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Cover of Paper Lion, featuring a picture of George Plimpton
In 1960, Plimpton, not a professional athlete, arranged to pitch to a lineup of baseball stars in an All-Star exhibition, presumably to answer the question, "How would the average man off of the street fare in an attempt to compete with the stars of professional sports?" He chronicled this experience in his book, Out of My League.
To write Paper Lion, Plimpton repeated the experiment in the National Football League, joining the training camp of the 1963 Detroit Lions on the premise of trying out to be the team's third-string quarterback. Plimpton, then 36 years old, showed how unlikely it would be for an "average" person to succeed as a professional football player. The book is an expanded version of Plimpton's two-part series which appeared in back-to-back issues of Sports Illustrated in September 1964. The book's epilogue is also an expanded article from Sports Illustrated which appeared one year later.
Plimpton had contacted several teams about his idea including his hometown New York Giants and New York Titans (an American Football League team that would change their name to the New York Jets) and Baltimore Colts. The Lions finally agree to host Plimpton in their training camp. The coaches were aware of the deception; the players were not until it became apparent that Plimpton did not know how to receive the snap from center. Despite his struggles Plimpton convinces head coach George Wilson to let him take the first five snaps of the annual intra-squad scrimmage conducted in Pontiac, Michigan. Plimpton managed to lose yardage on each play.
Feeling confident he can do better, Plimpton hangs around training camp one more week as the team prepares for its first pre-season game against the Cleveland Browns. He is sure if the Lions have a big enough lead near the end of the game, Wilson will let him play. However, team officials inform Plimpton at halftime that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle will not allow him to play under any circumstance. The next day Plimpton packs up and ends his experiment. Before he leaves the Lions award him a gold football that is engraved: "To the best rookie football player in Detroit Lions history."
The book is memorable as one of the first to showcase the personalities of the players and coaches and what happens off the field. Figuring prominently in the book are linebacker Wayne Walker, quarterback Milt Plum, future Hall of Famers, cornerback Dick "Night Train" Lane and middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, and defensive tackle Alex Karras, among others. However, Karras's inclusion is exclusively through the stories about him told by teammates, coaches and other team personnel. Karras missed the 1963 season serving a suspension for gambling on games.
Prior to Paper Lion, Plimpton had pitched to major league baseball players and sparred with boxing great Archie Moore, but the success of this book, which was later adapted into a 1968 film starring Alan Alda as Plimpton, helped launch a kind of second career for Plimpton as an everyman athlete. Plimpton followed Paper Lion with books about golf and ice hockey, as well as two more football books.
- Plimpton, George (September 7, 1964). "Zero of the Lions". Sports Illustrated: 96–117.
- Plimpton, George (September 14, 1964). Hut-Two-Three...Ugh!. pp. 26–35.
- Plimpton, George (September 13, 1965). "The Celestial Hell of the Superfan". Sports Illustrated: 104–120.
- Valk, Garry (September 13, 1965). "Letter from the Publisher". Sports Illustrated: 4.
- Maule, Tex (April 29, 1963). "Players are not just People". Sports Illustrated: 22–26.