The 50-Year Anniversary of a Tragedy


By Jeff Moss
November 22, 2013

Fifty years ago today, the community suffered a tragedy of epic proportions and its aftershocks have been reverberating in the half-century that has passed since that infamous day.

Yes, I am talking about November 22, 1963.

The day that William Clay Ford, Sr. became the sole owner of the Detroit Lions.

What? Something else occurred on that fateful afternoon?

Everywhere you went this afternoon, you heard remembrances, retrospectives and memorials of the John F. Kennedy assassination.  CBS even went to great lengths to replicate their coverage of the murder of JFK in real time.

But I wanted wall-to-wall coverage of the day’s other disaster.  Why didn’t 97.1 break into regularly-scheduled programming for a minute-by-minute recap of the board meeting at the Statler Hilton Hotel where Fredo Clay Ford, Sr. became the sole proprietor of the Lions?

Look, I know that the Kennedy assassination was a big deal to a great many people.  But I was still a dream in my father’s nut sack in 1963 and wouldn’t be hatched for another nine years.   When I was growing up, Kennedy’s death was about as real to me as Abraham Lincoln’s fateful evening at Ford’s Theater.

(Why is the name “Ford” always so closely associated with Presidential assassinations? Has Oliver Stone looked into this or is he still filming shots of Blake Lively getting double teamed?)

Anyway, Presidents come and go, but I have been living with the absolutely horrific consequences of the events of November 22, 1963 since I was a young boy — and I ain’t talking about LBJ’s bunghole issues or Vietnam.

In the 50 years since Old Man Ford assumed total control, our city’s football team has been a national joke, a local embarrassment and a series of catastrophes.   And I am not just talking about the measly one playoff win in that time period.

And I might not even have commemorated this depressing day if it weren’t for an article by Dave Birkett in the Detroit Free Press from November 3rd that really got me aggravated.  If on-the-payroll shill Tim Twentyman from had penned this piece, I wouldn’t have batted an eye.

But the fact that one of the few journalists in Detroit sports whom I respect authored something titled, “William Clay Ford bought Lions 50 years ago this month, has endured team’s ups, downs since” made me want to puke.

Do you know how many things are WRONG about the headline?

1) The team’s ups? Ummmm, WHAT UPS ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?

2) Fredo Ford, Sr. has “endured” the ups and downs? ENDURED? That isn’t exactly the verb I would use.  Unless Birkett and his headline writer believe that Adolf Hitler “endured” the Holocaust.  The more accurate words? Maliciously caused.

3) That might be the wordiest headline I have ever read. It’s fucking longer than some Rick Reilly columns.

The lengthy article by Birkett was so even-handed it disgusted me.  Like there are two sides to this abortion or some shit.  Dave, let me clarify something for you.  There is only ONE SIDE OF THIS DEBACLE and I am about to learn it to you.

Birkett should have understood the appropriate slant of his article by a sentence that HE himself wrote:

The Lions declined interview requests from the Free Press for the 88-year-old Ford, his son, Bill Jr., the team’s vice chairman, and team president Tom Lewand for this story.

I mean, can you imagine? The preeminent newspaper in town is going to write an extended retrospective honoring the 50-year anniversary of Ford’s ownership and the Lions REFUSED to participate? Not that I expected the old, feeble, incompetent owner to cooperate, but “Breath Mints” Lewand refused to assist??!?!!??!

You know why? There is absolutely ZERO defense for the atrocity known as William Clay Ford’s tenure in Detroit.  It cannot be done.  And Lewand is smart enough to know this so he didn’t want any part of it.

But instead of a 5,000 word deathmurderkill of the Lions past half-century under this dolt’s control, we got a fairly sympathetic column.   What a fucking joke.

Jeff Greenfield wrote an interesting New York Times best-selling book about the death of the nation’s 35th President entitled, “If Kennedy Lived.”  It’s a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure depicting what MIGHT have occurred if Castro, the Russians, the Mafia, Joe DiMaggio, the Secret Service and Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t kill JFK.


Well, I am not going to write a book called “If Ford Never Owned the Lions” …….. but here is a rough outline of what it might look like.

The Lions might have had competent management.

The Lions might have reached a Super Bowl.

The Lions might have won as many playoff games as Gustav Nyquist had goals last night.  (Had to get that shot in there somehow.)

The Lions might not have been run by William Clay Ford’s alcoholic drinking buddy for three decades.

The Lions might not have had a death on the field.

Mike Utley might still be walking.

Eric Andolsek might still be manicuring his lawn.

Reggie Brown might have turned into a Hall of Famer instead of a halo-wearing car salesman.

Maybe Wayne Fontes’ son wouldn’t have allegedly left cocaine in his old man’s car.  [Wink, wink, nod, nod.]

Eddie Murray might not have choked during the only important kick he ever attempted in a Honolulu Blue and Silver uniform.

The Lions might not have hired a broadcaster to be their General Manager and then let him spend eight years decimating whatever modicum of dignity the franchise had left.

They might not have spent the entire Russ Thomas Era lowballing their players and draft picks, causing animosity and strife.

