Bobby Layne became a legend not only because of his heroics on the field, where he virtually patented the two-minute offense as a quarterback in the 1950s and ‘60s for the Detroit Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers. In the end, which for him came Monday in a Lubbock, Tex., hospital, it was another claim to fame, his fondness for drinking, that contributed to his death at 59.
A Methodist Hospital spokesman said Layne died at 11:05 a.m. of heart failure. He had been in critical condition since Nov. 15, when he underwent five hours of surgery to stop hemorrhaging in his lower esophagus. He suffered from a chronic liver ailment.
A native of Santa Anna, Tex., and considered the best quarterback in University of Texas history, Layne was a member of three halls of fame in his home state alone. But he was a star wherever he went, also earning induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the National Collegiate Hall of Fame as well as the state halls of fame in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Layne enjoyed his greatest success as a professional in Detroit, where he led the Lions to National Football League championships in 1952 and 1953. When the Lions’ coach, Buddy Parker, went to Pittsburgh in 1956, Layne eventually followed him and played for the Steelers until his retirement in 1962.
He spent the last 24 years in the oil business in Lubbock. He is survived by his wife of 40 years, Carol, and two sons, Rob and Alan, both of whom played college football in the Southwest Conference.
In 15 seasons as a professional, Layne completed 1,814 of 3,700 passes for 26,769 yards and 196 touchdowns.
But as a quarterback, Layne is remembered less for his statistics than for his competitiveness. It was most evident as time was running out, when he would maneuver his offense down the field with time-saving pass patterns in what later became known as the two-minute drill.
“He demanded only the best and would accept only the best,” Heisman Trophy winner Doak Walker once said. “Here is a man who was a general on the field and off the field in every way. He was the greatest two-minute quarterback I have ever seen.”
Layne and Walker were teammates at Highland Park High School in Dallas and with the Lions, but they were opponents in college. Walker played for Southern Methodist.
A take-charge quarterback who was respected by teammates and opponents, Layne could be as difficult on one as the other. During a game with the Steelers, he once kicked his fullback in the rear because he had not run a play properly.
“If you ever missed a block, Layne made sure everybody knew about it,” former offensive tackle Lou Creekmur told the Associated Press. He was Layne’s teammate in the ‘50s.
“Guys on the field, guys on the bench, everybody in the stadium knew it. He’d call you right out of the huddle. He would stand there, raving at you and shaking a finger in your face and you wanted to punch him. A couple of times we had to grab people to keep them from hitting Bobby. But off the field, there’s nothing he wouldn’t do for us.”
Layne was one of the last NFL players not to wear a face mask, which often is cited as an example of his courage. But in the earthy language that was characteristic of him, he had another word for it.
“All that stuff about me being brave because I didn’t wear a face mask is a crock,” he said several years ago in an interview with Denne Freeman, the Texas AP sports editor. “I tried a new face mask every day they brought one out. But they bothered my vision, even the one-bar types they had. Sure, I had my nose broken some, but it was nothing serious.”
In that interview, Layne also attempted to downplay another prevailing theme to his legend, that of a hard-drinking, hard-living carouser.
“I don’t think there’s any way possible I could have played for 15 years if I had done all the things I’m supposed to have done,” he said. “If you ever get your name in the paper with that kind of reputation, it’s going to continue. Other pro athletes did the same things I did. I was just too open with mine.
“I’m sorry because it did hurt my family. A lot of the things that were written weren’t true. The only thing I did different from everyone else was walk in the front door instead of the back.”
But the reputation persisted long after his playing days.
Upon bringing Layne back to Detroit in 1982 to conduct the coin toss at the Super Bowl in the Silverdome, the Lions assigned him a chauffeur.
Asked where he had taken Layne, the chauffeur, Red Austin, said: “Mostly to a lot of small bars. He’s definitely a good party man. It’s been no shortage of good times. I can tell you that.”
Layne went to Detroit for the last time early last month for a team reunion. While there, he was admitted to a hospital for tests and treatment related to his liver ailment. After being released, he returned to work in Lubbock. But less than a week later, he woke up in pain at 3 a.m. He drove himself to the hospital.
“My only request,” he once said, “is that I draw my last dollar and my last breath at precisely the same instant.”