The curse of Bobby Layne

If you believe in the curse, then you have to believe Matthew Stafford will break it

Originally Published: November 16, 2013
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include statistics from Sunday's Lions-Steelers game.


OKLAHOMA CITY -- Alan Layne, wearing a blue-patterned button-down shirt and a crisp pair of chinos, opens the door and welcomes a camera crew into his home.

He's 60, but you would never know it. Years ago, his father, Bobby, sent him out to check on his real-estate and oil investments; today his card simply reads, "Petroleum Land." The blue stone in his gold Hall of Fame ring -- Bobby was a first-ballot choice for Canton -- sparkles on his right hand.

"He was a great guy," said Alan of his father, blue eyes disappearing in laughter. "He was somewhat fiery."

Sunday in Pittsburgh, quarterback Matthew Stafford broke the Detroit Lions' all-time passing total -- one that belonged to Bobby Layne for some 55 years after he threw his last ball for the Lions.

[+] EnlargeBobby Layne
AP Photo/NFL PhotosAs legend goes, former Lions QB Bobby Layne cursed the franchise shortly after being traded away, vowing it wouldn't win a championship for 50 years.

"Any time you can break a franchise record in whatever it is, it obviously means something to me," Stafford said Friday in Detroit. "I'm not going to sit there and think about it during the game or anything like that, but after the fact, I'll probably reflect on it -- so, it's a big accomplishment."

The connections and coincidences between Stafford and Layne are, frankly, a little frightening. But to fully understand them, you need to know about The Curse. It may not be as famous (or infamous) as the Curse of the Bambino that plagued Boston for so many years, or even the celebrated Madden Curse -- Barry Sanders, another Detroit legend, made the cover of the EA Sports football video game in 2000 and abruptly retired from the NFL before training camp -- that have visited so many who graced that cover.

Ah, the Bobby Layne Curse.

Layne was a man's man and a pretty fair quarterback, too. His passes sometimes wobbled -- when they didn't go end-over-end -- but he was a winner and a leader who inspired his teammates. Layne started his NFL life with the Chicago Bears in 1948, then, after a one-year tenure with the New York Bulldogs, wound up in Detroit.

With Layne under center in 1952, the Lions won their first NFL title in 17 years. They repeated the following season before losing to the Cleveland Browns in the 1954 championship game. In 1957, Layne suffered a broken leg and watched from the sideline as Tobin Rote guided the Detroit to its third league title in six years.

And then, early in the 1958 season, the Lions sent Layne, 31, to the Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for Earl Morrall and two future draft choices. Layne was incensed. Legend has it -- there were no Twitter or Facebook accounts in those days -- that Layne cursed the Lions, vowing that they wouldn't win a championship for 50 years.

Sure enough, the Lions didn't.

"He wasn't too happy with the way it went about," Alan Layne said. "I think he heard about it in the media. That created a little dissension."

The Curse was never actually documented. It just wafted out of that trade slowly, by word of mouth, until it metastasized and became a legend. It is not hard to imagine the colorful and sometimes cantankerous Layne, playing shuffleboard with his Steelers teammates at the bar they used for "meetings" and throwing down the gauntlet.

"As the years went past, the curse got more body to it," said bestselling author Mitch Albom, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. "It was a whisper once and then it was like, maybe this thing is really happening. And then it just became an explanation. Like the Curse of the Bambino, you need an explanation as to why we're going through this heartbreak."

So did it really happen?

Alan Layne isn't sure. He only became aware of The Curse's existence 10 years ago, when he was bouncing around the Internet. He was astonished to discover entire websites dedicated to his father's alleged words. But, he admitted, it was totally consistent with who his father was.

"Oh, sure," Alan said, smiling. "He might have had a few sweet words in between the sentence that they quote."

In fact, Detroit won only a single playoff game in the half-century that followed. The Lions had an amazing string of futility, producing the league's worst winning percentage over those 50 years. The Lions are one of only two pre-merger teams, along with the Cleveland Browns,  not to appear in a Super Bowl. A partial list of the quarterbacks trotted out by Detroit, in no particular order: Joey Harrington, Andre Ware, Rodney Peete, Gary Danielson, Scott Mitchell, Charlie Batch and Eric Hipple. It was Erik Kramer who delivered them from evil with a playoff victory over the Dallas Cowboys in 1991, but it stood as their only playoff win in 11 tries during the curse.

"When they would go to the playoffs," Albom said, the pain evident in his creased face, "the rare, rare, rare time, or the game that would get them in, the kick would go wide or somebody would fumble. It just seemed like there were little Honolulu Blue leprechauns saying, 'We're not done with that 50-year thing yet.'"

Fast-forward to 2008, the last year of The (so-called) Curse.

The Lions went 0-16, becoming the first team to achieve that dubious piece of history.

"It kind of puts some emphasis on the idea," Alan said.

In 2009, the first year after the 50-year drought promised by The Curse, the Lions drafted Stafford out of Georgia.

Layne and Stafford played football at the very same high school in Dallas, Highland Park High School. And, incredibly, lived on the same street. Stafford's modest brick ranch on Purdue Avenue in the University Park section is six and one-half blocks east of the home Layne grew up in with his aunt and uncle.

Before Friday, Stafford was unaware of his link to the Hall of Famer.

"That's crazy," he said, smiling. "I wonder where he lived in Michigan -- maybe I can move to where he was in Michigan. Obviously, going from Dallas, Texas, to Detroit is not an easy move or something that happens a lot. It's a funny coincidence how it happened."

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesThe similarities between Layne and current QB Matthew Stafford are uncanny, giving Lions fans hope for a brighter future.

For years, Albom said, Detroit didn't have one of those types of quarterbacks.

"All of a sudden," Albom said, "Stafford comes along, he's the No. 1 pick -- and by the way, we've blown that a few times, so it's no guarantee -- but he looks like one of those guys. And now he throws like one of those guys."

The Lions, at 6-3 and with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers out with a broken collarbone, appear to be in a commanding position in the NFC North. The possibility of a playoff game -- and even a win -- has folks excited in the Motor City. Three weeks ago, Stafford played the signature game of his career with a last-second touchdown against Dallas when, a la Dan Marino, he faked a spike and dramatically reached the ball over the goal line himself.

Now, nearly 27 years after Layne's death at the age of 59, Stafford is probably two quarters from becoming the most prolific passer in Detroit history.

"Just congratulate him and wish him the best," Alan said when asked what he'd tell Stafford when the inevitable occurs. "All he needs to do is win a couple of championships, and then we'll really be talking coincidence."

Albom concurs.

"The only better end to this whole thing is if somehow now if they go to the Super Bowl and actually win it. Everyone will say, 'Wow, what a great football town that is.' The truth is, it always was.

"It's just waiting for that stupid curse to leave us. Hopefully, it's gone now."

Stafford hopes even more history repeats itself.

"He was extremely successful," Stafford said. "He was a big guy for this organization and hopefully I can do the same sometime."

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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