It is night. Tufts of clouds languidly drift between me and the infinite void of space, occluding the stars and the moon by turns. Weeks ago, nighttime brought no relief from summer heat—but tonight, fall’s chilly bluster has whisked away August’s humid fog. The thermometer dips below fifty degrees, and the air crackles with the clarity and energy that only winter’s chill can bring. It calls me outside.
All summer long, I have tended to the Honolulu Blue flame. I have stoked it and fueled it, shielded it and treasured it. I have chopped and split and loaded and hauled the timber for the pile. I have brewed and casked and tapped and poured the spiced cider. I have sent out the word, far and wide, in every way I know how, to true Lions fans across the globe. I have watched, with satisfaction and glee, fans answer my call; those still possessing the spirit to live and die with their team—our team—have gathered here in kinship and in hope.
We’ve shared our stories, we’ve shared our pain. We’ve passed around tales of glory and woe as freely as we’ve passed around mugs of cider. We’ve taken off our hats and gloves, we’ve lowered our guard, and we’ve warmed our hands and hearts around the blue bonfire together.
We’ve watched training camp and preseason; we’ve seen dramatic progress made. We’ve watched Matthew Stafford pick apart opposing defenses with efficiency and flair, and we’ve watched Jahvid Best slash through opposing defenses with fury and élan. We’ve seen the speed and power of the new defensive line, one that even opposing fans are ready to name as one of the best in the business. We’ve seen the Lions’ starters dominate opposing starters, and we’ve seen the Lions’ backups close out fourth-quarter wins.
But as the blue fire wicks, waxes, and roars to the delight of us amassed fans, the light and heat bring about another sort: those who left. Those who called it quits. Those whose hearts were scarred once too often by the losing years, and have refused to let themselves be hurt again. They gather to point, to laugh, to mock. They gather to taunt, to sneer, to deride. They stand at the edges of our happy crowd, and they grumble and snipe. They want to sow discontent, to extinguish our burgeoning joy, to piss on the little blue flame.
The impossibly fresh, cold air rushes through my head into my lungs, filling my entire body with electrifying energy. It courses up and down my spine, zings along my nervous system to my tingling extremities, and radiates out of every goosebump-straightened hair. On every level—intellectually, emotionally, instinctually, physically—I am energized by these autumnal winds. Yet, there’s a dark edge to this chill, a foreboding tint to these clouds; they are heralds of the season to come: The Winter.
For all that the Lions’ new leadership has done to rebuild the roster, for all the youthful talent drafted, for all the steely veterans brought in, huddling close to the blue fire may well get you burned. The clouds that now drift across the moon like gauze will be followed by heavy, gray, snow-laden blankets that block out the sky. The playful breeze that refreshes and invigorates me now will soon whip and bite and sting. It was easy to be optimistic when the Lions were only playing themselves. It was easy to take heart when the Lions were winning games that didn’t count. Now, though, our mettle will be tested.
On Sunday, the Lions take the field in earnest for the first time this season. They begin their 2010 campaign on the road; they have won only eight times since Matt Millen took over the franchise. They face a team with a quarterback and offensive system that will severely test the Lions’ greatest weakness. When these two teams played in this same venue last season, the Lions lost 24-48. It is the most winnable game the Lions will play until the middle of October.
If the Lions lose, the unhappy ones will howl and curse and scream. They will point and laugh and tell us they told us so. They will hibernate for another year. Ford Field will be empty and quiet and sad, as it was for the Bills game. The games will be blacked out, and I will haul my small children to distant bars so we can watch our team play football. Our bright expectations will dim. The happy summer bonfire party may once again be a sparse and grim refuge, the flickering flame barely sheltering the truest diehards from the blizzard’s gales.
If the Lions win? They return to Ford Field with momentum and confidence. Those of us who are here will rejoice and stay; many of those who had left will return. The crowd for the Eagles game should be healthy and loud. Perhaps, with a strong enough showing, the Lions will convince their entire fanbase, near and far, young and old, active and dormant, true blue or Johnny-come-lately, that they’re ready to play football with the big kids again. The masses, the inconstant masses, will flock to the flame.
They may be looking down and shuffling their feet, hoping nobody sees them. They may be watching from afar, shivering in the bitter chill, but more afraid of getting burned again than freezing to death. Or . . . they may be loud and obnoxious. They may be proclaiming doom. They may be standing in our midst, shouting that we’re wasting our time and our breath. They may loudly predict a blowout loss before each and every game. They may boo and hiss every mistake, and crow with knowing glee after every loss. They may seek to dishearten us, to discourage us, to disperse us. They may seek to extinguish the little blue flame we’ve worked so hard to protect.
What should we say to them? “Welcome.”
Their sarcasm, their derision? It’s their scar tissue. It’s their armor. It protects them from getting burned again. If they loudly proclaim inevitable doom of the Lions, then they can’t lose! Whether the Lions win, or they are proven right, there is no way a boo bird can be labelled a loser, since they never truly cast their lot with the team.
But . . . they’re here. They’re already coming. The hope and promise and preseason performance of this young Lions team has kindled the flame to the point where the naysayers are already coming back. Despite their protests to the contrary, they are Lions fans, too. They want to cheer, they want to be true blue. If they truly didn’t care, they wouldn’t be here at the fire, they’d just move on with their lives.
So, as you hear these folks on the call-in shows, and meet them at the coffee pot, and see them on the street, be patient. Be gracious. Extend a hand, a hearty hello, a slap on the back, or a mug of hot cider. Share your hope with them, your enthusiasm with them. Give them the tinder to rekindle the blue flame of Lions fandom in their hearts. Even if they react with scorn on the outside, know that inside they want to believe, they want to cheer, they want to hold their head up high and wear their Lions colors with pride. They want to see the Lions win just as badly as you do—and Sunday, we might all get our wish.
It is colder, now, and silent. The wind is dying down. The thrilling tingle of a fresh fall breeze is giving way to a shivering chill. Once again, before the weekend, I pull a hot draught of cider and rub my hands together by the big blue bonfire. Friends, come and join me.