While sitting inside his Sacramento home last week, Gene Cronin was all smiles as he leaned back in a chair and spoke about one of his favorite topics – football.
After all, it was this sport that allowed him to experience some of his greatest joys in life.
Unlike many youth who dream about playing in the National Football League, Gene excelled as a pass rusher in football to such a level that he eventually became an NFL player and remained in the league for eight seasons.
Gene, who is well known in the Pocket and Land Park, is in a unique class when it comes to the history of a certain NFL football franchise.
A famous victory
On Dec. 29, 1957, the Detroit Lions won the NFL championship with a 59-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns before a crowd of 55,263 people at Briggs Stadium in Detroit.
“They haven’t won a championship since,” said Gene, who was one of only 35 players on that championship team.
After five seasons playing as the Portsmouth Spartans, the team, which joined the NFL in 1930, moved from Portsmouth, Ohio to Detroit in 1934 and became the Detroit Lions.
Twenty-four seasons later, the Lions had won four NFL championships, including the 1957 championship.
During his recent interview with this publication, Gene briefly left the room and then returned to present one of his most prized possessions – his 1957 NFL championship ring.
At the time that Gene and his teammates received their large, shiny, gold championship rings, they had no idea exactly how precious that championship would eventually become to the city of Detroit and the many people associated with the team, from its ownership and players to its many fans.
The Lions’ NFL championship drought has since surpassed the half-century mark.
So long ago was the Detroit Lions’ last championship that it predates the establishment of the Super Bowl.
Not the worst record
Fortunately for the Lions and their fans, this championship futility does not rank last.
No other NFL franchise has had more years pass between NFL championship victories than the Arizona Cardinals.
While playing in Chicago as the Chicago Cardinals (today’s Arizona Cardinals), the team won its last NFL championship in 1947.
In telling about his background leading up to his years as an NFL player, Gene said that he was born in Spalding, Nebraska on Nov. 20, 1933, but moved to California with his family when he was 6 years old.
Gene added that his family’s history in Nebraska began with his grandfather, Timothy Cronin, an immigrant from Ireland.
“When they had the land grants, Tim and (his wife) Kate came to Nebraska and got 600 acres,” Gene said. “Timothy Cronin, my grandfather, was a doer and he gave 200 acres to each of his sons. He had three sons and two daughters. (The sons, one of whom was Gene’s father, Earl) were good farmers, but the Depression came and all of them lost their farms.”
After losing their farm, the Earl Cronin family moved to Ione, Calif., where Gene attended public schools through his freshman year at Ione High School.
The Cronins then moved to a home just east of the Pocket area and Gene enrolled at McClatchy High School.
Moving from Ione to the capital city was quite a contrast for Gene.
The capital city
As a boy with a great interest in football, he was surprised to see so many kids trying out for McClatchy’s football teams.
“Football practice had started (at McClatchy), but school hadn’t started yet, so about the second and third day of practice I stood there and watched football practice,” Gene said. “They had the varsity, junior varsity, B Team, C Team. I never saw so many people in my life playing football. I had just come from a school with a total enrollment of about 50 and there were about 100 and something (boys) out for football (at McClatchy).”
Although Gene noted that he was a “pretty good athlete” at that time, since he only weighed 155 pounds, he wasn’t sure he could make the team.
Nonetheless, Gene approached Coach George Bican after a practice and told him that he would like to try out for football.
Soon after approaching Bican, Gene was loaned a leather helmet and what Gene referred to as the “last of the last” pieces of equipment.
During his senior year at McClatchy, Gene also played as a guard on the school’s varsity basketball team.
Although Gene played fairly well on the basketball court, his greatest achievements undoubtedly came as a football player.
Gene, who graduated from McClatchy in 1952, attended the College of the Pacific (today’s University of the Pacific) on a football scholarship.
“The first college football game I ever saw, I was playing in it,” Gene said. “When I went down to Pacific, we played Stanford at Stanford and beat them. I still remember when I was out in Stanford Stadium looking around at the big, old stadium. And Stanford had a good football team.”
While Gene was playing for COP, the team also beat such teams as Oregon State College (today’s Oregon State University), Washington State College (now Washington State University), Texas Technical College (today’s Texas Tech University) and the University of Cincinnati, which was coached by the legendary Sid Gilman (1911-2003), who is the only coach to have been inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Although Gene eventually became one of eight players from his Pacific team to reach the NFL, he said that he never believed that he would ever be selected to play professional football.
“In my senior year in college, all the (NFL) teams – (the then-Los Angeles/now St. Louis) Rams, New York Giants, (Chicago) Bears, everybody – would send you questionnaires to fill out,” Gene recalled. “I never filled one out. I just threw them away. I only weighed 197 pounds in my senior year in college and I knew I wasn’t big enough to play in the NFL.”
A football all-star
Fortunately, for his future in football, Gene was selected to play in the East-West Shrine Game.
Gene played very well in this all-star game and drew the attention of a Detroit Lions scout, who was sitting in the stands. As a result, Gene was drafted by the Lions in 1956.
“I don’t know if I could have made any other (NFL) team, but I could do something that Detroit needed,” Gene said. “I could rush the passer.”
And while playing in the NFL, Gene chased some of the game’s most all-time notable quarterbacks, including Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Y.A. Tittle, John Brodie and Norm Van Brocklin.
Playing in the NFL
Gene, who entered the NFL at 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 218 pounds and later increased his playing weight to 240, also competed against the Cleveland Brown’s Jim Brown, whom he described as “the best running back who ever played in the NFL.”
In 1960, Gene became one of the first players on the Dallas Cowboys inaugural year roster.
And a year later, he joined the Washington Redskins, which proved to be his final team as a player, as his playing career ended due to injury in 1963.
Gene rejoined the NFL in 1965, when he became the first person hired by the then-new Atlanta Falcons.
Initially, Gene served as the director of player personnel. He then worked his way up to assistant general manager before resigning from the team in November 1968.
Gene, who has a wife named Angie, one son and one daughter and is a longtime Elks Lodge No. 6 member, said that he is forever grateful for the opportunities he had in football.
“My football days at McClatchy, College of the Pacific and the NFL, I loved every minute of it,” Gene said. “I’m grateful for my time in football and the associations I’ve made with people through (this sport). I’ve been a lucky Irishman all my life.”