Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

Vintage Sports Movies: Paper Lion

Posted on August 13, 2017 by Dean Hybl
Harvard educated writer George Plimpton braved the world of the NFL in the 1960s.

Harvard educated writer George Plimpton braved the world of the NFL in th e 1960s.

In today’s world where Hard Knocks and other similar programs have made it easy for football fans to gain access into the huddle and locker rooms of pro football, it is hard to imagine a time when such access was not the norm. In the 1960s, Sports Illustrated writer George Plimpton went to great extremes to give fans a glimpse into life in the NFL.

When the book and movie Paper Lion came out in the 1960s, it was lauded for getting under the helmet of NFL players.

Plimpton, a Harvard educated writer who looked more like a math teacher than an athlete, was a master at experiential writing and combined his love of sports with a surprising fearlessness to create a number of great experiences and books.

He pitched to baseball All-Stars, got in the ring with boxing champions and in 1963 spent training camp as a quarterback with the Detroit Lions.

The ensuing articles and book gave readers a glimpse into the personalities of NFL players. Though the Detroit Lions were perhaps not one of the NFL’s “glamour” teams of the era, Plimpton brought to life the personalities of players including Milt Plum, Dick “Night Train” Lane (who had retired by 1967, but has a cameo appearance in the movie as a practice video operator), Wayne Walker and Joe Schmidt.

In 1968, the book was turned into a movie starring future M*A*S*H star Alan Alda as Plimpton.

The interesting thing about the movie is that instead of trying to stick exactly to the players and stories of the original book, it took the general concept, but used players and coaches available with the Lions in 1967.

By that time, future Hall of Fame linebacker Joe Schmidt had transitioned from an active player to head coach and defensive tackle Alex Karras, who as referenced in the book, but was suspended by the NFL in 1963 and therefore not at training camp, was back with the Lions and a prominent character in the movie.

Joe Schmidt (#56) was a player on the 1963 Lions and then was coach when the movie was made in 1967.

Joe Schmidt (#56) was a player on the 1963 Lions and then was coach when the movie was made in 1967.

The movie also included a number of rookies, including future Hall of Famer Lem Barney and running back Mel Farr. It also incorporated real-life happenings as longtime Detroit Lions defensive tackle was prominent early in the book, most especially in a weigh-in scene, but then in real-life was traded to the Los Angeles Rams, which was mentioned in the movie and he is not seen again.

After focusing on training camp for much of the film, the movie culminates with scenes from a September 1967 preseason game between the Lions and St. Louis Cardinals. It is very interesting to see some of the real-life players from both teams in a game setting (including long-time quarterback Jim Hart entering his first year as an NFL starter) and then seeing Alda anxiously waiting for his chance.

As could be expected, the journalist quarterback struggles in the real-world NFL. Alda is able to play the role of a bumbling quarterback well, but you get the sense that the in-game scenes are a bit of a struggle for all involved.

By 2017 NFL Films and Hard Knocks standards, the movie Paper Lion is quaint and seems a bit scripted and some of the scenes forced. However, given that it came out in time period when getting into an NFL locker room and huddle was not common, it provided a neat glimpse into the gladiator world.

Ultimately, both the Paper Lion book and movie offer a neat glimpse into the NFL of the 1960s and for fans today who are looking to reconnect with NFL history they are both well worth the time.

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