By Bill Dow
Growing up in Detroit in the 1960s I worshipped the Lions.
This was a squad that included the original “Fearsome Foursome” of Alex Karras, Roger Brown, Darris McCord, and Sam Williams, future Hall of Famers Joe Schmidt, Yale Lary, Dick Lebeau, Dick “Night Train” Lane, and All-Pro receiver Gail Cogdill.
When Paper Lion came out, I, as a sixth grader, devoured it. It took me to a place I dreamed of going – inside the locker room and lives of my heroes. I went on to reread it more than once as an adult.
But I never thought I would share cocktails with George Plimpton and drink in stories from the man who brought us Paper Lion. I never thought I would play an integral role in honoring George.
I would like to share with you one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. I had the pleasure of spending time with George on his very last weekend at the Paper Lion reunion in Detroit, an idea that I proposed to him out of the blue in July of 2002.
As a freelance writer based in the Motor City, I have often looked for an anniversary hook for potential articles. In the summer of 2002, it dawned on me in that the following year would be the 40th anniversary of the 1963 Detroit Lions training camp that George had participated in as a “rookie” quarterback from Harvard.
Inspired by Plimpton’s adventurous approach to life, I summoned the courage to dial The Paris Review, the literary magazine he edited since its inception in 1953.
“Hello, may I please speak with George Plimpton.”
“Let me try him,” the receptionist said.
The next thing I heard was “hello” announced in that distinctive, aristocratic sounding accent.
I was blown away that George was so accessible, and open to a complete stranger.
My heart was pounding.
After introducing myself, and telling him of the purpose of my call, George said he would be delighted to reunite the following year for a 40th anniversary reunion of the ’63 Lions team.
He encouraged me and said, “keep me posted.” He even gave me his email address to keep in touch. The address was Hadada@inch.com. (Only later did I learn that George, a famous bird watcher, loved the odd looking hadada that roamed Sub-Sahara Africa with a loud call of “haa-haa-haa-de-dah.”)
I then called former Lion Tom Nowatzke, the President of the Detroit Lions Alumni Association, who loved the idea. As revealed in Paper Lion, George actually had the honor of announcing Nowatzke’s name as the Lions’ number one pick at the 1965 NFL draft. Nowatzke appeared in the movie version of Paper Lion and when George played on the Colts for his book Mad Ducks and Bears Nowatzke was his teammate.
Off-and-on for the next eleven months, Nowatzke and I worked with the Lions’ Community Relations Director Tim Pendell and others to put together the Paper Lion Reunion Weekend that included a halftime ceremony during the Lions-Minnesota Vikings game at Ford Field.
Just a few weeks before the event, and in true storybook fashion, a most remarkable treasure was uncovered.
I was interviewing Mark Glenn, the Lions equipment manager, at the team’s headquarters in Allen Park for an unrelated article. It was a feature story on the evolution of the Lions uniform. I mentioned to Mark that I was working on the reunion and said it would be nice if customized Lions throwback jerseys could be given to each player to wear on the field.
Mark led me into another room where there was a huge equipment trunk with the words stenciled on the side, “Briggs Stadium/Property of the Detroit Lions.” The Lions played at Briggs Stadium, later renamed Tiger Stadium, from 1938 to 1974. Mark said the trunk had belonged to long-time team equipment manager Roy “Friday” Macklem. He then tried five different keys before opening the treasure chest.
The trunk was stacked with old jerseys, including five nameless and numberless white Durene jerseys from the 1960s. Mark closed the trunk and we both expressed disappointment that there were not enough for all the returning players.
But a week later, Mark called me at home and said in an excited voice:
“You will not believe this. At the very bottom of that trunk I found Plimpton’s jersey.”
I raced down to the Lions facility and held the famous number 0 jersey. It had belonged to 1961 Lions back Johnny Olszewski – “Johnny O” – and had been assigned to George by Macklem at the Cranbrook training camp. The Honolulu blue jersey, which had numerous sewn repairs, had been hidden by Macklem all those years.
On the Saturday night of the reunion weekend, Lions Team President Matt Millen and head coach Steve Mariucci presented George with his jersey just before a charity dinner. The astonished look on George’s face was priceless.
At the dinner, former players were introduced and George briefly spoke about his Paper Lion experience. He told a story about a hilarious “night out on the town” with Joe Schmidt that included the Birmingham police and mentioned the greatest compliment he ever received about the book. George was in a Dallas airport when a real-life cowboy recognized him and said, “I have read only one book in my life and it was Paper Lion.”
Following the dinner I was standing near the exit and George came up to me and said, “Bill would you like to join me for a drink back at the Dearborn Inn?”
I couldn’t believe it. He was asking me?
George had been dropped off at the event in a Detroit Lions-supplied limo. Now, he was going to be driven to his hotel in my 2001 Pontiac Montana minivan.
Let’s just say I was a bit excited and as I pulled out into the street George said politely in a soft voice, “Bill, excuse me, but I think you are driving on the wrong side of the road.”
