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Sundays with Sacco: Broncos have deep roots with Lions

One of the great things about the NFL scheduling system is that, due to the number of teams and two conferences, teams do not play those from the rival conference more than every few years.

This potentially makes those games more special for fans.

With that in mind, the Denver Broncos have a history with the Detroit Lions that is deeper than most know, and the Lions themselves have a pedigree far greater than what is represented by the most recent seasons of play.

The "modern era" has the Lions as the only team in the NFC never to have played in the Super Bowl, and the Broncos and Lions have faced each other just 11 times previously (in the regular season), with Denver having a 6-5 edge.

But the rest of the story, the part most younger or more recent fans might not know, is as follows.

The Broncos play the Lions in Detroit on Sunday night (everybody knows that, as the commercial says)--but did you know it is not our first national game in Detroit?

The Broncos played a Thanksgiving Day game at old, venerable Tiger Stadium in 1974, a 31-27 Denver win, then also played on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit in my rookie year, 1978, and we lost, 17-14.

The biggest difference in those two games was the Lions were playing in The Silverdome by 1978; conditions were awful due to torrential rain, and before we ever left the hotel, defensive coordinator Joe Collier lamented to me that the mud was perfect for our great defense--but alas, there was no mud indoors. Our defense was neutralized, and the Lions won.

Now, the Lions and Broncos will play in Ford Field.

But the Lions history indoors is actually of the "can you top this?" variety, and no team can, for they played in the very first indoor game in NFL history, and it was for the league title as well.

The Lions began life as the Portsmouth Spartans and played the first major indoor football game and the first "unofficial" title game, in Chicago vs. the Bears in 1932, losing 9-0.

There was no official league title game back in those days, but the two teams both had great regular seasons and it was agreed they would play this one final game for supremacy.

But . . .

There had been a tremendous snowstorm in Chicago, and they just could not get all the snow out of Soldier Field, so Bears owner/coach George Halas suggested they play the game indoors in Chicago Stadium, and all parties agreed.

But . . .

The circus had just left Chicago, having performed for a full week in Chicago Stadium. You know, circuses, elephants, elephant residue.

Halas was good-naturedly cursed by more than one player when they saw the field that had been set up, but they adjusted the field dimensions a bit, dodged and dashed through the unique playing surface, and the Lions and Bears made pro football history with the first indoor game, and for the championship no less.

The Lions have a nice uniform, and one of the best color names in pro sport, as their blue is officially known as "Honolulu Blue." Way back when, the Lions' CEO and a player chose it for the waves in Hawaii. I do not know the specific Detroit connection to Hawaii, but it is a nice look.

Despite the current record that includes limited playoff success, the Lions were a powerhouse franchise in the 1950s, winning three NFL championships, including one in 1957 after head coach Buddy Parker quit at the team's civic kickoff luncheon, announcing he "could no longer control this team."

They appointed George Wilson as head coach and rambled through the schedule, thumping the immortal Cleveland Browns in the title game by a 59-14 score.

Along the way, defensive coordinator Buster Ramsey invented the blitz. And when you are the first team blitzing the passer, you can create some real devastation. Which they did.

Featuring two extremely good receiving groups and quarterbacks, Sunday's Broncos vs. Lions matchup will contain these five important battles.

And when the American Football League was formed and Buffalo was one of the franchises, Detroit resident and Bills owner Ralph Wilson looked no farther than his own city of residence for a head coach, hiring Ramsey as the first Buffalo head coach.

Denver connections to the Lions are more than you might think.

When the merger of the NFL and AFL took place and the two leagues first began playing each other in preseason games, the previously woeful Broncos actually became the first AFL team to defeat an NFL team, in a preseason (they still called them exhibitions then) game at the University of Denver Hilltop Stadium.

I was there and the night was truly electric. Fans carried the Broncos head coach off the field on their shoulders. It was really a fantastic moment at that moment in time.

Of course, that "out of control" 1957 Lions team was personified by quarterback Bobby Layne, a future Hall of Famer who was the last quarterback to never wear a facemask. He was one of those guys who studied the playbook by the light of a jukebox.

Also on those teams was Doak Walker, who would finish his career in player personnel and as a coach for the Broncos in 1966.

Doak resided in Steamboat Springs, Colo., until his death, and I am not going to go into his career notations here, as anything I write would be too little and insulting to the history of this great player who made Colorado his home. Another time, perhaps very soon, but not now.

Also on that Detroit team was Jack Christiansen, a tremendous defensive back and punt returner, also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, who had played his college football at Colorado A&M back before Aggies grew into Rams.

Another Lion with a Colorado connection was Earl "Dutch" Clark, who had played at Colorado College.

And how good was Dutch Clark for the Lions? When the Hall of Fame was first created, and they named the very first class of 17 to open the doors of the Hall, Dutch Clark was in that class of 17.

This is not a shot at you or me, but our ignorance of these guys is a reflection on us, not on their lack of greatness.

One more Lions Hall of Famer with a Bronco connection makes me cringe. Curley Culp, the great nose tackle, played part of his career in Detroit on his way to the Hall.

He had been the Broncos' top draft choice in the second round in 1968, but Lou Saban stubbornly insisted that Culp move to guard, which the rookie was adamantly against.

It became such a standoff that Saban traded Culp to Kansas City before he ever played a game, and Curley Culp stayed on defense and went on to have a Hall of Fame career with the Chiefs and Lions. But now that is a part of Broncos history and pretty easy to accept considering the great success which Broncos Country has enjoyed for the last 43 years.

In that time span, Denver has the NFL's best combination of most Super Bowl appearances (seven) and fewest losing seasons (also seven).

And while the history of the Broncos and Lions is not extensive on the playing field, the two franchises have connections rooted in the history and lore of pro football.

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