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Joe Schmidt may or may not be the first major midfielder in the NFL. There are historians who would point to Bill George, who just JUST preceded Schmidt and was the great midfielder for the Chicago Bears before a guy named Butkus joined.
But even if Joe Schmidt was not first – and I would argue, with all due respect to George, that he was – there is no doubt that Schmidt was the first TRUE midfielder in the NFL, which means he was the first to control every aspect of the game from that place. He was great against the run, even better against the pass, and he was the one to account for offenses in every game.
Schmidt, of course, grew up in Pittsburgh. I add the “natural” because if you’re ever asked, “Where was that NFL all the time great from?” you should always answer Pittsburgh. Here’s a Pittsburgh team I quickly put together (sorry for any mistakes):
QB: Joe Montana or Dan Marino or John Unitas or Joe Namath or Jim Kelly (Matt Ryan looks sadly off the bench).
RB: Tony Dorsett and Mercury Morris (with Curtis Martin as backup).
WR: Brandon Marshall, Tyler Boyd.
OL: Jimbo Covert, Russ Grimm, Rich Saul, Bill Fralic, Joe Stydahar.
DL: Aaron Donald, Sean Gilbert, Jason Taylor, Randy White.
LB: Sam Huff, Jack Ham, LaVar Arrington.
DB: Darrelle Revis, Ty Law, Ross Fichtner, Mark Kelso.
Point is, yes, of course, Joe Schmidt came from Pittsburgh. He not only grew up AROUND football, he grew up INSIDE football. His father died when he was 13 years old. He played semi-professional football with his brother when he was 14 years old. He went on to play football at the University of Pittsburgh and delivered an exciting speech ahead of the Notre Dame match that inspired a troubled victory in South Bend. In the game, Joe Schmidt had an important 60-yard interception return AND was knocked out cold in the fourth quarter. He would have to spend 10 days in the hospital.
The guy was already football.
There are many such Joe Schmidt stories. Jerry Glanville probably tells the best one. Schmidt was taken by the Lions in the seventh round of the 1953 NFL draft. This is funny, because in the second round, Detroit picked an All-Big-10 running back from Indiana named Gene Gedman. And after the draft, they were worried that Gedman would not sign and would rather go play in Canada. When he showed up to play with the Lions, they actually held a small parade for him in Detroit.
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Meanwhile, Schmidt – who would become one of the greatest players in the team’s history – was an afterthought. Heck, he was a long kick to even catch up with the team. He was only 6 feet tall *, weighed perhaps 220 pounds, and did not impress anyone as the All-American athlete. Old photos show a player who looked slightly bald, who looks about 10 years older than him.
* “I was 6-foot-3,” Schmidt would say, “before I started tackling all those fullbacks.”
On top of that, the Lions won the NFL title the year before.
Lions: NFL Champions. Those were the days, right?
Schmidt not only made the team, he immediately became a beginner and a leader.
Anyway, we’ll come back to that later. Let’s go back to Glanville’s Schmidt story. Not long after arriving in Detroit, Schmidt played in a preseason game and he was kicked in the eye – it was in front of face masks. And, as happens when someone is kicked in the eye, he started bleeding profusely. At rest he needed 22 stitches.
His post coach warned him that he would start the second half anyway.
“I do not think I can see,” Schmidt said.
“You can see from the other eye, right?” said the coach.
“Remember,” Glanville would say, “it was a PRE-SEASON game.”
Joe Schmidt was a star at the Lions before the midfielder was even an NFL position. His first three years he was a left-handed player. Then he played a position called middle guard. But all the time he was fantastic because he was constantly on the move, he was a great tackler, and he had otherworldly instincts in pass coverage. He was named the first-team all-rounder in his second season – and seven more times thereafter.
It was right around 1957 that Schmidt started playing the position he would make known – midfielder. “Schmidt did not exactly create the midfielder position,” the Pro Football Hall of Fame wrote of him. “[But] without a doubt he was the first to play the position with such finesse that even the masses in the stands could see the growing value of the ‘defensive quarterback’. “
Yes, he really was the first midfielder to be the fullback for the defense, and that’s because of the variety of his game. The defender in the middle of the field has always been responsible for filling the run, and Schmidt was as good at it as anyone. His most famous game was probably the 1957 NFL Championship Game, when he led a defense that kept Jim Brown to just 69 yards with 20 carries.
But on top of that, Schmidt excelled in pass coverage – he also intercepted a pass in that ’57 title game (which the Lions won 59-14) and intercepted 24 passes in his career. He also recovered 17 fumbles in his career; the guy was all over the field. His instincts were unmatched; he was just magnetically drawn to football.
I like what football historian Bryan Frye writes about him: “Turn on film from the pre-merger era, and you’ll probably see a lot of defenders running around like just decapitated chickens without actually doing anything. Schmidt was not one of those guys. “
And it’s true – if you look back at 1950s football, you see all sorts of silly, fun, slapsticky football with players falling down and then getting up and running again, and players named Crazy Legs dizzying from one sideline to another. and broke a million dives, for the same defender struck them three or four times.
But Joe Schmidt looks like a 2022 soccer player in the 1950s. He covers receivers and makes textbook branches and just seems like he’s better at this game than anyone else out there. Jerry Glanville completely idolized him and called him the greatest linebacker in NFL history. There is an argument.