This Week in Texas History:
A column by BARTEE HAILE
Barring a miracle, it looked like the season was over for Tobin Rote and his Detroit Lion teammates on Dec. 22, 1957, as they trudged to the locker room at half-time trailing the San Francisco 49ers by 20 points.
The Rote cousins were born in San Antonio in 1928 only eight months apart with Tobin coming in January and Kyle arriving that October. They went to different high schools, but both were big stars on their respective football teams.
Tobin graduated a year ahead of Kyle and accepted a scholarship to play for the Rice Owls in the Southwest Conference. The younger Rote also picked an SWC school, but his choice was Southern Methodist where he joined legendary Doak Walker in the Mustang backfield.
College pigskin fans and sportswriters alike considered SMU a cinch to win its third consecutive conference title in 1949. If anyone was going to give the mighty Mustangs a run for their money, it sure was not the “Boys from The Institute” who had won a mere five games the previous season and finished in the middle of the SWC pack.
When Rice lost its second game to LSU, no one imagined that was the last time the Owls would taste defeat. Two Saturdays later in front of a capacity crowd at the Cotton Bowl, senior quarterback Tobin Rote rallied the blue-and-white troops from a two-touchdown deficit to vanquish SMU and his cousin Kyle by a score of 41 to 27.
The closest anybody came to derailing Rice was in the hard-fought contest at Austin the very next week. But after spotting the Texas Longhorns nine points in the first half, the Rote-led Owls prevailed 17-15.
With a perfect Southwest conference record and a fifth-place ranking in the Associated Press poll, Rice met number-16 North Carolina in the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day. The Tar Heels never had a chance and did not tally until the final minute of the lopsided event after the Owls had put 27 points on the scoreboard.
Tobin Rote was selected in the second round of the 1950 National Football League draft by the worst team in professional football. Since their last championship in 1944, the Green Bay Packers had fallen on embarrassingly hard times that did not improve during the Texan’s seven-year stay in the frozen north.
Season after woeful season, Rote carried the pitiful offense on his back. He not only led Green Bay in passing, which was to be expected from the starting quarterback, but also was the Packers’ top rusher three times.
Rote’s incredible performance in 1956 remains one of the most amazing in NFL history. On a team that won just four of 12 games, he led the league in passing yards and passing touchdowns while finishing second in rushing TD’s. His combined total of 29 touchdowns was an untouchable record for the better part of a half century.
The Packers rewarded Rote that off-season by trading him to Detroit. The Lions already had a high-profile signal-caller, fellow Texan Bobby Layne who was immensely popular with the Motor City fans. So the top-ranked quarterback in the NFL was relegated to the role of back-up.
Then in the second quarter of the next-to-last match of the regular schedule, Layne was carried off the field with a broken ankle. Rote answered the bell, and with the stand-by’s steady hand on helm, the Lions went on to beat the Cleveland Browns 20-7.
In a must-win game versus the Bears the following Sunday, the Lions fell behind by ten points in the first half. But Rote’s experience paid off handsomely with three touchdowns in the last 30 minutes that set up a tie-breaking playoff with San Francisco.
The 49ers look invincible in the first half, as they jumped out to a 20-point advantage. “We could hear them laughing,” Rote later recalled. “The walls were paper thin. They were going on about how they were going to spend their championship game money. It made us angry.”
So angry, in fact, that the fired-up Lions roared back to cross the San Francisco goal line three times in less than five minutes. The stunning 31-27 come-from-behind victory sent Detroit to the title showdown with Cleveland.
Behind Rote’s five touchdowns, four through the air and one on the ground, the Lions routed the Browns 59-14 for their third championship in six seasons. But it would be their last just like Bobby Layne predicted on his way out the door.
When the Lions gave Rote his walking papers two years later, he was not ready to call it a career. So the Texan went north, even farther than frigid Green Bay, to the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and taught them a thing or two about passing.
In 1963, the San Diego Chargers of the new American Football League offered the 35 year old quarterback a $35,000 contract, ten grand more than he was making in Canada, to hold down the fort while a wet-behind-the-ears rookie learned the position. Rote did that and much more in two campaigns with the Chargers becoming the first and only quarterback to win NFL and AFL championships.
The History Press will publish Bartee’s first book on Jan. 14, 2014. You may pre-order a signed copy of “Texas Depression-Era Desperadoes” at barteehaile.com or by mailing a check for $26.65 to “Bartee Haile,” P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.
San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.