Here is the winning entry of the AXE Hair/The Lions in Winter writing contest, penned by Rob Davies of Niles, MI.
There I was, in the body of a Lions fan at 18,000 feet. Oil covered my windscreen -- my lifeless Merlin engine on fire. My canopy could not be budged - I was locked inside an aerial coffin. I watched, transfixed, as my altitude evaporated like rubbing alcohol in the noon-day sun. Paralyzed by fear and anxiety, suffocating under the weight of knowing I would be obliterated in a matter of moments when my stricken Spitfire met the hard, dusty surface of the Libyan desert below. The trim, sand-colored little Messerschmitt, my destroyer, spiraled away to celebrate his kill. A life snuffed out in a flash. A momentary blip on a radar screen only the gods will ever see. Oh, the humanity!
Okay, okay, I made that up. A statistics professor from my college days once insisted that cheesy dramatics and over-done visual imagery is the only way to begin a "Lionsinwinter writing contest," and his words carried a lot of weight while I struggled to maintain a B average. Here's the real story:
My moment of pronounced Detroit Lions pride, rare though it may have been, came and went without notice in the clatter of an America West Airlines gate in Phoenix's Sky Harbor airport. Held hostage by circumstance on my way home to Portland from a business trip to Dallas, we sat out the delay of our plane's arrival from Houston, victims of torrential rain and flooding in Texas that had conspired to hold all departing flights by two hours.
Trying to get comfortable with my keester planted on those wretched, plasticine gate chairs, I was busy pretending to read a newspaper (Arizona State University's women's softball team had arrived, and a compelling distraction they were). After a while, the noisy, animated coeds finally boarded their flight at the neighboring gate, and a relative quietude was restored to our little corner of Sky Harbor. I went back to my paper, disgusted with an insolent sports hack's human interest story about NHL enforcers, in which Joe Kocur was merely a footnote. Joe Kocur! Without warning, a fleet of high-tech consultants arrived, with metrology gear, carry-ons and laptops in tow. I know they were high-tech consultants because garish embroidery on the fashionably black Cutter & Buck corporate polos they all wore told me so.
There must've been fifteen of them, mostly in their 40s and 50s (the Ajax Consulting Firm's hand-picked shock troops, one presumes, dispatched to troubleshoot and look cool in front of a customer), and they took up defensive positions in the row of seats farthest from the windows, facing me, with backs to the concourse. They were obviously a Los Angeles-based crew, judging from the snivelry and outrage over some bad deal made by the Dodgers that didn't pan out, plus a snotty comment or three about the general rudeness of Giants fans up in San Francisco.
As they settled in, two of the brethren continued what had evidently been an on-going dispute over football greatness. One of the boys (we'll call him Dirk) argued in favor of the "obvious" superiority of the Pittsburgh Steelers, while the other (we'll call him Lance) denounced the idea as heresy, saying instead there was 'only one true NFL pantheon,' the Dallas Cowboys.
As neither of them sported the requisite accent, it was clear the Steelers and Cowboys were acquired tastes, rather than born-and-raised, state or city-centric allegiances like mine. Dirk had no aggravating Western Pennsylvania dialect, wherein "L" sounds are mysteriously replaced with "W" sounds (listen to Jim Kelly or Myron Cope for ten seconds, and you'll know what I mean).
Lance, a seemingly arrogant and self-centered pretty boy, was void of anything like a "Metroplex" drawl, filled with "pert nears" and "dangs" and "Aw shoot -- ah ripped mah britches agin!" In my ear, his words had an arguably Toronto-esque quality. No, Dirk and Lance adopted their teams, having sprung from a much different part of the Earth, and one in which NFL teams are probably absent.
They cited examples to support their competing positions. Dirk led off with Franco Harris' miracle catch, Lynn Swann's flying leap, Mean Joe Greene's...well, meanness. The Terrible Towel. The Steel Curtain D. Jack friggin' Lambert! Dirk was in a state of gridiron rapture. But Lance countered with his own list. Staubach and Garrison. Landry's tiny fedora against the backdrop of a full-up Texas Stadium and cheerleaders who set the standard. Too-Tall Jones. Emmitt and Irvin and Aikman, oh my. Tony friggin' Dorsett!
