Schmidt, Joseph Paul ("Joe")
SCHMIDT, Joseph Paul ("Joe")
(b. 19 January 1932 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), football player who was the first great middle linebacker in the National Football League (NFL) and the linchpin of the Detroit Lions defense that helped carry the team to several NFL championships in the 1950s.
Schmidt was one of two children of German immigrants Peter Schmidt, a brick mason who died when Schmidt was twelve, and Stella Bender Schmidt, a homemaker who went to work after her husband's death. Schmidt grew up in the Pittsburgh suburb of Brentwood when the Smokey City was a hotbed of collegiate football. His older brother played the game at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University). When he was about six years old, Schmidt remembers his brother's teammates visiting the Schmidt residence and "talking football." Schmidt was captivated by the sport, as were many young men in western Pennsylvania at the time. At age fourteen he played sandlot football against much older players, including battle-hardened veterans returning from World War II.
As a fullback at Brentwood High School, Schmidt earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, where he enrolled in 1949 (he graduated in 1953 with a B.S. in education). Tough enough but not quite fast enough to continue playing fullback, Schmidt was converted to guard. Luckily for him it was the modern two-platoon era, when teams have 11 separate offensive players and 11 defensive players, and as a guard he was a linebacker on defense. His hard-nosed, intelligent approach to the game was quickly recognized by his coaches Len Casanova and Johnny Michelosen. However, injuries in each of his four seasons at Pittsburgh cut into his playing time. He broke two ribs as a freshman, broke his wrist and separated a shoulder as a sophomore, wrenched his knee as a junior, and tore knee cartilage and suffered a concussion as a senior. When he was on the field, though, Schmidt was the Panthers acknowledged leader.
He captained the team as a senior, and Schmidt's authoritarian leadership—coupled with his brilliant play—led to what was called "College Football's Upset of the Year" in 1952. On the train to South Bend, Indiana, to play Notre Dame, Schmidt challenged his teammates, "If you guys don't beat the Irish, I'll personally beat up each and every one of you." Schmidt, who was usually quiet and reserved, made his point. Pittsburgh played an inspired game and defeated Notre Dame 22–19. However, Schmidt did not put the onus entirely on his teammates, he personally sealed the upset victory with a sixty-yard interception return for the winning touchdown. Injuries cost him most postseason accolades, but he received All-America mention from the International News Service. Schmidt also was chosen to play in the Senior Bowl in January 1953. A Detroit Lions coach, Garrard ("Buster") Ramsey, scouted the Senior Bowl (a game that featured college seniors with professional potential) and was so impressed by Schmidt's stalwart play that the Lions drafted the stocky, blond Panther in the seventh round for the 1953 season. He signed a contract calling for $5,700 for the season.
Schmidt was joining a team that was defending NFL champion. He was not exactly welcomed with open arms by the veteran players—rookies seldom were. If he made the final roster, most likely he would be taking the place of a popular, established veteran. The roster limit in those days was just thirty-three men. Schmidt, who matured to six feet tall and 220 pounds, did make the team. In an era when teams did not have a middle linebacker, he played as an outside linebacker. The Lions repeated as NFL champions the year he joined the team. In 1954 the team switched to a 4–3 defense that featured a middle line-backer—Schmidt. It was akin to the defense he had played at Pittsburgh, and he adapted so well to the position that he was chosen to play in the Pro Bowl. He became a perennial Pro Bowl and All-Pro selection.
In 1957 Schmidt, who was by then the leader of the Lions defense, if not the team, issued another challenge to his teammates. The Lions and the San Francisco 49ers were tied for first place in the NFL's Western Division at the end of the regular season. In the playoff game San Francisco was ahead 24–7 at the half. During the intermission the Lions, through thin locker-room walls, could hear the 49ers celebrating what seemed to be a sure victory and a berth in the franchise's first NFL title game. Schmidt seethed in silence and right before the teams took the field for the second half said, "Listen to 'em. They're already spending their championship game checks. Let's do something about it." The Lions did. They roared back to win 31–27 in one of the NFL's biggest postseason comebacks ever. Almost to a man, the Lions credited Schmidt's leadership with pulling off the victory.
Schmidt married Marilyn Rotz on 29 December 1959; they had five children. Schmidt would appear in the Pro Bowl for nine consecutive years, from 1955 to 1963. He won All-Pro honors eight times during that period. In the late 1950s, television and much of the nation were awakening to the allure of professional football. Defensive players were gaining recognition previously reserved for quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers. In New York the Giants middle linebacker Sam Huff was the subject of a half-hour television special, "The Violent World of Sam Huff" (1961). Many thought Huff benefited greatly from being in the nation's media center and being overly touted by the powerful New York press. After watching the television special, one professional football observer said, "If they ever make 'The Violent World of Sam Huff' into a full-length feature film, they ought to have Joe Schmidt play the title role." The Minnesota Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff, who faced off with Schmidt twice a year, said, "He seemed to know exactly where the play was going—before it went." Vikings coach Norm Van Brocklin said, "If I were to start a team from scratch and pick out just one player, I'd select Joe Schmidt to form the core of my team." Coach George Allen, who faced Schmidt often as a Chicago Bears assistant coach, said, "He was a hard, ferocious—but clean—tackler. He played his position perfectly and called defensive signals brilliantly."
Schmidt, who was among the very best throughout his career, retired from play after the 1965 season. He had been team captain for nine seasons, had made twenty-four career interceptions, had been voted by his peers as NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1960, and had recovered eight opponents' fumbles in his final season—still the second-best single-season mark in NFL history. At the behest of the Lions' owners, Schmidt stayed on as an assistant coach. In 1967, at age thirty-five, he became the Lions' head coach. Before retiring as coach in 1972, he compiled a 43–35–7 record—a .547 average that has not been matched by any of his successors. Upon his retirement he said simply, "It isn't fun anymore." Like many former Lions, Schmidt was involved in Detroit's auto industry as a manufacturer's sales representative. He resides with his family in suburban Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Schmidt was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1972, the same year he stepped down as Lions coach, and to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2001.
Professional football often is called a chess match played with 250-pound chessmen. Schmidt's contemporaries will vouch that no one strategized correctly more often or hit harder than Schmidt. He truly led the evolution of the middle linebacker to a glamour position.
There is no biography of Schmidt, but his life and career are discussed in Al Silverman, The Specialist in Pro Football: Seventeen Top NFL Stars Tell How They Get Their Job Done (1966); Jerry Green, Detroit Lions (1973); Rick Korch, The Truly Great: The 200 Best Pro Football Players of All Time (1993); Stephen Majewski, Great Linebackers: Football's Defensive Dynamos (1997); and Bob Carroll and Joe Horrigan, Football Legends of All Times (1999).