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Leather-Bound Lions: Dutch Clark

Ty from the always great The Lions In Winter stops by for a history lesson on Lions great Dutch Clark.

With his rocket arm, aw-shucks grin, competitiveness, surprising athleticism, and #1 overall NFL draft pick status, Matthew Stafford has often drawn comparisons to John Elway. Stafford modeled his game after John Elway in high school and wore Elway’s #7 at Highland Park and Georgia. There’s even a Facebook group called "Matthew Stafford Looks Like John Elway." So, how come Stafford doesn’t sport #7 as a Detroit Lion? That jersey belongs to someone else: Hall of Famer Dutch Clark.

In 1934, George Richards, then the owner of WJR, purchased the physically-excellent, fiscally-struggling Portsmouth Spartans for $7,952.08. He moved them to Detroit and rechristened them the Lions, echoing Detroit’s baseball Tigers. Richards lured Earl "Dutch" Clark, a former Spartan, out of early retirement to be the centerpiece of his team.

Clark, hailing from Pueblo, Colorado, had taken a bizarre path to the Lions. Initially intending to attend the University of Michigan, he ended up at tiny Colorado College, and in 1929 became the first football All-American from any Colorado college or university. He took almost two years off of football after he graduated, though, finally joining the Portsmouth Spartans in 1931.

Clark’s two seasons in Portsmouth netted him 891 rushing yards, 12 rushing TDs, 182 receiving yards, 3 receiving TDs, 503 passing yards, 2 passing TDs, and two first-team All-Pro nominations. Playing tailback but calling the plays and passing often, Clark was a three-way star on offense; he played defensive back as well. After the ’32 season, though, Clark got a head start on his coaching career. He left the Spartans and returned to Colorado, prowling the sidelines for that legendary football power, the Colorado School of Mines.

When the Spartans became the Lions, however, Dutch hung up his whistle and strapped his cleats back on. In front of a half-capacity crowd at the old University of Detroit (Titan) Stadium, Clark and the Lions beat the New York Giants 9-0. For their first seven games, the Lions were undefeated and un-scored-upon, beating the Giants, (Chicago) Cardinals, Packers, Eagles, (Boston) Redskins, Brooklyn Dodgers, and Cincinnati Reds by a cumulative score of 118-0.

The Pittsburgh Pirates drew first blood but still lost 40-7. The Cardinals made it a close one in their second try, but Clark and the Lions completed the season sweep with a 17-13 win. After another 40-7 laugher, this time over the independent St. Louis Gunners, the Lions finally suffered their first loss: a 3-0 heartbreaker to the Green Bay Packers.

Next up on the schedule, Richards’ publicity brainchild: the inaugural Thanksgiving Day game. A win would lock up the Lions and hitherto-undefeated Bears at the top of the Western Division standings with just one more game left to play: a Lions-Bears rematch scheduled just three days later.

The Bears, unfortunately, edged the Lions 19-16 and beat them in the next week's rematch as well. The three-game season-ending skid left the Lions with an excellent 10-3 record and sole possession of second place in both the Western Division and the NFL overall.

Dutch and the Lions built off of that success in 1935. With an overall record of 7-3-2, the Lions just barely beat out the Packers for the Western Division crown. Despite having more wins than the Lions and having beaten the Lions head-to-head twice, the Lions’ .700 winning percentage topped the Pack’s .667. So the Lions moved on to the postseason, while the Packers seethed. The ’34 Thanksgiving Day loss was also avenged: the Lions beat the Bears 14-2 that Turkey Day, on the heels of a 20-20 tie with the Bears four days before. Could you imagine if the NFL, this season, had scheduled the Packers and Vikings games four days apart, in the last two weeks of the season?

In the 1935 NFL Championship Game, the Lions hosted the Giants, who’d defeated the Bears in the championship game the year before. Going up against the reigning champs didn’t faze Dutch Clark or the Lions: Clark ran 7 times for 80 yards and a score, including a 40-yard touchdown in the first quarter. Along with Ace Gutowsky’s 4-yard TD run, that made it 14-0, Lions.

The Giants answered with a 42-yard pass from Ken Strong to Ed Danowski in the second--but they never scored again. The Lions added two more TDs in the fourth (Dutch Clark went 1-for-2 on the extra point attempts), and the Detroit Lions, in only their second season, were the champions of the NFL.

Dutch Clark played three more seasons with the Lions, and his tally of All-Pro seasons went up to six. He took on the duties of head coach for 1938 and 1939, raking in a league-high salary of $7,200 as a player/coach. Finally, though, he hung up his cleats for good and became the full-time head coach of the Cleveland Rams. Dutch coached three more years—and served in the Army—before returning to Detroit as U of D’s athletic director.

Dutch Clark was a charter member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame--inducted in 1951 and 1963, respectively. He’s in every Pueblo- and Colorado-related sports Hall of Fame, as well. Most recently, Clark was named a charter member of the new Pride of the Lions display at Ford Field. Dutch passed away in 1978, in his home state of Colorado, but he’s been immortalized many times over as the first great Lion.

So, next time you’re at Ford Field, go pay your respects—and know that no matter what Matthew Stafford ultimately does in his Lions uniform, he wasn’t allowed to try it in Dutch’s.

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