They had spent most of the pro football season trying to catch up from disaster. One loss by two measly points had become a haunting memory, a spur of motivation for redemption, an obsession.
Over the past half-century plus five — since 1957 and the last championship won by the Detroit Lions — one defeat sticks out still to dominate the history of the franchise.
"When Terry Barr slipped," Gail Cogdill said over the phone this past week.
And one victory should be recalled as the most gallant in all that time.
And in that victory, Cogdill had huge hands. Hands as huge as Roger Brown's and Joe Schmidt's and the late Alex Karras'.
Even now, the Lions' ancient internal warfare between the defense and the offense becomes a discussion point.
"Everybody talks about the defense," Cogdill told me as we reflected on a November game 50 years ago. "The defense this, and the defense that.
"The offense never gets mentioned."
The Lions had lost the third game of the 1962 season to the Packers on a muddy field while trying to run out the clock with a 7-6 lead. The historical facts are imperishable. A pass play was called. Barr, the receiver, toppled in the mud. Herb Adderley intercepted the pass. And then Paul Hornung kicked a winning field goal for the Packers, a 9-7 victory.
In the aftermath in the defeated locker room, Milt Plum, the quarterback, was targeted by the defense. Karras admittedly threw his helmet at Plum, a tad wide and outside. Other defenders went after Plum. George Wilson, the coach, head to rescue Plum.
The Packers had gained control of the NFL's Western Division. Two weeks later the demoralized Lions lost to the Giants.
And throughout the remainder of that season, the Lions amped up for the rematch with the Packers in Detroit, Tiger Stadium.
It was 1962, November, and a Thanksgiving football game in Detroit had been a Lions' tradition since 1934. After Green Bay, the Lions had defeated the Rams, the Bears, the Rams again, the 49ers and the Vikings.
But all the athletes talked about was the rematch with the Packers.
This particular Thanksgiving, Nov. 22 — the identical date of Thanksgiving 2012 and another Lions game — was a chilly, gray day with a light snowfall. The Packers were undefeated, 10-0. At dusk on Thanksgiving eve, wishful fans had started lining up outside Tiger Stadium awaiting the sale of bleachers tickets in the morning.
"The people can help us," linebacker Wayne Walker told a then-neophyte sports journalist. "When we come out on the field, they can let loose, make noise, let us know they're for us."
It sounded like a command.
The people created an atmosphere of seething anticipation. The electric roars from the grandstands contrasted with the mood in the Lions' locker room.
"It was quiet," Cogdill remembered. "Everybody thought, 'I'm going to do something I never did before.'"
And they did.
The defense attacked Bart Starr, Vince Lombardi's championship Green Bay quarterback.
Brown, at 300 pounds, had a career day pass rushing Starr. Schmidt blitzed Starr to distraction. Karras was brilliant. Darris McCord and Sam Williams — with Brown and Karras comprising the original Fearsome Foursome — were in on the savage defense that hounded Starr.
There is a photograph of the defense that has remained famous through showing and re-showings for all these years. A graphic memory of Schmidt, Brown, Karras, et al., dragging Starr down in the Green Bay end zone.
The Lions' defense was glorified.
Two TD KO
It was a football game — a Lions' performance — that I could never forget.
But my strongest image of this game after 50 years is Gail Cogdill streaking through the gray mist and the snowflakes along the far sideline. The side with the benches stationed adjoining in the baseball outfield. And Gail reaching out in full stride to catch the spiraling football thrown to the left by Plum. And carrying it into the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown.
"The offense really got the ball rolling," Cogdill said from his home in Spokane, Wash. "We went up 14-0.
"The offense gave the defense a spark."
Cogdill caught two touchdown passes from Plum in the first 16 minutes.
"The first, I took the defensive back with me and went outside and went deep," Cogdill said.
The second touchdown was another pass play designed to go left.
"I said, 'Milt, if you get caught I'll be down the right sideline,'" Cogdill said. "I could see the ball coming. But I was looking at Herb Adderley. I didn't want him to see my eyes looking at the ball. I jumped to get the ball and fell to my knees."
This TD pass went for 27 yards, in the first minute of the second quarter.
After 50 years, Cogdill revealed that the Lions' two touchdown pass plays contained something of a playground aspect.
"The plays we called were not what we worked on," Cogdill said.
On the Packers' next offensive play, Brown crashed through on Starr, forced a fumble. Sammy Williams scooped up the ball and ran for a third touchdown.
The Lions were in control, 21-0, after 16 minutes.
They would beat the Packers, 26-14. Lombardi's team was no longer unbeaten.
But the Lions would never catch up to the Packers.
Nowadays, Cogdill lives with his wife, Dian, and with his memories in Spokane. He is awaiting stem cell surgery. He sounds like the same guy he was when he played with the Lions, the voice the same as ever — prideful, with a bit of irreverence.
Green Bay would finish 13-1 that season and defeat the Giants in the NFL championship game, Lombardi's second title. The Lions finished the season second in their division at 11-3.
The Lions of 50 years ago — those who have survived — still reckon that they were the best team in pro football that year.
And nobody who was in attendance at that Thanksgiving game a half-century ago is going to debate that.
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Sundays at detroitnews.com.