A couple nights ago, I was down in the basement, hunting for an old CD. While I was rooting around in a box of such stuff, I found a small treasure: my 1995 Sports Illustrated Detroit Lions Video Yearbook. The old-school VHS tape—still in its shrinkwrap—chronicles the last great campaign of the Detroit Lions. No, you read right; I’ve never watched it. When I was younger, it was merely the recent past. I figured, “Eh, what’s the point? I’ve just seen it live!” To top it off, the hideous, embarrassing, wasn’t-as-close-as the-scoreboard-suggested 58-37 dismantling of the Lions by the Eagles was such a disastrous finale; it poisoned my feelings of the entire season. Tragic, because it was the kind of fairy tale we annually wish for--but these days, are never granted.
It started off as a typical Lions season: three straight losses to the Steelers, Vikings, and Cardinals, all by a total of just 16 points. Then, a thrilling 27-24 win over the defending Super Bowl 49ers was followed by a bye week of basking in the glory. A rout of the Browns got the Lions almost back to .500. But then came a 31-20 loss in Lambeau, followed by an OT heartbreaker on the road--against Martin Mayhew and the Redskins. The Lions did get the Packers back at home, 24-16, but then dropped the next one in Atlanta, 34-22.
The Lions sat at 3-6, all but eliminated from the playoffs. The calls for head coach Wayne Fontes’s head roared from all corners of Lions Nation: “Now, finally, please, Mr. Ford! Isn’t this enough? 3-6, doubtlessly heading for another 5-11 or 6-10 season? Surely, even you can admit that it’s finally time to bag the Big Buck.”
No, of course not. Nothing doing. Amazingly, Fontes and the Lions weren’t having any of it either. After coming out and beating the Buccaneers, the Lions tore through the Bears, Vikings, and Bears again to make four straight division wins. After beating the Oilers, they routed the hapless Jaguars (in their inaugural season) 44-0. Needing a win to, incredibly, secure a Wild Card berth, they waltzed into Tampa Bay and waltzed back out with a 37-10 victory.
It bears going over just how incredible this season was from a statistical perspective. Scott Mitchell had, by far, his best season as a pro. He threw for 4,338 yards, threw 32 TDs to only 12 INTs, rushed for another 4 scores (!), and achieved a passer efficiency rating of 92.3%. Herman Moore set the all-time single-season receptions record with 123 (the record stood until 2002). Brett Perriman, the Lions’ stalwart #2 wideout, hauled in 108 catches, too—the first time in NFL history that two receivers from the same team both caught over 100 balls in the same season. Barry Sanders toted it 318 times for 1,500 yards and 11 touchdowns; it was his 7th consecutive 1,000-yard season. He also had 48 catches for 398 yards and another score. Sanders, Moore, LT Lomas Brown, and C Kevin Glover all made the Pro Bowl. Interestingly, Scott Mitchell set a Thanksgiving Day record with 410 passing yards.
After the Lions had completed the feat—run the table from Week 11 in—the national media really turned their heads. I remember relishing the Sports Reporters on ESPN the following Sunday; Mitch Albom barely containing his glee when Mike Lupica interjected, “I’m sorry, but does anyone want to play the Detroit Lions right now? No!” Of course, there was a little talk about how the Lions didn’t beat any other playoff teams during that seven-game streak--but in the NFL, closing out a season like that is practically unheard of. Lomas Brown went so far as to assure the media in Detroit that they would go on to handle the Eagles in the first round. It didn’t quite happen that way.
After the Eagles intercepted Mitchell on the opening drive, they ran it in to draw first blood. Mitchell recovered with a beautiful 32-yard bomb to tight end David Sloan. Somewhere in Holt, MI, a 14-year-old geek jumped, hollered, and fist-pumped his way around his living room. It was a very short dance. Former Lions quarterback Rodney Peete lead the Eagles to 44 consecutive points to make it 51-7. The attic door slammed shut on Cinderella, and Drizella rolled out in the Prince’s carriage.
Mitchell was pulled after his fourth filthy INT. Backup QB Don Majikowski did some good things in relief—like hit Herman Moore for a 68-yard TD strike—and made the final score look almost respectable: 58-37. It remains the highest total points scored in any NFL playoff game; it made for the Lions’ third straight first-round playoff loss. We Lions fans thought it was the bitterest agony: to be so close to glory, but fall flat time after time after time. However, in the next thirteen seasons, we would taste that exquisite agony but once.
Tomorrow is the annual extravaganza down at Ford Field; thousands of fans—including Clan TLIW—will commence with the pilgrimage to Ford Field for autographs, face painting, hot dogs, pop, beer—and, oh yes, Detroit Lions football. That’s right, the new Lions in the new uniforms in Ford Field with full contact, full drills, and a full 11-on-11 scrimmage. Do you understand?! NEW! FULL! LIONS! I can scarcely believe it!
My eldest child, who turns 5 next month, is old enough that she’ll definitely remember this. She’ll meet some Lions, and get some stuff signed, see some football, hear the crowd--and maybe she’ll fall in love with this team the way I did. My son’s appetite for sports is already insatiable—but he roots for the teams I root for, because I tell him about them and we watch them on TV. For all the HDTV and Internet and CrackBerry and Twitter and all that junk—and hey, I’m a blogger, I’m all about “all that junk”—I remain convinced that the soul of sports is young fans, in the stands, in awe of the wonder and the spectacle. The imposing size and complexity of the stadium structure, the seemingly infinite swath of green field and white stripes. There’s nothing like it; thousands and thousands of fans, all wearing the team colors, all cheering the cheers. Watching teams play live; that’s where kids become fans, and fans become kids.
Will I show my kids that tape? Should I show them the Lions I grew up rooting for? The last time the Lions could hang their hat on their wins and losses? Do I want to show them what it was like the last time the Lions tore through the NFL? The last time the Lions could strike fear into the hearts of opponents? The last time Lions fans could truly roar with pride? Eh, what’s the point? They’re just about to see it live.