Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Yale Lary, 1930-2017

A football legend has left us. And, because his best years were before the days of the NFL's saturation of television, and because he retired before the 1st Super Bowl was played, you might never have heard of him.

Robert Yale Lary was born on November 24, 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas. At North Side High School, he starred in football (3 varsity letters), baseball (3), track & field (2) and basketball (1 -- a total of 10 letters in 4 sports).

Yale Lary (he went by his middle name) went to Texas A&M. (You were expecting Yale University? He was certainly smart enough to have gone to Yale.) He played baseball for the Aggies, and led them to the 1951 Southwest Conference Championship and a berth in the College World Series. But his best sport was football. He both ran for and caught a touchdown pass against Texas, leading the Aggies to defeat the Longhorns for the 1st time in 12 years.

He was drafted by the Detroit Lions, who already had Texans Bobby Layne (University of Texas) and Doak Walker (Southern Methodist University). The early 1950s was the dawn of the 2-platoon system, when players were no longer expected to play on both sides of the ball. Having been in both the offensive and the defensive backfields in college, he played only safety in the pros. He also punted and returned kicks.

As a rookie in 1952, he helped the Lions win the NFL Championship. They did it again in 1953. They lost the NFL Championship Game in 1954, but won it in 1957. All 4 times, the opponent was the Cleveland Browns. Back then, Cleveland vs. Detroit was a bigger rivalry in football than it's ever been in baseball or basketball. (Except for the brief late 1970s experiment with the Barons, when both they and the Red Wings were horrible, Cleveland not having an NHL team means it's never been one in hockey.)

Lary was drafted into the U.S. Army, and missed the 1954 and '55 seasons. The Lions got clobbered in the '54 NFL Championship Game, so he probably wouldn't have made a difference. But they didn't get into it in 1955, so he might've made a difference then.

Lary had been offered a $20,000 bonus by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1951, at a time when Major League Baseball paid a lot more money than the NFL. But he stayed in college. Nevertheless, he did play minor-league baseball from 1953 to 1957.

He was a 9-time All-Pro, playing with Jack Christiansen, Dick LeBeau, and Dick "Night Train" Lane -- the only all-Hall of Fame defensive backfield in NFL history. He later played on a Lions defense with Alex Karras, Roger Brown and Joe Schmidt, but, due to the Green Bay Packers' stranglehold on the NFL Western Division title, never appeared in another Playoff game. He finished his career with 50 interceptions and 787 interception return yards -- in each case, 5th all-time upon his retirement.

He also retired with what was then the 2nd-highest career punting yard average in NFL history behind Sammy Baugh, 44.3. Paul Hornung, whose ackers played the Lions twice a season, including usually at Tiger Stadium on Thanksgiving Day, called him the best punter ever. And Hornung is not a man who easily gives praise to players not named Paul Hornung. Lary was great at returning punts, too, doing so for 3 touchdowns and having the NFL's longest in the 1957 title season, 71 yards.

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He retired in 1965, only 34 years old, not due to injury, but because he wanted to spend more time with his family. (At the time, that wasn't a cliche.) He said, "It's too much to move my wife and kids twice a year. It's not fair to them." In other words, he didn't want to move his wife Mary Jane, whom he married in his rookie season, and their had a son and a daughter, both named after themselves -- Robert Yale Lary Jr. and Mary Jane Lary -- from Fort Worth to Detroit in the Summer, and back to Fort Worth in the Winter.

In 1958, while still playing, he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, as a Democrat. (The Republican Party was still in a rudimentary form in Texas at that point. That would soon change.) He served 2 terms. In 1965, he opened a Ford dealership in Fort Worth, and formed a company that invested in real estate and energy -- good moves for Texas at that time. A lot of retired players in those days, desperately needed their NFL pensions just to get buy. He didn't.

He was elected to the Pro Football, Michigan Sports, Texas Sports and Texas A&M Athletic Halls of Fame, and to the NFL's 1950s All-Decade Team.
Lary at the Lions' 75th Anniversary celebration
at Ford Field, 2009

Yale Lary died on May 12, 2017, at the age of 86.

With his death, there are 3 surviving members of the 1952 NFL Champion Detroit Lions: Quarterback Jim Hardy (Layne's backup), running back Clyde Scott and defensive lineman Blaine Earon.

There are also 3 surviving members of the 1953 NFL Champion Detroit Lions: Earon, Schmidt and receiver Dorne Dibble (the latter 2 not yet there in '52).

And there are 10 surviving members of the 1957 NFL Champion Detroit Lions: Schmidt, Dibble, running back and 1955 Heisman Trophy winner Howard "Hopalong" Cassady, tight ends Steve Junker and Jerry Reichow, defensive end Gene Cronin, defensive tackle Gerry Perry, linebackers Bob Long and Roger Zatkoff, and cornerback Gary Lowe.

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