Mike Lucci, star of Vols and NFL, dead at 81

Marvin Westwestwords

“They don’t make ’em like they used to.”

That’s what people said in times past about Chevrolet, Coca-Cola and Whirlpool. It still fits Mike Lucci.

Sixty years ago, Lucci was a 60-minute man, a single-wing center and outstanding linebacker at Tennessee. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns. He was all-SEC in 1961.

He went on to stardom with the Cleveland Browns and another level with the Detroit Lions. After that, he was a bunch of other things.

The old Vol died on Tuesday in Boca Raton, Florida, after an extended illness. He was 81. An intimate family internment has taken place. He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Patricia, son Michael and daughter Michelle.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Mike Lucci,” said Sheila Ford Hamp, principal owner of the Lions. “His passion for life was felt by all who knew him.”

She said he was very savvy, sage and one of the most amazing Lions.

Old Vols had a lot to say.

“In my eyes, he was one of the all-time greats,” said long-ago tailback Mallon Faircloth. “He never missed a snap and very few tackles. I looked up to him as a man and a Tennessee captain.”

“Great football player, big, strong and fast,” said Wayne Grubb, Vol guard who played beside Lucci on offense. “He was an all-American type, 6-3 and 230, a nice guy, a gentleman and a scholar.”

Grubb said he always believed Lucci knew his future was in the NFL.

“There was no foolishness about him on the football field. He took the game very seriously.”

Kenny Brown, tackle on the ’61 team, recalled an incident that got very serious.

“Mike and Ed Beard had the biggest teammate fight I ever saw. There was a lot of hitting going on and then they rolled around on the ground.”

Brown scored the brawl as a draw.

Lucci didn’t start playing football until he was a senior at Ambridge, Pennsylvania. A gym teacher said he was too big and tough for gym class. Pittsburgh provided a scholarship. He transferred to Tennessee after his freshmen year. Brown thinks coach Jim McDonald was the connection.

Lucci played well as a Volunteer and played in the College All-Star Game against the NFL champion Green Bay Packers. He became a fifth-round draft pick by the Browns. Three seasons later, he was traded to the Lions. He earned Pro Bowl honors. He was three times defensive MVP. He had 21 career interceptions. He returned four for touchdowns. He was team captain for six seasons.

Hamp said Mike never gave up his connection to the Lions.

“His positive presence as a leader within our Lions Legends community made him a familiar face to all, and his willingness to give back will always be part of his great legacy.”

There is a legacy. He was a radio analyst for Lions and on TV with NBC. He was elected to several halls of fame. The one he smiled most about was the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame.

Mike had movie-star good looks. He was in a movie. He played himself in “Paper Lion.”

He became president of Bally Total Fitness, for a time the largest operator of fitness centers (300 locations) in the United States. He co-owned 19 Burger Kings and a contracting and development business.

He gave back.

Lucci raised more than $2 million for a charity that sought permanent homes for hard-to-place children. He established an education endowment fund. He hosted an annual golf tournament in Florida that raised over $650,000 for Gridiron Greats, an organization led by old friend Mike Ditka that helps former NFL players who fell on hard times.

As was said then and now, they don’t make many of ’em like Mike Lucci.

Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is marvinwest75@gmail.com.

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