On Dec. 29, 1957, the Detroit Lions barreled to an NFL Championship, defeating the Cleveland Browns 59-14 in the title game on a cold day in Detroit.
That day it was easy, but it had been an uphill battle for those Lions, losing star quarterback Bobby Layne late in the season with a broken ankle. In the playoff game to get to the championship game, the Lions trailed 27-7 in the third quarter, with journeyman Tobin Rote at quarterback, on the road against San Francisco. The Lions roared (pun heavily intended) back with a 24-0 run to win 31-27.
It was the Lions’ third title that decade, a magical decade in Detroit, and there seemed no sign the good times would end.
Sixty four years later, the Lions have won one playoff game since that title game romp.
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Detroit was a remarkable city in the 1950s, the car capital of the world, one of the richest cities in the world, fresh off its role as the “Arsenal of Democracy,” turning those automobile factories into war production, building plans faster than the enemies could shoot them down. There were certainly labor issues and racial issues that would later explode in the city, but many poor people used jobs at those factories to climb to the middle class, to send kids to college. Detroit was a city of great possibility in the 1950s, a top five city in the US by population.
Today, possibility is maybe not the word most used to describe Detroit. It’s not the caricature of decay often portrayed, but there’s no denying the city fell hard as much of the money left the city and the Big Three carmakers hit tough times. Only one state lost population from the 2000 Census to the 2010 Census: Michigan. Detroit has been mocked and maligned and largely forgotten in American consciousness, barely a blip behind Chicago when people think about cities between the coasts and north of Texas. The use of Detroit as the paragon of urban decay and decline is not without some merit.
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The Lions have been the drumbeat of decline, of futility, of a bleak future; the wrong kind of embodiment of a city. In 2008 as the Great Recession hit and nailed Detroit in particular, the Lions became the first NFL team to go 0-16, failing to deliver even a single win to the city as its woes mounted. By 2014, Detroit declared bankruptcy.