He was right. I changed lanes.
“Thanks George,” I said.
When we arrived at the Dearborn Inn, many of the former players were already sitting around a table in the hotel bar having drinks so we joined them.
For the next hour and a half, the players, including Gail Cogdill, Dennis Gaubatz, Bob Whitlow and Earl Morrall shared funny stories. Cogdill confessed that he had taken notes out of George’s helmet at training camp to try to decipher what he was writing. I noticed that George did very little talking but was listening very intently to the stories that were marked by much laughter.
Early on, he pulled a reporter’s notepad out of his jacket and began scribbling notes. I have since wondered what his plans were for those notes. Was George thinking about writing an essay about his Paper Lion reunion experience?
The next day at Ford Field, George and Alex Karras were the honorary Lions team captains. They walked to midfield for the coin toss prior to the game. Plimpton wore a 2003 Lions jersey with his number 0 and Karras donned his number 71, both jerseys covering the men’s button-down shirts.
At halftime, the Paper Lion players were introduced to the crowd. They lined up across midfield. The last three to be introduced, were Alex Karras – who had not been back to a Lions game since he was cut in 1971 – Joe Schmidt, considered to be “Mr. Detroit Lion,” and finally George, who I remember receiving the loudest ovation. George simply beamed, and doffed his Lions baseball cap to the crowd.
When I returned to the Dearborn Inn after the game George invited me to dinner.
Again, I couldn’t believe it.
Now, I was going to have the opportunity to ask him about meeting Ernest Hemingway, his thoughts on writing, and his favorite exploits. I had not really had much of chance to speak with him the night before.
As we walked through the lobby to the restaurant, I recognized former 1980s Lions offensive lineman Keith Dorney walking toward us. Dorney introduced himself to George, and stated that he was in town to promote his own book, Honolulu Black and Blue about his experience playing in the NFL. With that, George introduced me to Keith and said, “Keith, would you care to join me and Bill for dinner?”
Of course Dorney jumped at the invitation.
Quite selfishly I thought, “Oh great, now I have this ex-jock who just wants to speak with George about football and I wanted to talk with Plimpton about everything but football.”
My thoughts on Dorney were quickly tossed away.
After we sat down, George asked: “Keith, tell me what you are doing now?”
“I’m a high school English teacher in California.”
Oh my God, I couldn’t believe it.
For the next two hours I tried very hard to avoid looking like comedian Chris Farley in his famous Saturday Night Live skit where he interviews Paul McCartney like a nervous and sweaty star struck fan.
We of course asked George about Hemingway and he recounted – as he did in the book Shadowbox – visiting “Papa” in Cuba where the famous writer began punching George when they were discussing boxing. George talked about his love for bird watching and fireworks and discussed some of his other books. He particularly liked One More July.
One thing I will never forget is the moment I asked him about helping to wrestle the gun out of Sirhan Sirhan’s hand after the assassin had shot presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy.
He was stunned when I brought it up.
George leaned back in his chair and a look of sadness came over him immediately. I apologized for bringing it up even before he answered.
He said it was all right and then revealed that he had signed a contract with Random House for his memoir and that he was going to have to write about it anyway. I recall him very briefly describing seeing Kennedy lying in his hospital bed as if he was looking at a sarcophagus and later walking into the courtroom and seeing Sirhan give him a little grin “as if I was going to help him after what he had done.”
When our dinner was over we walked back to the lobby and I waited while George and Keith went up to their rooms to get their respective books. George gave Keith and me inscribed copies of Paper Lion.
“For Bill my co-author with appreciation and respect—George Plimpton,” he wrote.
Keith gave us autographed copies of his book. After Keith and I said goodbye to George we talked to each other for ten minutes about what an incredible time we had just experienced with George Plimpton.
Four days later, I was working at my computer when I received a call from someone at Sports Illustrated who told me George had passed away.
I broke down, and to this day when I tell people about my experience with George and his generosity, it is still difficult describing the receipt of that phone call.
Two days later I received a handwritten note in the mail from George.
“Hoping you can show up so I can thank you again for a most remarkable weekend. . . . Very best, George.”
The letter and a photo of the two of us still hang on my office wall.
As you can imagine, the Paper Lion Reunion and my brief time with George is something I will always treasure. He certainly did not have to take my original phone call, or give me the time that he did. But George had that openness and curiosity that must explain a huge part of his success. The man simply had class.
Bill Dow is a freelance writer in Birmingham, Michigan. He has written extensively for the Detroit Free Press and other Detroit-area publications. He wrote the afterword “Forty Years Later: Catching Up With The Paper Lion Team” for the latest editions of Paper Lion. In the foreword of each edition, Plimpton expressed his gratitude to Dow for the afterword. Dow has also been interviewed for the Plimpton oral biography George Being George by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr. and the upcoming documentary Plimpton! written and directed by Tom Bean and Luke Poling.