They might have avoided being the ONLY team ever to go winless in a 16-game regular season.

They might not have been a laughingstock in the monologues of Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Joan Rivers, Chevy Chase, David Letterman, Arsenio Hall, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien and Magic Johnson for decades.

They might not have had an oafish quarterback fake an injury.  In the fourth quarter.  OF A POSTSEASON GAME.


They might not have violated the “Rooney Rule” during the Steve Mariucci hiring “process.”

They might not have had a bewildered coach ask “What does it take to get fired around here?”

Do I need to go on?

Since Shemp Clay Ford, Sr. has taken over the Lions, we have suffered indignity after indignity.   That is “Mr. Ford’s” ONLY legacy in Detroit.  Nothing else.  Not his hands-off approach.  Not his “loyalty.”  Not his refusal to hire professional cheerleaders because his wife was allegedly afraid he’d bang one of them while in a drunken stupor during the ’60s.

And definitely not his keeping the team in DETROIT or Pontiac for all these years without a threat of moving them to another market, let alone actually pulling an Art Modell.

I love that narrative almost as much as the one propped up by Mike O’Hara (another shill on Ford’s current payroll) that Ford wants to win as badly as any other owner.

Listen to me.  William Clay Ford, Sr. deserves ZERO kudos for keeping the Lions in town.   HE HAD NO CHOICE.  The man was connected to this area at the hip and can you imagine the Attica-esque scene that would have played out at the River Rouge Plant if word had ever leaked out that Ford was even so much as considering leaving Michigan as a negotiating ploy to get a better local stadium deal?


And he doesn’t want to win as badly as someone like Mike Ilitch.  He has proven that for six decades now.  Ford’s biggest priority was not upsetting his friends who ran this organization into the proverbial World Trade Center.

First, there was Russ Thomas, his partner in tavern crime.  That utter tightwad douche bag kept his gig from 1967 to 1989.  For 23 years he was in charge of player personnel.  TWENTY THREE FUCKING YEARS!!!!! And he won a grand total of ZERO postseason games.

But Old Man Ford couldn’t fire that bungling jackass because they were drinking pals.

Then he continued to employ Matt Millen even after fans started cheering “Fire Millen” ….. at Red Wings, Pistons and Tigers games!!!!!! Or after a fan protest occurred outside of Ford Field.

Why did he keep his boy Millen around for SOOOO long? Through the absolute worst stretch of professional football in NFL history?

Because the Old Man loved him some Matt.  He liked golfing with his pal.  Did you really expect him to shitcan Millen on the 18th tee at Augusta? That would have been mean.

And you wonder why Ford Motor Company kept this imbecile as far away from the Glass House as possible? The other members of the family wanted him concentrating on his personal fantasy football team and far away from Dearborn.   It’s true.  Look it up.

The CEO of General Motors or Toyota would have been more welcome in a board meeting at Ford’s World Headquarters than William Clay Ford, Sr. was.

Fuck, if Ford’s son didn’t FINALLY intervene at the beginning of that 0-16 season by making an off-handed remark to the media that if HE were in charge he would let Millen go, the former Penn State linebacker MIGHT STILL be the General Manager in Detroit.

I am not joking.  Left to his own devices and never publicly shamed by his child, I am not sure Millen wouldn’t have survived the 2008 season.  We are talking about an owner who so successfully ran his own team into the ground that the commissioner of the league wanted to suggest potential replacements for Millen.

Ford, Sr. — who had just set the NFL’s most embarrassing record ever — said no.  He decided that an interview process was not needed and he just hired Millen’s second-in-command.

Luckily for Ford, this time when he gave the job to a candidate without a thorough interview process, the gentleman was an African-American.   Or he would have been subjected to his second $200,000 fine.

I could go on and on about the abject failures of Fredo Clay Ford, Sr.  There was the time that he ran Joe Schmidt out of town.  Yep, the clueless buffoon did get upset at on-field management once.  After the 1972 season,  he forced his ONLY winning coach to retire.  (And no, I don’t count Gary Moeller.)

But the biggest disgrace of Ford’s 50 years at the helm is how he utterly wasted the otherworldly talents of Barry Sanders.  Ford, Sr. had the greatest running back to ever don a pair of cleats on his roster after Green Bay fortuitously passed on #20 in the 1989 NFL Draft.

And Ford’s incompetence nullified all of that greatness.  Ford refused to hire a competent General Manager during Barry’s time in Motown.  He let Wayne Fontes act as head coach and GM for a majority of Sanders’ record breaking career and then FINALLY replaced the cartoon character with Bobby Ross. Ross eventually ran Barry out of Detroit to London, England, punctuated by Sanders retirement via fax.

It is depressing just typing those words.  I mean, Barry Sanders would have annihilated Walter Payton’s all-time rushing record if the Lions and Senior  didn’t kill his love for the game.  Not only would the Heisman Trophy-winning running back have smashed “Sweetness'” mark, he most likely would have posted an unreachable number.

And then, for good measure, Ford sued the greatest player who ever played for him.  HE SUED HIM!!!!!!

