Joe Schmidt is in the pro football Hall of Fame. He is known as “Mr. Detroit Lion” and in 1963 he was George Plimpton’s teammate.
Schmidt, who played linebacker for 13 NFL seasons, was the defensive team leader for Detroit when Plimpton went to training camp as a 36-year-old rookie – and last string quarterback – out of Harvard.
Plimpton bumbled at quarterback in an exhibition game, but went on to write about the experience in the bestselling book Paper Lion. Later that season, Schmidt went to his 10th and final Pro Bowl of his 13-year career. In 1968, Schmidt played the team’s head coach in the movie version of Paper Lion.
During their road trip to Detroit, Plimpton! documentary filmmakers Tom Bean and Luke Poling sat down with Schmidt to talk about Plimpton and the Paper Lion experience. Schmidt let Bean and Poling know exactly what it was like to have Plimpton enter the locker room fraternity. Schmidt offered an honest – football player’s – take on what Plimpton was like as a quarterback. He gave perspective on what Paper Lion and George’s writing meant to professional football back then.
Joe Schmidt: We practiced at the Cranbrook School, a very nice facility. The Lions had probably been practicing there previous to George coming on the team, probably eight, nine years. And it was just a normal training camp. Lots of hard work. Cranbrook was about as nice a training camp as you could come across. Training camp is preparation for the season, and trying out rookies who were coming onto the team. You develop your offense, you develop your defense, so it’s everyday hard work, that requires a lot of physical labor.
Generally in the mornings, you go without pads, just a helmet and shoulder pads. And the afternoon practice, we usually got on the field between 3 and 5:30, with full equipment. The afternoon is the time you usually do your hitting.
Filmmakers: Can you talk about your team that year? What were your fellow players like?
JS: Oh boy, well . . . We had a group of guys that you look for in football, character-wise, loyalty-wise and as far as work ethic is concerned. Some of them, me included, were a little short on talent, but they worked to the best of their ability. They were team oriented. They had come through the years of previous Lion teams, and it was very important that we carry that position on with the Lions. That was something that was important for winning football. We had Willy Walker, Dick LeBeau, of course Alex Karras… Derrus McCord, Roger Brown, Nick Petrasani, Terry Barr, Ron Kramer… So we had a cast of characters, you might say.
Filmmakers: And then Plimpton, this new quarterback joins and begins to practice with the team. George had asked the coaches not to tell the team that he was a reporter, that he was just another guy trying out. When did you guys begin to realize that things weren’t right with the new guy?
JS: Well, I didn’t even know he was around, to tell you the truth. A couple days passed and he sort of surfaced. George sort of snuck in without too much fanfare. He tried to blend in with the rest of the team, but after a while you could just see that George wasn’t much of an athlete. He had difficulty with a lot of things. Going down at training camp, and going down to the every day workouts and so forth, he had a little difficulty with that. I don’t think he was in very good shape when he got there. But you know after the first couple of practices, everybody looked around and wondered who this new guy was, and ultimately it got out that he was there for that particular reason, to write a book. Everybody opened their arms and welcomed him into the organization.
Filmmakers: Do you remember how you guys figured it out?
JS: Ah, well you don’t have to be a Rhodes Scholar to figure that one out. You’re in training camp and you’re all pretty good football players, and George comes along, and he’s sort of emaciated looking, you know he’s not too physical of a specimen. And he couldn’t throw the ball more than 15 yards. And he had a gait or a running ability of a…. you could pick that out that he wasn’t much of an athlete. So, as a result you’d have to say “well, this is the guy that they’re talking about. This is what he’s here for, to write a book.” So it was a matter of rumor, but you could tell just by his physical ability.
Filmmakers: George said in Paper Lion that he thought the giveaway was that he didn’t know how to take a snap.
JS: Well yeah, that was another thing. I think he almost broke a couple of his fingers when he first started doing it. There’s no big mystery about taking a snap under center, but if you’ve never had the opportunity to do it, it can be kind of difficult. That was one of the things that sort of tipped everybody off – this guy’s a quarterback and he can’t even take a snap from the center.
Filmmakers: What did Plimpton look like on the field?
JS: Well, George was fairly tall and not very muscular at all, in fact I don’t think he had any muscles at all, just sort of straight up and down. You wouldn’t go by George, with his shorts and football shoes and t-shirt on, and say, “boy this guy is one hell of a specimen.” You’d look and say, “well, what the hell is this guy doing here?” He looked like a schoolteacher or something like that, from some school out East. He had that look of an Eastern type guy. So it was easy to determine that he wasn’t one of us.
Filmmakers: Did he take a lot of notes?
JS: You know I never saw him take notes, I never saw him carry a notebook of any nature. Maybe he did in the evening when he went back to his room. But I never saw him actually write anything down.
Filmmakers: Can you talk a little bit about the team’s reaction, once they found out what he was writing a book about his experience there?
JS: First of all, at that particular time there wasn’t anybody out writing books about pro football. If there were, there may have been a couple, but not any that changed the image of professional football, I don’t think. You might have Sports Illustrated or sports books, giving the rundown of the team and so forth, but there wasn’t anything in depth that had a story. There wasn’t anything in depth that would make sense to an ordinary guy that would buy a book.
Filmmakers: Did the team accept him?
