In today’s edition of 100 Days, 100 Detroit Lions, we honor another two-way All-Pro talent from the Lions’ 1950s dynasty.
57. Leon Hart
Offensive End / Defensive End / Fullback. 1950-57 Detroit
From 1947 to 1958 the NFL had a rule in effect which awarded, on the basis of a lottery, a bonus-selection that the winning team could choose in exchange for a later-round choice. Each team was only eligible to receive the bonus pick once. In 1950 the Lions’ were the lucky winners of the bonus lottery, and used it to choose one of the greatest, most decorated, and highly coveted college football players in history, Notre Dame’s Leon Hart. Hart had won the 1949 Heisman Trophy as a member of Frank Leahy’s two-time National Championship squad.
Hart was an athletic marvel who was ahead of his time on the gridiron. At 6-foot-5, 257 pounds he was bigger than most interior lineman of his day. However, Leon possessed tremendous speed, agility, and hands for a big man. He would become one of the most versatile and important players in coach Buddy Parker’s Lion arsenal. In 1951, with speedy Lion receiver Cloyce Box absent due to his callback to the Marines to serve in the Korean War, Leon would catch 35 passes, for 544 yards and 12 touchdowns. Hart would earn a trip to the Pro Bowl with his performance. However, an injury would prevent him from playing in the end-of-season game. It would be an all too familiar scenario for Leon, as various injuries would plague him throughout his career at the most inopportune times.
Because the Lions moved Hart around so often to fill in for injuries and lack of depth at other positions during his career, he was never given a chance to establish himself at one position. That, coupled with Hart’s injury problems, may have served to disguise his overall talent. Nevertheless, his teammates and coaches appreciation for his skills was immense. Joe Schmidt said recently that “Leon could have been anything he wanted to be on the football field.” Buddy Parker normally had little patience for anyone on his team who had problems with the injury bug, but Hart remained the lone exception. “He was just too valuable to get rid of,” said Schmidt.
Hart would switch from offensive to defensive end throughout his career, spending large amounts of time on defense in 1951 and 1954. In 1955 and ‘56 he was moved to fullback, and the massive Hart would run for 507 yards and 5 touchdowns, on only 111 carries, during the two-year span. Hart would retire from football after the Detroit’s last title in 1957. His 32 career touchdowns tie him with teammate Cloyce Box for ninth place on the Lions’ all-time list, and his 12 touchdown season of 1952 ties him with Barry Sanders for ninth in that single-season category as well.