In this edition of 100 Days, 100 Detroit Lions, we pay tribute to the big footed Texan who remains the greatest punter and one of the greatest safeties in Lions’ history.
9. Yale Lary
Defensive Back / Punter. 1952-53, 1956-64 Detroit
Throughout the 1950’s and early 1960’s, the Lions possessed one of the most feared defenses in the NFL. One of the major reasons for that dominance came in the form of Hall of Fame safety Robert Yale Lary Jr.
Lary came to the Lions in 1952, as their third-round selection out of Texas A&M. He was a dominant two-way star for the Aggies at College Station, scoring two touchdowns in a 23-21 upset of Texas in his last collegiate game. In Lary’s first Lion camp, Buddy Parker tried the 5-foot-11, 189 pounder in the offensive backfield. After a few unsuccessful attempts at blocking 250 pound defensive end Leon Hart, Lary remembered Coach Parker asking him very clearly in his slow Texas’ drawl, “Son, you ever play defense?”
It was on defense where Yale would become a star. He teamed in the Leos’ secondary with Jack Christiansen, forming arguably the greatest safety-tandem in NFL history. Even with Yale missing two years due to military service (1954-55), their dynamic duo combined to collect 55 interceptions during their five-years together (1952-53, 1956-58). It is an astonishing number, especially when you consider that the NFL’s net-yards-passing total, wouldn’t exceed its net-yards-rushing total, until 1956. Yale would finish his career in 1964 with 50 interceptions, placing him third on the Lions’ career list. He returned two of those picks for scores. His career interception return total of 787 yards is second only to Lem Barney on the teams’ all-time list.
Lary was also one of the greatest punters in NFL history. He holds the Lion record with a career average of 44.29 yards per punt. He won three NFL punting titles (1959, ‘61, ‘63), and missed out on a fourth in 1962 by just 3.6 inches. In addition, over a six-game span, he once compiled a streak of 32 punts without a return. Finally, Yale’s three-career punt return touchdowns place him in a tie with former teammate Tom Watkins for second-place on the Lions’ career list.
His Lion teammate, and fellow Texan, Bobby Layne summed up Yale’s talents like this: “If I had to pick one defensive back who had everything, it would have to be Yale. He was the smartest, but the big thing was his quickness and his ability to recover and intercept after he had lulled the quarterback into thinking he had an open receiver.”
Yale Lary’s career honors include four All-NFL selections, nine Pro Bowl appearances, and a Hall of Fame selection in 1979.