JS: Oh yeah, sure. After a while, they went out and got drunk a couple times… Oh yeah, they accepted George very easily. George is the kind of guy that could go anyplace and fit in. He could be with royalty, he could be with politicians, he could be with the common guy, football players, anybody and George would fit in. He had no difficulty in doing that. After you got to know George, after your first meeting or two, you know, he was just like your old buddy.
Filmmakers: The Lions were known for playing pranks on each other, and especially on new players, to kind of induct them into the fold. What did you guys do to him?
JS: They had these lead weights that they put in shoes to condition people, to make your feet heavier when you’re running and jogging. They put weights in his shoes for a full practice and he fell for that old trick. After practice, I saw him take the things out. He looked a little bewildered, but the guys really enjoyed that. Some of them were sitting around and laughing.
Filmmakers: What did he look in his football uniform? In his pads and his helmet?
JS: (Laughs) Not too much, I mean, again, he wouldn’t turn anybody’s head in his uniform. I don’t think anything fit him properly for his size. Everything just hung on him like a hat rack or a coat rack. He just didn’t look like he should be in a football uniform. He didn’t give you the impression that he was a football player.
Filmmakers: George participated in all these sports to take readers “inside the huddle,” is the phrase he always used. When you read Paper Lion, do you think he did that with the NFL?
JS: He did a pretty good job. He had as good as any information that came out at the time pertaining to the National Football League. Being that he had the opportunity to actually do it, he had more credence, and he was able to put it down in writing better than anybody that I recall.
Filmmakers: As an accomplished athlete yourself, what is your reaction to an amateur coming and playing with the Lions?
JS: At first I thought here goes training camp; we’re going to have so much distraction here, it’s going to take away from our trying to become a good football team. I don’t know why the coaches are doing it. Is this a big joke? What are they trying to accomplish with this guy coming? Was he sent by the National Football League? Does the Commissioner know he’s here? You know all those questions came up.
I just thought it would be such a big distraction, because you know training camp is intense; its going to be hard work; everybody has got to know why you’re there. Training camp becomes very difficult at times. It becomes very monotonous, and laborious and difficult. So his being there sort of took the edge off of training camp, and it made it more enjoyable. And you, know, everybody always had something to say about it every day, and something different would happen every day, so as a result, it made it a little bit different. It really didn’t distract from our intensity, or what we were trying to accomplish. I think it helped as opposed to taking anything away.
Filmmakers: Did you remain friends with him after his time on the team?
JS: Oh yeah, sure. He would always make it a point to come to at least one game a year. He always kept in touch with some of the guys. It was an ongoing relationship that he, he would turn up on the road or something. It was a relationship that extended far beyond the book.
Filmmakers: Let’s move ahead to the 40th reunion of that Paper Lion team. Do you remember how that came about, or how you found out about it?
JS: Well, I think the Lions were instrumental in doing that; they were the ones responsible for it. They brought ball players in to celebrate, and they brought George naturally in. It was a good idea, and we had a lot of fun, and it was like a lot of reunions. It was a little stiff at first until everybody got back in the groove again. Of course George was himself, very relaxed, very easy, very able to move around, and able to pick up the pieces where we left off. Everybody enjoyed it.
Filmmakers: Could you talk a little bit about the day, what it was like? There was a halftime ceremony and you guys were introduced one at a time?
JS: When the movie came out and it was premiered here in Detroit. People here in Detroit knew more about the movie. They knew more about the book. They knew more about George Plimpton and his relationship with the Detroit Lions. As a result, people, the day of the game with the reunion, understood what the Lions were trying to accomplish. It was not taking anything away from the game, it was a little something different, but it was related to the Lions’ history and the tradition of the Lions. I think it fit in very well and I think he enjoyed it.
Filmmakers: How did the fans treat George?
JS: People still talk about him. Sometimes I think that the fans almost really do think that he played for the Lions, and he was one of the Detroit Lions from years ago. I think that book and that movie, and in fact I go around now, and once in a while people will say “yeah, I saw Paper Lion on TV the other night. You look like you guys had a lot of fun.”
Filmmakers: George was a lot of things to so many different people. Who was he to you, how would you describe him?
JS: To me, I enjoyed George very much because he was such an easy guy to be with, such an easy guy to enjoy, and I really respected his ability to write. I was in awe of his ability to write all the books he wrote. It was to me a great accomplishment, and he always had humor involved in it. I don’t think George ever took himself too seriously, and that’s what he presented himself to all us ball players and all his friends. As far as my personal relationship with him, I enjoyed him very much. I’d been with him in New York for dinner and so forth, and it was something that I always looked forward to because he always had something new to talk about, something that was exciting and so forth. And I think his whole life revolved around the various activities that he got involved in.
Filmmakers: What do you think made him different?
JS: I don’t know… just… his personality. I think basically he’s just a good guy, who loved what he was doing something that gave him joy, and of course a lot of us don’t have that opportunity. And he was good at it. There wasn’t any bit of ego in his whole body as far as I was concerned.
Filmmakers: In your opinion, what do you think motivated him? What do you think made him join the Lions, join the Celtics, join the Bruins?
JS: He was a storyteller and he loved to write. He enjoyed sports, athletics, and I think it was just a big challenge for him. What he produced was first hand information coming from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.