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Origins of the “Great Lakes Classic” between the Browns and Lions

The annual preseason game sported its own trophy – and legacy

Back in the 1950’s and the early 1960’s, the Detroit Lions were one of the NFL’s best teams almost every season. From 1952-1957, this franchise played in four NFL Championship Games and won three NFL titles.

Similarly from 1950-1957, the Cleveland Browns played in seven NFL Championship Games and captured three NFL titles on their own.

The common denominator was that the Browns played the Lions in five of those championships including four in a row from 1951 through 1954.

All throughout the 1950’s, it was either the Browns or the Lions or the Los Angeles Rams or the New York Football Giants and occasionally the Washington Redskins in the title game.

Cleveland was nestled into the American Conference which was mostly eastern clubs. Detroit was a member of the National Conference with the majority of their teams in the Midwest to western states. At the time, only two teams made the playoffs: the winners of each conference. So, this set up many a Cleveland Browns vs. the Detroit Lions match-up.

Here are the Browns vs. Lions in the NFL Championship Game results: 1952: Lions win 17-7; 1953: Lions win 17-16; 1954: Browns win 56-10; and 1957: Lions win 59-14.

Carmen Policy grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. His father listened to Browns’ games on the radio and was a big fan. A future attorney, Policy eventually became the President of the San Francisco 49ers and was an integral part of five Super Bowl teams.

New owner of the Cleveland Browns Alfred Lerner(C)
New owner of the Cleveland Browns Alfred Lerner (C) and Carmen Policy (R), with former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar (L)
Photo credit should read ANTHONY ONCHAK/AFP via Getty Images

In 1999, Policy became a minority owner and President of the new Browns. The majority owner was Al Lerner. Being part-owner of the franchise he idolized as a kid was a dream come true for Policy. And with him following Cleveland during his youth, he remembered all those tense contests with the Lions.

He decided to attempt to rekindle that rivalry with its own unique path. Now that the new Browns were in business, they resided in the AFC whereas Detroit was in the NFC. So except for the occasional rotation of division opponents, the Browns and Lions were never going to be actual “rivals” like they were in the 1950’s. But Policy came up with an ingenious idea to reminisce about those forever ago championship teams.

Policy invented “The Great Lakes Classic.”

Across the pond

Back in the origins of professional football, most teams began in small-to-medium towns. They played other clubs that were located near them for travel purposes.

This was the premise of Policy’s idea. Detroit is just a boat ride northwest of Cleveland through Lake Erie, up the Detroit River and then hang a left. Not that travel costs are a concern anymore, but the two teams are just a stone’s throw away. And the history was just too much to ignore.

“Back before the Super Bowl, the Browns and Lions played for the league championship five times. And the Browns only came out on top once,” said Policy. “So let’s do a preseason game and make it as interesting as possible. “

“The Great Lakes Classic” began in 2002 and was one of the preseason games for both clubs. The winner of the annual contest received a very large trophy called “The Great Lakes Freighter Trophy.” This award was nicknamed “The Barge” by many beat writers. The Battle for the Barge was sometimes more of a struggle for a roster spot for many players.

The idea for this game came from an inspiration of another preseason game that the 49ers were involved with annually against the Denver Broncos. That game was entitled “The Rocky Mountain Classic.”

“We had so much fun with that game,” Policy stated. “It added a spark to a preseason game plus added the charity feature.”

Both clubs put up $50,000 with the winning team sent home with three-quarters of the bounty to a charity of their choice selected before the match-up. The losing squad received the balance for their own charity. To top it all off, there was naturally a trophy involved – and bragging rights.

1957 NFL Championship Game program

So naturally when Policy ended up in the front office of the new Browns, he remembered his connection to that Classic and the ramifications of the charitable aspect and wanted to bring forward one for Cleveland to own and participate in each year. The childhood detested Lions and their championship wrecking history was the logical choice.

At the time, NFL clubs still remained control over their preseason opponents and locations. That is why you saw quite a few games played in cities such as Austin, Texas, Columbus, Ohio, Birmingham, Alabama and Portland, Oregon.

Once presented with the idea, the Lions and GM Matt Millen jumped on board with the idea. Lions PR chief Bill Keenist was charged with setting the whole thing up on their end. The fact that the two club’s connection to the Great Lakes and the Browns-Lions history in the pre-Super Bowl era was the clincher. And plus, it would be a comfortable bus trip instead of a pricey plane trip which was an easy venture.

