Hall inductee Mann became Lions legend after Michigan

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Bob and Vera Mann

In a Michigan Sports Hall of Fame Induction ceremony that includes Derek Jeter, Ben Wallace, Mike Modano and Chris Osgood, the late Bob Mann stands alone.

After all, he is designated a “legend.”

Mann began his college football career in 1941 at Hampton before transferring to Michigan, where he starred on the 1947 national championship team. In 1948, he became the first black player for the Lions, and a year later, led the NFL with 66 receptions and 1,014 yards in a 12-game season. He also played for the Packers and became a Packers Hall of Famer.

Vera Mann, his wife, and two daughters, Marjorie and Marilyn, will attend Friday’s induction at the Max M. Fisher Music Center. Mann was 82 when he passed away a decade ago. He remained a fixture in Detroit, where he was a defense attorney after graduating from the Detroit College of Law in 1970.

“It was a long time before I was aware of that or before I understood the significance of that,” Marilyn said of her father becoming the first black player on the Lions roster. “To his credit, it wasn’t what you knew about him. What you knew was how dedicated he was, how much he enjoyed the game, and he brought that to everything thing he did.”

Mann met the many racial challenges he faced by always remaining positive and looking forward.

“Dad left a legacy of integrity regarding the negative things that might have happened,” Marjorie said. “He remembered the positives and the good ways he was treated. The other things, he would say, ‘It’s just politics.’ He would accept it with grace and move forward with integrity. He passed that that down to Marilyn and myself.”

Vera Mann met her husband in 1953 in Detroit. Was it love at first sight? Well, Vera remembers with great detail everything he wore that day, down to his blue suede shoes.

She still marvels at how her husband, who was raised in the south and didn’t see his first gymnasium until he reached Hampton, became the athlete he was.

Mann, at his father’s urging, transferred to Michigan to advance his football career.

Bob Mann starred on Michigan’s 1947 national championship team, then went on to play for the Lions, where he led the league in 1949.

“Scouts didn’t go to black colleges back then,” Vera said. “His father, because of his medical training, sent him to Michigan to go to college (where he was pre-med). He walked over to the football area to (coach) Fritz Crisler and said, ‘I want to play,’ and he said, ‘Well, let’s see what you can do.’ ”

His playing time at Michigan stayed with him until the end and he treasured his “M’ ring awarded to the letter-winners.

“I wanted him to have a wedding band,” Vera said. “He said, ‘Nope, I’m wearing this Michigan ring.’ He wore his Michigan ring until the day he died.”

Marjorie said her father would tell his kids he simplified his work in the NFL to two jobs — be open and catch the ball. Mann applied a version of that mantra to his daughters, telling them they had only two things to worry about — study and get good grades.

The daughters represent their father’s colleges as Marjorie attended Hampton and Marilyn went to Michigan.

For Vera, her husband’s legacy went beyond football. He was a humanitarian and a giving spirit who tried to help many of his clients and strangers.

“We have so many fond memories of him,” Vera said. “I have so many letters from people who respected him, some who were players and big fans. I didn’t know anybody who didn’t like him.”

The women expect the induction will be emotional for them.

“We miss him a lot, but we feel he will be with us,” Marliyn said.