- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 27, 2003

They gathered last weekend, old men now, remembering the good times when they played together with the Detroit Lions and met George Plimpton, this writer from Harvard who wanted to go to training camp with them.

It seemed like a good idea to get together again 40 years after the author wrote his book, a chance for the old teammates to see each other one more time.

And then yesterday, they learned of the Paper Lion’s death.

“It was shocking,” defensive lineman Roger Brown said. “We had a good time last weekend. I told him how he was a light in my life. I’m glad our paths crossed in 1963. It was the best camp of my life. It was good to see him and the others. It shows how valuable and fragile life is. I am shocked that he’s gone.”

The reunion brought tackle Alex Karras back to Detroit for the first time in years. It was a chance to see old friends, particularly Plimpton.

“I am very grateful that we were able to share the Paper Lions’ reunion,” Karras said in a statement. “George was a gentleman in the truest sense of the word — loyal, funny, a good friend. He was my hero and I will miss him.”

Plimpton, whose fumbling exploits included boxing and trapeze-flying, died Thursday night at his New York apartment at 76. He documented his punishing stint training with the Lions in his book “Paper Lion,” later made into a successful movie starring Alan Alda.

Last Sunday, linebacker Carl Brettschneider sat with Karras and Plimpton in a private box watching the Minnesota Vikings defeat Detroit 23-13. He remembered how Plimpton pulled for his team, which has fallen on hard times.

“I told him, ‘George, we’ve got to catch the bus,’” Brettschneider said. “He kept saying, ‘One more play. If the Lions score and recover the onside kick and kick a field goal, they win.’ That was George.

“It’s a shocker. At least we had the reunion and that good time together.”

Guard John Gordy sat with Plimpton at the team banquet, remembering that remarkable training camp and how the Lions welcomed this most unusual rookie.

“It was just a delight,” he said. “I don’t know that there’s another person who could have done what he did and be accepted the way he was. He helped us through the drudgery and monotony of training camp.

“He was a rookie and there was a lot of rookie hazing. He sang his school song, just like the others. We embraced him and fell in love with the guy. Later I was his catcher when the Plimpton All-Stars played the Yankee Old-timers.”

Hall of Famer Lem Barney wasn’t with the Lions when Plimpton came to training camp. He arrived in 1967, while the movie was being made and appeared in the film.

“He was Everyman,” Barney said. “He was a journalist with a great head for athletics, the guy who thinks, ‘If I can get in one time, I can prove myself.’ I will remember him fondly and with great warmth.”

End Gail Cogdill recalled watching Plimpton jotting down notes everywhere he went during the training camp. He decided to play a veteran trick on the rookie.

“I stole his notes, but I couldn’t decipher them,” he said. “I showed them to a secretary, and she couldn’t figure them out either.

“At the reunion, I spent the most time I’ve ever spent with George. We talked, and for the first time I understood the type of man he was.”

Plimpton was a man for all seasons. He boxed with Archie Moore and pitched to Willie Mays. In a Sports Illustrated story, he invented a spring training phenom named Sidd Finch, who could throw baseballs faster than anyone could imagine. But it was the Paper Lion that defined Plimpton.

On his Web site, the author presented his philosophy of life.

“There are people who perhaps would call me a dilettante because it looks as though I’m having too much fun,” he wrote. “I have never been convinced there’s anything inherently wrong in having fun.”

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