a three-time All-Pro middle guard from 1948-54, to current All-Pro tackle Ndamukong Suh, and many more in between, they were groundbreakers, innovators and record-setters.
To pick one, or even a handful, as the best ever is like trying to pick a favorite snowflake from a Christmas Eve snowfall. All different, all great in their own right.
Roger Brown, Alex Karras, Darris McCord, Jerry Ball, Sam Williams, Bubba Baker, Luther Elliss, Robert Porcher, Tracy Scroggins, Les Bingaman, Larry Hand, Shaun Rogers, and William Gay and many others contributed to the Lions’ rich history.
They excelled individually, in combinations and in groups such as the “Silver Rush” of English’s era and the original “Fearsome Foursome” of the 1960s – made up of Brown, Karras, McCord and Williams -- which later gained greater fame when adopted by the Los Angeles Rams after Brown was acquired in a trade.
They were big in size, with big accomplishments that put them in the franchise record book for sacks – 5.5 in a game by Gay, 23 in a season by Baker and 95.5 in a career by Porcher.
They had big personalities, perhaps none grander than Karras – Alex the Actor, who went on to fame on the Monday Night Football announcing crew and a career in Hollywood before his death in 2012.
Brown was a central figure on Thanksgiving Day in 1962, when the Lions sacked Packers quarterback Bart Starr 11 times in a 26-14 revenge victory.
Brown, a five-time Pro Bowl tackle with the Lions before being traded to the Rams, was in on seven sacks, according to the official play-by-play kept for that game.
“We were determined to get to Bart Starr,” Brown said in an interview a few years ago. “I don’t think the German Luftwaffe could have stopped us that day.”
Brown was 6-5 and 300-pounds when the Lions drafted him in the fourth round in 1960 out of Maryland State – now Maryland Eastern Shore. In Brown’s day, some tackles were big and others were quick, but regarded by many as the NFL’s first quick, 300-pound defensive tackle.
Porcher is aware of some of the men who played before him, and he marvels at the way Brown and others of his era played.
“When you think about those guys and their sizes, and the time they played – they were men among boys,” he said.
For sheer size, no one was bigger than Bingaman, a middle guard on the old five-man line who played for the Lions from 1948-54. “Bing,” as he was known, was All-Pro three times on two of the Lions’ championship teams of the 1950s.
Old media guides list him anywhere from 5-11 and 260 pounds to 6-3 and 335. The truth probably does not lie in the middle, but somewhere north of 335.
According to legend – which old-time teammates of Bingaman’s have sworn is true – Bingaman was taken to a grain store in Ypsilanti for an accurate training-camp weigh-in. The Lions did not have a scale that went up to 350 pounds.
No defensive lineman exploded on the scene with the flair of Bubba Baker, a Lion from 1978-82 who played eight more NFL seasons after a trade in 1983. The NFL did not keep sacks as an official statistic until 1982, but Baker’s 23 as a rookie in 1978 were recorded on the backs of quarterbacks he knocked to the turf.
“To line up next to Bubba was to love him,” said English. “He was fearless. He was enthusiastic. As many sacks as he got and big plays he made, he was working just as hard as the rest of us on the defensive line so the linebackers were able to make plays, too.”
Jerry Ball was a team leader who dominated at nose tackle in the 3-4 defense under former head coach Wayne Fontes. Ball was as outspoken as he was good, and he was very, very good – as he demonstrated the time he vaulted the center-guard gap to drop Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson in the end zone for a safety in a 1991 game against the Colts.
Former Lions All-Pro offensive tackle Lomas Brown recalled the time Ball summoned coaches and teammates to the weight room at the Pontiac Silverdome when his level of conditioning had been questioned.
Wearing street clothes, Ball demanded that 400 pounds be put on the bar.
“He repped it 10 times, put it back up on the rack again and said, ‘Don’t every talk to me about working out,’” Brown recalled the other day.
“All of us were standing there with our mouths open.”
Porcher and Elliss benefitted from position change in 1996 – Porcher’s fourth year with the Lions and the second for Elliss. At Porcher’s suggestion in a meeting with the coaching staff, Porcher moved from tackle to end, and Elliss went inside to Porcher’s spot at tackle.
Both blossomed into Pro Bowl linemen.
“You look at my production – there’s just no comparison,” Porcher said. “The same thing for him, it changed everything. It changed my career instantly.”
Karras and Brown formed one of the best tackle combinations of their era. Karras was more flamboyant, and it was clear he was destined for Hollywood when after retirement as a player.
After making the Pro Bowl three straight seasons and All-Pro twice, Karras was suspended by the NFL in 1963 for betting on NFL games and associating with gamblers. During his hiatus from football, Karras wrestled professionally.
When he returned to the NFL in 1964, he showed his sense of irreverence and humor at midfield for the pre-game coin toss. When asked to call it, Karras declined.
“I’m sorry sir,” he told the ref. “I’m not allowed to gamble.”
Great line – and one more to add to the legend of great defensive linemen.