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Matthew Stafford altering Lions' destiny

Call it fate or a crazy coincidence, but the Curse of Bobby Layne certainly took an interesting twist after the Hall of Famer's hex supposedly ended.

First, a quick history lesson: This all started in 1958, when the defending NFL champion Detroit Lions traded the hard-living Layne the day after a 13-13 tie in the second week of the season, opting to move forward with clean-cut Tobin Rote at quarterback. Legend has it that Layne angrily declared on his way out of town that the Lions, who celebrated three titles in the previous six seasons, wouldn't win for the next 50 years.

Maybe it's a myth, but a curse is as good an explanation as any for the five decades of misery that followed for the franchise. The Lions won a grand total of one playoff game over the life of Layne's so-called curse, bottoming out with the lone 0-16 campaign in league history during the 50th season after the legend's unceremonious departure from Detroit.

With the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft, the winless Lions selected … quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Oh, and Stafford just happened to share a high school alma mater with Layne (and Lions legend Doak Walker), having starred at perennial Texas powerhouse Highland Park. Some old-timers in the wealthy community, located minutes from downtown Dallas, say Stafford actually grew up on the same street as Layne.

Does that sound like destiny for Detroit or what?

Not that Stafford particularly cares about the curse at this point. He's kind of preoccupied with preparing to come home to face his former favorite team at Cowboys Stadium and trying to keep the Lions undefeated this late in a season for the first time since 1980.

"It's part of football folklore or whatever, but it's a new time," Stafford said. "It's a new age, so it doesn't come up much."

Stafford's NFL career certainly didn't get off to much of a storybook start. His first two seasons featured flashes of his phenomenal talent -- the rare arm strength, accuracy and ability to read defenses -- but were ruined by injuries.

Stafford started only 11 of 32 possible games the past two seasons -- and finished only eight -- due to injuries to his right knee and both shoulders. Not coincidentally, the Lions' losing ways continued, extending their streak to 10 years without a winning season.

With a healthy Stafford, one of several premier young players on a rebuilt roster, the 3-0 Lions are suddenly causing opponents to curse.

Stafford, whose arsenal of weapons is headlined by freakishly-talented receiver Calvin Johnson, is performing like an elite quarterback so far this season. Only Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and New England's Tom Brady have better passer ratings than Stafford's 110.7. The 23-year-old Stafford ranks in the NFL's top five in passing yards (977) and touchdowns (nine) and has thrown only two interceptions.

If Stafford keeps this up, the 40-year drought since the Lions have had a Pro Bowl quarterback will probably end. Greg Landry in 1971 is the lone Lions quarterback to play in a Pro Bowl since Layne left, with the franchise whiffing on top-10 draft picks Andre Ware and Joey Harrington in the past two decades.

Those quarterback woes are distant memories in Detroit now.

"They have a very, very good quarterback, first player taken in the draft in Stafford," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "You put on the tape and it's easy to see why he was that. Very talented guy, understands the game, can throw the ball all over the park."

Stafford's success certainly isn't a surprise to anybody who crossed paths with him in Highland Park. In a town that has a waiting list for the high school's season tickets, he was somewhat of a local legend long before he had a driver's license.

Coach Randy Allen, who is considered one of the country's top high school quarterback gurus, remembers folks telling him he had to see the seventh grader who could throw a football 70 yards and had never lost a football game. Sure enough, Allen made plans for Stafford to start as a sophomore soon after meeting him.

As a 15-year-old, Stafford threw 38 touchdowns and only three interceptions while leading the Scots to the Class 4A state semifinals. That playoff run included a classic performance at Texas Stadium, where Stafford threw for 400 yards to outduel national-record-setting senior Ennis quarterback Graham Harrell in an upset of an undefeated team heavily favored to win the state title.

"He's the best I've seen anywhere," Allen recalls being told by Jim Harbaugh the next year, when the current 49ers head coach came to Highland Park to recruit for the University of San Diego.

That wasn't an unusual reaction for college coaches who stopped by the campus, where the Green Bay Packers practiced during the week of the Super Bowl last season. Allen would let Stafford "put on a little show" for recruiters with throwing sessions, wowing coaches who could hear his passes whistling through the air.

Stafford led the Scots to a state title as a senior, ending a 48-year drought for a tradition-rich program that had many playoff heartbreaks. That's something Layne never did despite playing in the same backfield as Walker, who was part of the school's first state championship as a senior after Layne had graduated and gone to Texas.

"Ever since I've been 14 or 15 years old, I've been playing on a big stage in front of a lot of people with a lot of pressure," Stafford said. "You just kind of understand it. It's part of it and it kind of becomes normal. I loved playing for Highland Park and wouldn't want to change that for anything."

Recruiting services ranked Stafford, who committed to Georgia before that season, as the nation's top quarterback that year. ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper had even higher praise, predicting that Stafford would be the top pick when he eventually declared for the draft.

"This isn't a surprise to Matthew," Allen said. "This was a plan."

Jim Schwartz, who was hired after the Lions' winless season, did a lot more than just due diligence before making Stafford the first pick of his Detroit tenure. Schwartz even traveled to Texas to learn more about Stafford, meeting with Allen at historic Highlander Stadium, where plaques honor Layne and Walker.

Allen gave Schwartz a highlight reel of all of Stafford's high school comeback wins that day. The coach surprised Stafford by showing the tape during the prospect's predraft visit to Detroit. Stafford impressed Schwartz with his photographic recall of those games, as Stafford told Schwartz in vivid detail what he was about to see before several plays flashed on the screen.

As far as Stafford's unique ties to the Lions' history, well, Schwartz acknowledges that it's intriguing, if not relevant.

"Obviously hard to play too much into it, but it is very interesting that the great quarterback in this franchise went to the same high school as Matthew," Schwartz said. "I think it ends just around there. But it makes a good story."

The story gets better every time a healthy Stafford steps onto the field, serving as a reminder of Detroit's glory days while making the frustrating five decades since then seem so far away.

Tim MacMahon covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com.