“Christmas came twice that week.”
That’s how Traverse City’s Thomas “T.J.” Phillips recalls the last time the Detroit Lions won the National Football League Championship, almost 62 years ago.
On that bright, chilly Sunday afternoon of Dec. 29, 1957, Phillips was an enthusiastic 11-year-old Lions fan sitting with his father in the stands of Briggs Stadium, also home to the Detroit Tigers.
Now a retired district court judge, Phillips was one of 55,263 spectators who crowded into the historic stadium to see the Lions dominate the Cleveland Browns, 59–14. He’s one of the few Lions fans who not only witnessed that victory but is still around hoping to see the team win another title.
“We sat up high and could see everything,” says Phillips, who was growing up in Royal Oak at the time. Phillips’ father had access to season tickets to Lions games through his work, but the two Championship tickets they shared on that seminal day were actually earned by the youngster himself — an unexpected reward from the neighbor for whom he cut grass and shoveled snow, Mr. Brock.
“Mr. Brock called me up that morning and said ‘Tommy, I have two tickets to today’s game, if you’d like to go with your Dad.’ I was so excited.”
Anyone who became a Lions fan over the past half-century might find it hard to believe, but there once was a time when the team was competitive — even dominant — in the NFL. During the 1950s, the team was the class of the league, winning three NFL championships and another title game appearance between 1951 and 1957.
Phillips was an avid fan during those heady times. He and his father went to many games together, and the annual Thanksgiving Day game against the Green Bay Packers was a family ritual around which the holiday revolved.
Late in the 1957 season Lions star quarterback Bobby Layne broke his ankle and was replaced by backup Tobin Rote. The ‘57 playoffs would be his chance to shine.
Despite playing before the home crowd at Briggs Stadium, the Lions were 3-point underdogs to the powerful Browns.
The 2pm game was broadcast on national television, and the stadium was packed. “Briggs Stadium was such a great old place for a game,” remembers Phillips. “The crowd was really into it and kept the noise on for the whole game. I left that game, and my ears were ringing.”
The home crowd had plenty to cheer for as the Lions put up 17 points in the first quarter. Cleveland, led by rookie running back Jim Brown, got on the scoreboard in the second quarter on a 29-yard TD run by future Hall of Famer. “I thought, ‘uh-oh’ on that run,” says Phillips. “I was born in Syracuse and knew all about Jim Brown [who played college ball at Syracuse University].
But the Lions responded and eventually routed the Browns, 59-14. The eight-year veteran Rote threw four touchdown passes in the game, completing 12 of 19 passes for 280 yards, and also ran for a TD.
After that magical game 62 years ago, Phillips has been a loyal Lions fan and continues to root for his favorite players — no matter what the record
“I really liked Barry Sanders, and I like Matthew Stafford,” he says. “I sort of feel sorry for him and would like to see him win.”
With the 2019 season just beginning, how does Phillips assess the Lions chances? “Well, they’re undefeated and unscored on so far,” he jokes. “I only hope that continues.”