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The Often Overlooked Tobin Rote

Tobin Rote
1955 Bowman football card of Tobin Rote (United States Public Domain)

OK, if they used to refer to Canadian Football League quarterback Sam Etcheverry as “The Rifle,” then maybe they should have called his QB adversary, Tobin Rote,   “The Cannon.” Or, maybe, “The Howitzer.” The big difference was that Rote could also scramble, while Etcheverry was a pocket man. Rote also has the distinction of being the only quarterback in pro football history to win championships in both the National Football League and the American Football League. And  that’s not all he did…

Tobin Cornelius Rote was born 18 January 1928 in San Antonio, Texas, the home of “The Alamo.”  Graduating in 1946 from Harlandale High School in his hometown, Rote attended Rice University in Houston from 1946-49 where he starred under head coach Jess Neely, one of the best college football coaches ever in the game. In his final season, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Rote with the huge forearms led his ninth-ranked Rice University Owls of the Southwest Conference to a 10-1 season and 27-13 Cotton Bowl win over North Carolina. During one game in the regular season against Southern Methodist, he turned a 14-0 deficit into a 41-27 victory. The next week, a repeat. Down 9-0 at the half to Texas Christian University, he led the Owls to a 17-15 win.

Following graduation from Rice University, he was drafted in the second round, 17th overall, by the Green Bay Packers of the NFL. Poor guy, the team was so bad back then. This was before Hall of Fame  coach Vince Lombardi took over in 1959, turning the Packers into the league’s dominant team up to the mid-sixties.  That early Packer defense was the culprit. Nevertheless, Rote always gave it everything he had. In 1954, he led the NFL in pass attempts with 382 and completions with 180, despite the Packers  registering 4-8 for the season. In 1955, the team improved to 6-6, and Rote led the league with 17 TD tosses. On a 4-8 Packers team in 1956, he led the NFL in 2,203 passing yards and 18 TD passes, and was second in rushing TDs with 11. His 29 total TDs was an all-time 12-game-season record that remained intact when the schedule increased to 14 games in 1961. All the other Packers players scored only five TDs between them. 

Once his seven years of hell in Green Bay was up in 1956, Rote was third overall in passing touchdowns, first in QB rushing yards, and second in QB rushing touchdowns. All this on a Packers team that never made the playoffs once in all the years he played there. Mercifully, he was traded to the Detroit Lions during the 1957 NFL training camp for the Packers to make room for rookie quarterback and future Hall of Famer Bart Starr.

Finally, in Detroit, on a team with a good defense and a pretty fair offense, Rote split his QB time with the colorful, legendary Bobby Layne, another future Hall of Famer. When Layne broke his leg in three places during a pileup in the next to last game of the season, Rote took the reins and guided the Lions to two straight wins and an 8-4 season tie with the San Francisco 49ers, forcing a one-game playoff for the Western Conference title.

The game started badly for the Lions in front of 60,000 San Francisco fans. At the half, they were behind 24-7 to the 49ers, who were acting pretty arrogant and jubilant in their dressing room. “We could hear them laughing,” Rote said, later. “The walls were paper thin. They were going on about how they were going to spend their championship game money. It made us angry.”

The Lions roared out and scored three TDs in five minutes to close out the third quarter. They eventually beat the 49ers 31-27, then took on the 9-2-1 Eastern Conference champs Cleveland Browns (with legendary Jim Brown in the backfield) and embarrassed them 59-14 before a packed-house Briggs Stadium in Detroit. Rote threw for four TDs and rushed for another, while completing 12 of 19 passes for 280 yards, with one of the TD tosses a 78-yarder to Jim Doran.

This was the Lions third NFL championship in the 1950s. Earlier, Bobby Layne had taken them to back-to-back titles in 1952 and 1953. Impressed so much with Rote, the Lions traded the 31-year-old Layne to the Pittsburgh Steelers early in the 1958 season, leaving the Motor City in shock. The hometown fans loved Lane and hated to see him go. From then on Rote was often booed. He lasted two more seasons in Detroit on an aging team going nowhere…4-7-1 in 1958 and 3-8-1 in 1959. The Lions’ glory days were over. The 1957 championship would be their last.

While we’re at it, let’s take a quick look at the infamous “Bobby Layne Curse.” What curse, you say? Well, when the Lions traded Layne away, he was furious. And that’s a reported fact. Then, leaving in a huff, he supposedly cursed management by saying, “This team won’t win anything for 50 years!” Whether he blurted that out or not, no one knows for sure. It’s something never documented, merely passed along through the press, the Lions’ upper organization and players in Pittsburgh and Detroit by word of mouth. Layne’s son, Alan, said recently in an interview that he wouldn’t doubt his dad saying something like that because he was a fiery guy at times.