The trophy itself

The design of the “Great Lakes Freighter Trophy” was to honor and generically represent the many iron-ore freighters which have called Lake Erie home over the ages.

“It’s a beautiful piece – kinda heavy,” offered Policy. “The cost to build it wasn’t cheap. If I remember right - between $25,000-$50,000.”

The trophy was designed and ready to go before the first match played August 17, 2002 in Cleveland, a 24-23 Browns win. The weight estimation is around 75 pounds and takes two men to move and transport it.

Like the Stanley Cup in hockey, the winner kept the trophy until the following year. There were engraved plaques which displayed the winner, the year plus the score.

The design sports the helmets of both clubs with the inscriptions “Lions” and “Browns” both in each franchise’s letter styles. In the center is a printed plaque which states “Great Lakes Classic – Cleveland Browns vs. Detroit Lions.”

“Matt Millen really greased us if we lost, “ added Policy. “The local paper would run a full story on the game plus the trophy. Matt would send photos and tell us how well it fits over at their office complex and that they plan on just keeping it.”

Policy, being a two-time NFL team President, knows a thing or two about promotion. He has the innate ability to take something minimal and make a big deal about it – especially adding the charitable aspect into the fold.

The Classic comes to a close

“The Great Lakes Classic” was annually one of the preseason games for both the Lions and Browns and played its final game of the series in 2014. By that time Policy had moved on to assisting Carson, California with building a new stadium. When the 2015 NFL preseason schedule was declared, now operated by the league, the Browns-Lions game was missing. The announcement was that there was a scheduling conflict and that the series was “on hold.” So far, no word on why the series wasn’t resumed and placed back on the preseason schedule.

“I suppose some new people came in and didn’t see the community value in continuing the Classic,” Policy surmised. “The league may have wanted their preseason selections to be more versatile as well. It went on for 11 years though.”

The trophy was last won by the Lions in 2014 by a score of 13-12. Cleveland won the series 6-5 with the game mostly played in the second preseason game slot.

Are they still battling for “The Barge?”

No. The series appears dead especially with the league mandating just three preseason games. The NFL now has tight controls over its scheduling including the early exhibition games and doesn’t seem to concern itself about the Great Lakes, boat rides, short commutes, past NFL rivalries or any community trophies.

“The Lions haven’t recognized any recent meetings with the Browns as being part of this series,” said Ellen Trudell, Detroit’s Corporate Communications Manager. “To our knowledge, neither team considers the series to be active.”

Plus, the Lions already have an annual preseason game against the Buffalo Bills that is decades longer than the Classic. The Browns also have the annual exhibition game against Cincinnati played in Columbus at Ohio Stadium.

And maybe it’s just as well. During the duration of “The Great Lakes Classic,” both the Lions and Browns hold two of the worst win-loss records in the league during this time period. 29 different quarterbacks were used by both franchises. They hired 13 different head coaches and posted a collective .339 winning percentage.

The Barge remains in Detroit?

Actually, after the last game played in Detroit, the trophy was spotted in the Browns’ media room. What gives? Why didn’t Detroit keep it? Is it because Cleveland won the series and should be the beholder?

Actually, according to Keenist who eventually became the Lions’ VP of communications before leaving in 2018, he stated that at some point Detroit commissioned a second trophy to be made.

The “Great Lakes Freighter Trophy” photographed in Browns media room

“That trophy weighed a ton,” Keenist explained. “After a while, we decided it wasn’t fair to our equipment guys to ask them to load and unload that thing every time, so we opted to have a second trophy made.”

So this eliminated the transportation of the heavy obstacle and during each year’s game, the club simply rolled out their version of the trophy. This basically maintained the illusion of a traveling scepter that was passed along to the winner like they do in some college football rivalry games which exchanges a pig or an egg or a bronze boot. The trophy currently in Cleveland is the original piece.

“I double-checked with our football communications staff and the trophy is currently stored at the team’s Allen Park headquarters and training facility,” Trudell stated.

The “Great Lakes Classic” may be gone, but it was once an ambitious idea born to spice up the mundane and help the needy all in one swoop.