New Lions coach pays visit to well-known federal jurist


 by Tom Kirvan

Legal News
In the midst of Black History Month, Jim Caldwell was welcomed to the federal courthouse Tuesday for his pioneering role as the first African American head coach in the history of one of the most storied NFL franchises – the Detroit Lions.

Detroit football fans, including longtime season ticket holder Judge Damon J. Keith of the United States Court of Appeals, are hoping that Caldwell will make even more history this season by leading the Lions to a place where they have never set foot before – the Super Bowl.

Caldwell, a defensive back for the Iowa Hawkeyes in the early‘’70s, stopped by the Theodore Levin Courthouse in Detroit February 18 for a meet-and-greet with Judge Keith, chatting for more than an hour with the esteemed jurist and his Court of Appeals colleague, Judge Eric L. Clay, a graduate of Yale Law School where he was a classmate of future President Bill Clinton.

The informal discussion focused more on the law than on the gridiron, although Judge Keith shared a long-ago story about the Lions that illustrated how far the team has come in terms of its makeup. The story revolved around Keith’s courtship of his future wife, Rachel, who completed post-graduate studies in biology at Brown University and obtained her medical degree from Boston University in 1949.

On the couple’s first date, Keith invited the young doctor to see the Lions take on the Los Angeles Dons. The pair had breakfast beforehand at Kinsel’s Drug Store on Michigan Avenue, a 10-block walk from the then home of the Lions, venerable Tiger Stadium. In an excerpt from his recently released biography, Crusader for Justice, The Life and Amazing Times of Federal Judge Damon J. Keith, the rest of the story unfolds.

“It was Rachel’s first time watching the Lions play and every time the Lions would score a touchdown, she would cheer very loudly, thinking that by cheering for his hometown team, she was making points with Damon,” wrote Trevor Coleman and Peter Hammer, authors of the Keith biography. “However, the Detroit Lions, like the Tigers and Red Wings, were segregated and didn’t have any black players. The Los Angeles Dons had three or four.

“Bemused by her enthusiasm, Damon finally told Rachel he wasn’t a Lions fan. ‘I’m not pulling for the Detroit Lions because they don’t have any blacks on their team and until they get some blacks, I won’t pull for them.’

“Rachel, who was not very political at the time, took a long look at Damon and softly smiled. Gently placing her hands in her lap, she didn’t cheer for the Lions again for the rest of the game.”

Now, some six decades later, the Lions have long since embraced diversity and will be led by a man who has a Super Bowl pedigree, once as a head coach and twice more as an assistant.

“It’s a real indication of how much progress we have made,” Keith told Caldwell during their chat. “No affirmative action took place in this case. You earned every right to be the coach of the Lions.”

A native of Wisconsin, Caldwell was a four-year starter at Iowa from 1973-76, when, he acknowledged, the Hawkeyes enjoyed little success against the likes of then Big Ten kingpins Michigan and Ohio State.

“Those were the years when Michigan was coached by Bo (Schembechler) and Ohio State by Woody Hayes, and they pretty much had their way with us,” Caldwell said, noting that the Hawkeyes “fared better” during that era against Michigan State.

He later served as an assistant coach at Iowa, one of six collegiate coaching jobs he held before he was hired to lead the Demon Deacons of Wake Forest University in 1993, reportedly becoming the first African American head football coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference. 

Caldwell, married and the father of five grown children, made his move to the pros in 2001 as quarterbacks coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, joining the Indianapolis Colts the following year. The Colts won the Super Bowl in 2007 under the leadership of Coach Tony Dungy, while Caldwell succeeded his longtime friend in 2009. The Colts made it to the title game in 2010, losing to the New Orleans Saints. In 2013, he was the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl winning Baltimore Ravens.

The Lions, of course, are next on his coaching resume, and Caldwell said he is committed to “bringing championship football” to Detroit. Judge Keith – who has held Lion season tickets for a quarter of a century and is a close friend of the team’s vice chairman, Bill Ford Jr. – certainly hopes so. He is banking on it, in fact.

“They have $1,900 of mine for playoff tickets,” said Keith, still disappointed about the late season slide that cost the Lions a spot in the NFL playoffs earlier this year. “They’re going to use the deposit toward this year’s season tickets, but I sure hope that I have the chance to attend some playoff games with you on the sideline,” he told Caldwell.