The Sordid Reflections of a Detroit Lions Fan

Saturday, January 27, 2024

As the only Lions fan in the lives of a number of people, I've been hearing from a lot of friends this week. Mostly, they're writing to tell me that they're pulling for my team in the playoffs, which I appreciate. There's always room for one more on the bandwagon. 

I have to say that I'm experiencing something of a personality crisis right now. All my football-watching life, more or less, I've been cheering for a perennial NFL loser. It's definitely strange to  see the team doing so well. Part of me is genuinely optimistic and excited, but another side of me just hopes they don't manage to disgrace themselves somehow. 

The worst among bad

Growing up in southeastern Michigan in the 1970s and 80s, all of our teams were bad. The Detroit Red Wings were called the "Dead Wings," and routinely missed the playoffs in a league in which 16 out of 21 teams went to the post-season. The Pistons won 16 games the first year I followed them. The Tigers hadn't been relevant since the early 1970s. 

But the Lions--the Lions took the cake. Partly this was due to the fact that Detroit's other three major sports franchises would go on to redeem themselves. The 1984 Detroit Tigers were the first in my lifetime, starting the season 35-5 and steamrolling their way to World Series glory in the playoffs. While their dreams of dynasty unravelled in the hell-hole that was the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, the Tigers have still managed to occasionally shine bright, even if they still haven't won a World Series since Ronald Reagan was in his first term as president. 

The Pistons were the next of Detroit's big four franchises to shine, drafting Isaiah Thomas in the aftermath of their 16-66 season and winning the NBA title in 1989 and 90. After enduring years of futility in the 1990s, the Pistons had a second good run in the 2000s, winning the title in 2004 and remaining relevant for another five years after that. 

And the Red Wings? Well they surprised everyone, of course, not only shedding their "Dead Wings" moniker but also going on to become one of the most celebrated and dominant franchises in sports. 

All of this, of course, left the Lions as the one under-performing team, historically, in the city of Detroit. 

It's not as if the Lions are always terrible. Sure, they went 2-14 the first year I cheered for them and later went on to become the first team in NFL history to go 0-16. The thing is, teams that hit bottom can often be revived if they draft decently. The Lions, on the other hand, were in most years just mediocre, typically going 7-9, 8-8, or 9-7, occasionally fighting their way to a first-round road playoff game that would certainly end in listless defeat. While 0-16 might feel like a punch to the stomach, a steady diet of mediocre football, year-in and year-out, is way more depressing. 

Eric Hipple leads
the way

And as a Detroit Lions fan, I've had my experiences with both. So much so that when I bought my first Lions jersey about fifteen years ago I chose #20--no, not the jersey of the transcendent Barry Sanders, but rather that of Billy Sims. Billy Sims' professional career began with confusion and litigation after he signed two contracts coming out of college, one with the Lions and the other with the Houston Gamblers of the USFL. His great start with Detroit was eventually sidelined by injuries and early retirement, followed by bankruptcy and the selling off of his Heisman Trophy. Somehow, this seemed like the more appropriate emblem for the franchise. 

In other words, I'd come to embrace the sadness. 

Crazy losses, early retirements

Another part of being a Lions fan has always been the crazy losses. There was a Thanksgiving game once in which the Lions were playing the Bears. Leading the whole game, the Lions gave up a game-tying touchdown to Chicago on the last play. The Bears then won the coin-flip in overtime and returned the ensuing kickoff all the way for a touchdown, thus winning the shortest-ever NFL overtime game. The Calvin Johnson "complete-the-process" game was another example of this kind of out-of-nowhere losing, and likewise very leonine, to say the least. 

Something else, of course, has been the famous early retirements: Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson both quitting football when they were still in their primes, because not playing professional sports at all was better than playing for the Lions. And while fans like myself were upset, how could we blame them? Barry Sanders was the greatest running back I've ever seen, but who can say he made the wrong choice? He'd earned his money and got out of the game without experiencing any debilitating injuries. And of course, we all knew--there was no way he was ever going to win a Super Bowl with the Lions. 

Barry was right to leave

Eclipsed by the Panthers

Indeed, Michigan's only taste of professional football glory came with Bobby Hebert, Anthony Carter, and the Michigan Panthers of the USFL. The Panthers defeating the Philadelphia Stars in the league's inaugural championship game marks the only time that a Michigan-based professional football team has won a title since 1957. 

Michigan's one taste of
gridiron glory

Yes, 1957, back when the NFL had only twelve teams, the Lions won the championship. And since then, until a couple of weeks ago, Detroit had won only one playoff game, a great victory over the Cowboys in 1991. 

But now this year's Lions have somehow managed to win two playoff games and, going into San Francisco, they seem like a legitimate contender for the NFC crown. Sure, the 49ers are favored--they're probably the better team--but I can't help but feel that the Lions have a puncher's chance of winning. I'm not sure I'd feel that way if we were playing on the road in say, Baltimore, but Detroit certainly can't be counted out. 

Indeed, I think this year's team is a much more legitimate title contender than the only other good Lions team I've ever watched, the 1991 squad that made it to the NFC championship game. That team was crushed 45-0 by Washington in the first game of the season, then lost 41-10 to the same team in the NFC title game. Sure, they ended up going 12-4 in the regular season, but the manner in which they were blown out by the same team in both the opening and closing games of the season left a whiff of fraudulence in the air once the season was done. 

Really? You think you're cursed?

All of this is to say that I've never had much sympathy for whining fans of other supposedly "cursed" franchises. The Red Sox, especially. Prior to 2004, I couldn't stand listening to Red Sox fans go on about how unlucky they were--a franchise that was almost always competitive, even if they hadn't won a title since 1918. 

How would you feel, I asked them, cheering for a team that was just mediocre, one year after another, with the occasional disastrously bad season? Lions fans were never crushed the way Boston fans were in 1986 because we never got close to winning a title in the first place. I remember heatedly making this point to my department chair about two weeks after I started my job here. 

And then there were the people that the Lions hired as coach and GM. Monte Clark. Darryl Rogers. Matt Millen. Marty Mornhinweg. Just a cavalcade of folks who seemed uninspiring and/or out of their depth. Most of these people would never coach/work as a GM again after leaving the Lions. Monte Clark was an exception, he would later coach a team in Minsk. 

Monte Clark went on
to coach in Belarus

Frankly, I felt the same way when Dan Campbell was hired and held his opening press conference. It seemed like the Lions had hired their biggest and brashest clown so far. 

But even when Campbell's early teams were losing, it seemed like they never stopped playing hard for him. They weren't making stupid mistakes the way earlier Lions teams had, but rather just didn't know how to close out games. I honestly can't believe it, but somehow the Lions found a coach who legitimately seems to know what he's doing. 

But even as I write these words, I'm afraid of jinxing everything.

Allowing myself to hope again 

I realize that the odds are against us tomorrow. San Francisco's a really good team, and while the Lions have a good offense and pass rush, their secondary is pretty weak. The 49ers were pushed pretty far by the Packers, so they've had their scare and will be taking the Lions seriously. Detroit, meanwhile, risks being what Bill Simmons describes as the "happy to be there" team. And yeah, as a fan, I've gotta say--I am kind of just happy to be here. 

But who knows? This team has surprised us all since the second half of the season last year. They may not win it all, or even get past San Francisco, but at least we can say that they've earned our respect. 

And that's an unfamiliar feeling. 


  1. Must be a nice feeling to get this off your chest. Win or lose tomorrow, it was the right thing to do. Love, Dad