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Understanding the greatness of Yale Lary

A phenomenal all-around athlete on the championship teams of the 1950s, Yale Lary was also a pioneer in special teams.

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2011 Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Chris Bosh of the 1950s Detroit Lions

A superstar player in his own right, Chris Bosh is never the name that took top billing on the Miami Heat teams of the 2010s. No, the flashy headlines were made by King James and, to a lesser extent, D-Wade. Here’s Dwyane Wade in 2016 thinking about those dominant years:

But we all knew we had to sacrifice. Chris Bosh, too. He's somebody who they don't talk about, he had to sacrifice a lot too. But at the end of the day, we sacrificed points, article hits, but what we gained was championships, friendships and brotherhoods that last a lifetime.

The powerhouse Detroit Lions teams of the 1950s were definitely Bobby Layne and Doak Walker’s team in the public eye. Even on defense, where Yale Lary was a starting safety who made nine Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams, he was part of a unit nicknamed “Chris’ Crew” after fellow Hall of Fame safety Jack Christiansen. Following Christiansen’s retirement in 1958, other talented players on defense like Night Train Lane, the legendary Joe Schmidt and colorful Alex Karras became the household names on the Lions’ defense of the early 1960s.

The spotlight passed Lary by, but those in the know recognized his consistently outstanding play in the secondary. Aside from the perennial postseason honors bestowed on the defensive back, consider this except from Sports Illustrated’s NFL Scouting Report on the Detroit Lions from September 1960 (emphasis added):

PASS DEFENSE Pass defense, thanks largely to Yale Lary, has been a strong point on most Lion teams of recent years, and it should be again with the recently acquired Night Train Lane taking over for the retired Jim David. Wilson has five experienced deep defenders, four capable linebackers and seven good front-line defenders.

For more on Lary’s career, we recommend taking a look at some of the following links:

The best Yale Lary story we found

At the end of a wild 1957 season in which Lions head coach Buddy Parker quit the team right before the start of the season, the team made the postseason and posted the biggest comeback in NFL history at the time in the Western Conference playoff to advance to the NFL Championship Game. Down 27-7 right after halftime to the San Francisco 49ers, the Lions scored 24 unanswered points to win 31-27. That playoff comeback would not be surpassed until Frank Reich’s career game in 1993 for the Buffalo Bills.

Heading into the NFL Championship game against the Cleveland Browns, first-year head coach George Wilson sought to keep his team loose and happy. Whatever he did, it worked: Detroit annihilated Cleveland 59-14 to capture the title.

As can be expected, it was no fun for anyone on the Browns that day. In Jackson Michael’s book The Game Before the Money, Yale Lary tells a story from that championship game:

I’ll never forget: I was covering Ray Renfro, and we were ahead by a lot. We were real good friends in Fort Worth. Ray came down the field and ran across. I was covering him, and they threw it to somebody else. He said “You know, Yale, this is the longest F*ing ball game i’ve ever played in my life.”

And it was for a long time. That’s the worst they’ve ever been beaten, I believe. Win some, lose some, I guess.

The Yale Lary legacy for today’s Detroit Lions

One thing we have not yet touched on is Lary’s performance on special teams. Though not as good as Lem Barney or Mel Gray running back kicks, Yale Lary was a quality returner and probably ranks among the best the club has had. The reason the Detroit Lions named their special teams MVP award in honor of Yale Lary, though, is because he is without a doubt one of the greatest punters in NFL history.

You can find the stats like the 48 yards per punt seasons and three punting titles discussed elsewhere. All of that is clear-cut evidence that Lary is the only punter from before the modern era who ought to ever be mentioned in the same breath as Sammy Baugh from the 1940s. The numbers, however, do not adequately characterize the natural talent and affinity the man had for the art of punting.

According to Zwerneman’s Game of my Life, Lary got started in punting by chance in the 1940s with a stray ball:

“We didn’t have any money to get in to the games at Farrington (Field in Fort Worth), so we’d climb up this tree just past the fence near the end zone and watch,” Lary says. “One time this guy kicked an extra point and it sailed over that wall, and we grabbed that ol’ yellow ball - i’ll never forget it - and that’s the ball we kicked with in the streets.”

“We wore that nose out hitting it on the pavement.”

This story was confirmed in the interview with Sports and Torts (see above, at about the 6:15 mark), when Lary said during World War II, while in junior high school and around 12 or 13 years old, he managed to get his hands on a ball kicked over the fence for an extra point during a game between soldiers from the army and another branch. Along with some other kids, he “started punting it in the street. . . and it just came natural.”

Per Jackson Michael’s book, the Hall of Famer said “It wasn’t my primary goal to win the punting championship; my goal was to play defensive back. I started punting in junior high and continued through high school and college. Punting was my extracurricular, and I really loved it.”

To appreciate just how natural his technique and skill in punting was, it is useful to examine his article entitled “the ways of a pro punter.” Published in the September 10, 1962 issue of Sports Illustrated, it is a comprehensive guide to punting beginning with stretching and snap handling through the drop, contact, and follow-through of the kick. Fine technical details like the effect of the nose angle of the ball and height of drop on kick angle and hang time are described with impressive specificity. While some present-day terminology may not be in the article, the section on foot contact with the ball closely mirrors modern discussion of maximum compression and energy transfer.

What makes all of this even more impressive is that full time special teams coaches in professional football did not even exist until seven years after the article in 1969, when George Allen convinced the Los Angeles Rams to let him hire one. Allen’s groundbreaking Guide to Special Teams would not be published until 1990, and subsequent books by other experts like Dick Arbuckle and the AFCA only began to appear in large numbers a decade later. It is hard to find much difference between the overall guidance in Lary’s article to the essentials of Ray Guy and Rick Sang’s authoritative 2009 book Football Kicking and Punting.

Yes, that Ray Guy.

Before there were full time staffs or even specialist players dedicated to figuring this stuff out, Yale Lary had already figured it out by himself as an extracurricular thing he loved. Without having to be taught proper form and mechanics for punting by trained experts, he just naturally did it the right way. The equivalent would be a quarterback in the 1960s throwing high velocity precision passes like Drew Brees in the 2000s - but with no quarterback coach to teach and refine the throwing motion.

Amazing punting has often been a strength for the Detroit Lions, from Lary through Jim Arnold and now Sam Martin.