Causing Barry Sanders’ to throw his career in an incinerator  and then commencing litigation is Ford’s biggest war crime and it is why I hope he never lives to see his team win a Super Bowl.  (Not that I have much to worry about with Jim “Tailored Pants” Schwartz manning the sideline and displaying all of his neuroses and “acumen” each and every Fall Sunday.)

And if pissing away the greatest running back to ever play in the NFL’s career wasn’t bad enough, Ford is on the verge of doing the same damn thing to the best WIDE RECEIVER to ever suit up.

Yes, I said it.  Calvin Johnson is better than Jerry Rice.  He is an absolute freak of nature who doesn’t have the luxury of playing with a Joe Montana or a Steve Young or to be coached by a Bill Walsh.

Seriously, you are attempting to build the perfect NFL franchise and you are going to take someone other than a 6-foot-5, 236 pound beast who can run the forty in 4.32 seconds? Sorry, Jerry.  Precise, diamond cutting-like routes are great and everything, but you can’t teach catching a ball while triple covered.

(And it is too late now, but the nickname Megatron doesn’t even do this guy justice.  Transformers were a stupid toy in the ’80s and an even worse movie franchise in this century.  If anything, Calvin Johnson is a member of the fucking X-Men.  Dude is a god damn genetic mutation.  Not a foil to something called Optimus Prime.)

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Detroit Lions

And don’t just take my word for it.  On the freaking anniversary of Ford purchasing the Lions from the team’s other owners after a contentious battle,’s Bill Simmons penned an article entitled, “All Hail Megatron.”

[Editor’s Note: The Boston Sports Guy did state that CalJo was still behind Rice in the ard, but don’t forget this: Simmons is an idiot.]

You can’t make this shit up.  This is what Simmons’ had to write about Johnson in the piece:

He’s on the short list of “Most Exciting Football Players Ever,” along with legends like Bo Jackson, Gale Sayers, O.J. Simpson, Randy Moss and fellow Lion-for-life Barry Sanders.

Seriously.  Under Ford’s ownership, the team has had 33% of the “most exciting football players ever.”  Two on that list.  Which is one more than the number of PLAYOFF games they have won with these two insanely good Hall of Famers!!!!!

Barry Sanders.  Calvin Johnson.  And the Lions have figured out a way to waste one’s career and are well on their way to replicating that “success.”

You want a scary thought? Barry Sanders retired when he was 30-years old.  Calvin Johnson is 28.  I would agree that it is highly unlikely that Johnson would retire in the next two years, but I also would have advised you that no one ever gets killed mowing their lawn.







That SHOULD have been the gist of Birkett’s article on Ford’s tenure.  Instead we got stories about buses, bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches and charity.

Did you know that the limousine in which JFK was riding on that fateful November day in Dallas is currently displayed in the Henry FORD Museum?

Yep, just 1.9 miles away from the Detroit Lions practice facility in Allen Park sits the automobile in which Kennedy’s brains were splattered.  Just another bizarre coincidence in the intertwining story of the Lions sale and the death of a President.

Hell, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof think that is spooky and too coincidental.


While Birkett’s article was a total piece of trash, this nugget was very interesting:

“It turned into a sad, terrible day,” he told the Free Press in 2003. “About a half-hour after the meeting, a few of us were having lunch at the Statler Hilton to celebrate. And a waitress came up to me and asked if I heard about Kennedy in Dallas. And I was waiting for the punch line. There were a lot of sick people making jokes about Kennedy around that time. But then you could tell that she was serious, and she said that he had been shot.

“It’s a terrible coincidence that both of these things would occur around the same time. But there were a couple of times over the years when some things happened to us that you just couldn’t figure out why or how it happened, and you’d briefly think if there’s some kind of stigma attached to anything else that may have taken place that awful day.”

Yep, Billy Boy, the Lions haven’t been to a Super Bowl because November 22, 1963 is a cursed date in our nation’s history.  That is why you have only won one playoff game in 50 years.

It’s really Lee Harvey Oswald’s fault that your team has never been to the Super Bowl.   And Kennedy’s for stupidly insisting to the Secret Service that he drive in an exposed CONVERTIBLE LIMO.

It has nothing to do with employing Russ Thomas and Matt Millen for 31 of those 50 seasons.   Or treating the franchise as your own personal playground.

At this point Lions fans can only hope that when Ford, Sr. finally kicks the bucket and Bill Ford, Jr. takes over the operation, the Lions have a similar experience to what the Chicago Blackhawks enjoyed when Bill Wirtz croaked and Rocky Wirtz assumed control.

William Clay Ford, Sr. doesn’t deserve to ever watch the Lions win a Super Bowl.  He surely didn’t earn that Birkett piece or his absolutely RIDICULOUS induction in the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame.

His eventual obituary should focus on one thing.  The amount of damage his “management” skills did to the collective psyche of several generations of Detroit Lions fans.

That’s it.  And hold the fucking mayo.

[If you look at photo at the top of this article, you can see a headline regarding Ford’s purchase of the team on the day that JFK’s death overshadowed the ownership transfer.  Thanks to @vanhouz3 for supplying that picture.]