It was abundently clear that the fervent commentary was not aimed as much at football greatness as it was an implied superiority (by association, of course) each claimed for having had lots and lots of 'wisdom' in choosing their respective NFL teams to root for. This wasn't 'my team is better than yours,' it was 'I'm better than you.' It didn't take long for this truth to emerge fully, as the inevitable ad-hominem attacks took the argument to a higher level. Dirk thought Lance was a moron, and Lance regarded Dirk as a witless Philistine.
Suddenly, as I grinned behind the pages of my newspaper, a voice from above, booming and sopping with authority, said, "I can't believe I'm hearing this -- you're idiots, and you make me sick!"
Laughter followed, and the contingent joined in to ridicule Dirk and Lance as the voice, belonging to a rather portly and senior member of the group (we'll call him Walter), smiled and shook his head the way parents do when a fireplace warning to children, unheeded, results in burned fingers and lessons learned.
Dirk and Lance, stopped dead in their tracks, presented a face of bewilderment and astonished embarrassment that makes me long for cameras in my eyes, just so I could show you now. "Every time you start yapping about the Steelers and the Cowboys," (emphasis added to show Walter's sarcasm in action) you just sound stupid!" Before Lance and Dirk could mount anything resembling a defense, Walter was on them like a cheetah on a blind Thompson's gazelle with a broken leg.
"So what, you're so smart and 'somebody,' just because you piggy-backed in on teams who were winning? That's what half of the world's Yankees fans do!" Blank stares from Dirk and Lance. "I'm supposed to be impressed? How come you didn't start rooting for Tampa Bay or the Cleveland Browns? You're not from Pittsburgh, (Dirk)! You've never been there a day in your life! And you're (Lance) not even American, for ****'s sake -- you're a damned Canuck!" (more laughs from the other boys on the team, as my suspicion of Lance's Ontario heritage was confirmed).
Dirk and Lance, in full retreat, offered up the lame argument that they chose their teams out of conviction, instead of having them handed over as a matter of course and an accident of birth. Walter wasn't buying it.
"You're not football fans, you're just a couple of hangers-on who try to look cool," Walter continued. "Neither of you clowns (I love it when salty old hands call young, stupid guys 'clowns') have any idea how it feels to be a real fan! You picked those teams because they were going to the Superbowl when you were a couple of brats in school, that's all. You picked them for all the wrong reasons. If Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett played for the Oilers, or Bradshaw and Harris played for Miami, you'd hate the Cowboys and Dolphins."
I noticed how quiet it had become -- this was getting good.
Walter went on. "You want to see a real fan? Go find a Green Bay Packer fan. They jam that place in a blizzard, and they do it every year whether Green Bay is winning or not. Better yet, go find a Detroit Lions fan! They ain't never been to a Superbowl (love those folksy double-negatives, too), and they probably never will. They haven't won a damn thing since the Fifties, but they're always hardcore for their Lions. I went there back in the 'eighties with my wife's family and watched them kick the hell out of the STEELERS on Thanksgiving, and you would've thought it was the Superbowl from the size of that crowd - you couldn't hear yourself think inside that place. That's what real fans look like."
At this point, I had emerged from behind my paper, fully engrossed in this splendid tirade -- my silver and blue heart swelling with pride.
"Those fans are loyal, and they stick with their team no matter what. Both of you clowns just went out and rented one. Don't tell me about football teams and football fans -- you don't know what you're talking about."
With that, Dirk and Lance gave in to harsh reality and did themselves a favor by clamming up. The other boys returned to their tech talk, Walter returned to a bag of neglected pretzels, and I went back to my paper.
I have recounted this event to other Lions fans, and the odd occasional infidel from places like Chicago and Minneapolis. Each time, after enduring the ridicule that comes with winless seasons and a decade of misery under the blind, thoughtless leadership of Penn State's favorite linebacker, I imagine (wistfully) what it must've been like for long-suffering Saints fans this year, or Red Sox fans when they broke their curse. Then I remember why I suffer the Lions.
I'm from Michigan. I'm proud of that. I was born a Lions fan, and it's part of my identity. I have the right to grouse and complain when they hire idiots who preached "good pad-level," and the benefits of the "Tampa-2." I have the authority to delight or despair when a draft pick is called out by the Commish. I like Honolulu blue, thank you very much. Most of all, I will be unassailable in my joy when the Lions stun the football world in a future Superbowl, even if I have to do it from beyond the grave. I will be clean when I exorcise my life-long demons and celebrate that day. I am a Lions fan 'til the end. I was proud that day, and I make no apologies for it.