So what have the Lions done since 1957? You be the judge. They haven’t come close to winning anything, certainly not with a 1-10 record in 11 post season appearances. The Lions have the league’s worst winning percentage of all NFL teams in the last 50 years and are one of only two pre-merger NFL teams to not appear in a Super Bowl. The only thing I wonder about now is that if there really is a curse, then it still must be going. So, when’s it going to stop?

Released by the Lions after 1959, the 32-year-old Rote headed north to the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League and a $25,000 contract, the highest salary in the league. Here, the Texan with the southern drawl lit up the Eastern Conference with passing records galore, some of them still standing. Besides taking a Toronto team from a dismal 4-10 mark in 1959, to a turnabout 10-4 in 1960--the Argos first season finishing first since 1937--and one game away from appearing in the coveted Grey Cup, he completed 256 passes of 450 tries for a 56.9 completion rate, good for 4,247 yards and 38 TD passes. He really aired it out in TO, in a league that was predominately a running game back then and continued to be well into the 1970s, despite only three downs. The CFL fans had never seen a quarterback quite like Tobin Rote. Twice he threw seven TDs in a single game. In another he threw 38 completions, in addition to throwing three 5-TD  games, and six 300-plus yard games.  Whew!

Bobby Lane
1953 Bowman football card of Bobby Lane (United States Public Domain)

Rote found he didn’t have to scramble as much for the Argos because he had running back stars in Cookie Gilchrist and Dick Shatto carrying the mail. Today, Rote’s 38 TDs are still the second most in the Argos single-season history, eclipsed only  by Doug Flutie’s 47 in 1997, and that took 18 games to do it. Rote still holds two single-game Argo records--on August 19, 1960 against Montreal, he threw the ball 54 times and collected 524 yards. Although the Argos slipped to 7-6-1 in 1961, they were one game away again from the Grey Cup. In his three years in Toronto, he remains fourth on the team’s all-time list with 9,872 passing yards and 66 TDs. Some older fans still say that Tobin Rote was the best quarterback in an Argo uniform. Better than Doug Flutie. Better than Joe Theismann.

It also seems Tobin Rote was quite the character in Toronto. A party man. And I’m not talking politics. He loved our Canadian beer, which has always been known for its stronger alcohol content than the American brands. Apparently, Rote had business promotions with Molson’s Brewery in town and they gave him free case after free case that needed to be disposed of. And there were always teammates around to help him do just that. While in the huddle during practices, according to teammate Fred Black, Rote oftentimes had beer on his breath. Many of his Green Bay and Detroit teammates had testified to that too. Bobby Kuntz, another teammate admitted that Rote supposedly threw his one-game record of 38 completions with only three hours sleep the night before.

In the late 1990s, Rote said that he would always try extra hard against the Montreal Alouettes because so many fans and reporters considered Sam Etcheverry the better throwing QB. “I wanted badly to prove that I could throw better than him.” And Rote  usually did demolish the Als secondary. Etcheverry presented another side. “We had a new coaching staff,” he said, “who wanted a zone defense. Our guys didn’t know what they were doing.”

After three seasons as a Toronto Argo, the San Diego Chargers of the four-year-old American Football League came calling with a $35,000 a year contract offer.  Rote grabbed at it and headed south. His first year in California, the 35-year-old veteran led the Chargers to an 11-3 record in which his team was first overall in offense. He was named First Team All-Star with stats of 2,510 yards passing, 170 completions out of 286 attempts for a 59% average, plus 17 TDs passing and two rushing. In the AFL Championship Game, he passed for three TDs and another rushing while his team crushed the Boston Patriots 51-10 to take all the marbles. For all that, he was named American Football League MVP by the Associated Press.

In 1964, previous year back-up John Hadl, a young quarterback with promise, saw more of the action. The offense fell from first to fourth, but the Chargers still made it to the title game, which Rote started. However, the Buffalo Bills won 20-7. Rote then announced his retirement. He returned to the game in 1966 with the Denver Broncos, threw eight passes, then promptly returned to retirement. This time for good. Rote moved to Detroit, where he worked as an executive. He retired with his wife to a Lake Huron waterfront property in Port Hope, Michigan. He died 27 June 2000 from a heart attack, shortly after undergoing triple-bypass surgery and a knee replacement. He was 72.

Although he played only two full seasons in the American Football League, Tobin Rote is a member of their Hall of Fame. He’s also in the Texas Hall of Fame, but not in the CFL and NFL halls. Nevertheless, he had accomplished many milestones in his football career as a passer and a rusher. Many are landmark records that still stand.

Tobin Rote was a star in three pro leagues, with two championships to his credit, plus he won a Cotton Bowl in college. Not bad for the guy whose talent may have been responsible—indirectly, of course—for the “Bobby Lane Curse.”


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