We Remember “When Lions Roamed in Gratiot County, 1946-1948”

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Above: July 31, 1947, front page of the Alma Record; August 1946 Lions Scrimmage advertisement; program from the 1946 game; Lions Head Coach Gus Dorais.

     After World War II, Gratiot County became the late summer home of the Detroit Lions professional football team. At Alma College, the Lions drew many visitors who came to Alma to watch the team during summer training camp.

    Usually, the Lions arrived in early August and remained at Alma College for about one month, allowing the public to watch many open practices. The highlight of each summer camp would be an intrasquad scrimmage that took place under the lights at Bahlke Field.

    In 1946, the Lions moved their summer training camp from Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario, to Alma College. By the late 1940s, the team had won one NFL championship (1935) and came off an excellent 7-3 record in 1945 under third-year coach Gus Dorais.

     However, during the late 1940s, the Lions struggled and went a combined 6-29 over the three seasons that the team practiced at Alma College.  Dorais would be fired, and Bo McMillin became head coach in 1948.

     The arrival of the Lions each summer in Alma proved to be big news, and it was hoped that their presence encouraged more people to come to Alma. In 1946, the first year that Detroit practiced at Alma College, the team insisted that the college heavily water the playing field. Coach Gus Dorais wanted a “springy field,” one that had a surface that would be easier on the feet of his sixty players. Over one half of the team that arrived that summer had just recently left the military due to the end of World War II, and many had no professional experience. A very long hose and pipe were donated by the City of Alma to help get the practice field ready starting in late July.

      On August 8, 1946, the Lions arrived for dinner, and they met a welcoming committee made up of the Alma Chamber of Commerce and city commissioners. The Lions stayed in Wright Hall and made Memorial Gymnasium their locker room, and morning practices ran from 9:30-12:30 each day. After two weeks in Alma, a group made up of two players, a coach, trainer, and publicity chief, all met with the Alma Lions Club to talk about professional football and the Lions’ prospects for the upcoming season.

     The most well-known player on the team was Emil Ure, a World War II veteran, and an All-League tackle who just rejoined the Lions after serving 27 months in the infantry in Europe. The best-known player in the group to local fans was Bob Westfall, who had played at the University of Michigan and had been a teammate of Tom Harmon in the early 1940s. As the team started training camp, the Lions reportedly were most in need of a good passer.

    On August 26, 1946, the team had an intra-squad game and charged $1.20 a ticket, which the Alma Lions Club sold in advance to the public. Days after this well-attended game, the Lions departed Alma with 38 players on September 5  for their first game of the season. However, it was a poor Lions season, which resulted in only one win.

    The following spring, on March 27, 1947, it was announced that the Detroit Lions would return to Alma College for summer training and that they would arrive on August 4. A group made up of quarterbacks, centers, and kickers arrived five days early that summer so that Coach Dorais could institute the new “T” formation that the Lions would use that season.

      The big news about the Detroit Lions as they arrived in Alma was the presence of Bill Dudley, the NFL’s leading rusher in 1946. Dudley had been acquired from Pittsburgh and gave the Lions an offensive weapon that they had previously lacked. However, Dudley did not arrive at camp until August 18. That month was incredibly hot in Alma, but it did not deter people from showing up to watch the Lions practice.

     On August 21, a crowd of 2,000 people packed into Bahlke Field to watch the Detroit Lions rookies defeat the veterans by the score of 21-13. Dudley’s debut in the game proved to be the biggest news about the scrimmage. During the game, Alma’s Stillwell Junior High Principal, Floyd “Bill” Lear, fulfilled his life-long dream of being an NFL referee by working as a field judge.

     One of the disappointments in Alma that August was that no Lions players or coaches appeared at the Alma Lions Club meeting as they did the previous summer. Instead, the Lions Club members viewed a movie featuring highlights of the 1946 season. The heat had again been oppressive in Alma, and Coach Dorais used that evening to hold practice, rather than appearing at the Alma Lions Club. On September 18, the team concluded summer practice and left for Pittsburgh for its first game. The 1947 season was also a poor one for the Lions as they went 3-9, and the team eventually fired their head coach.

     On Sunday, July 31, 1948, the Lions arrived at Alma College for their last training camp in Gratiot County. Approximately 60 players arrived by bus for lunch at Wright Hall. New Lions coach Bo McMillin now headed the team.

     The  Alma Lions Club again immediately went to work to promote the August 23 intra-squad scrimmage to be held at Bahlke Field. Sales were so successful that it was said that tickets sold “like hotcakes.” McMillin put the squad hard to work on two a day practices leading up to the scrimmage. The Alma Record reported that over 2,000 people showed up that night to watch the Gray squad defeat the Blue squad, 23-0. To entertain the crowd during the scrimmage, the Alma Industrial Band made an appearance. Leonard Refineries sponsored the band, and Earl Uphoff from St. Louis operated as the conductor. Frank Chapman served as the band’s manager, and Albert Weatherby assisted Uphoff.

    As the Lions departed Alma College that fall for the last time, the team continued a sixteen year run of missing the playoffs. The 1948 team went 2-10 that year and did not do well for another three seasons. However, the Lions gradually acquired players that would be the foundation of what would be the franchise’s glory days of the 1950s. During that decade, the team played in four championship games, winning three of them.

     While the Detroit Lions have not experienced sustained championship success in over sixty years, for three summers in the late 1940s, people in Gratiot County witnessed a time when Lions roamed, played, and even roared at Alma College.

   Copyright 2020 James M Goodspeed

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