Boys of Summer, Men of Autumn

>> 11.13.2013

The purest expression of sports fandom can be found on elementary school playgrounds.

Still learning (and arguing over) the rules of the game as they play, kids merge their identity with the players they know and love from TV. Just as fights broke out over who got to be Barry Sanders or Cecil Fielder when I was a tyke, kids today call out "I'm Calvin Johnson!" or "I'm Miguel Cabrera!" when they take the ball field at recess.

They learn the game by mimicking the moves and styles of their favorite players. On the rare occasions they shake a defender with a jump-stop, or hit one over the playground fence into the scary old lady's yard, for an instant sports superstardom is their reality.

Since I was tiny, in sports—heck, in life—I've always been drawn to spectacular talent. I watch sports for many reasons, but there's nothing I love more about it than when a surpassing athlete deploys screw-you ability at a critical moment, defying physics and reality to win at will.

That's why I've always loved players like Dominik Hasek, Clint Dempsey and Barry Sanders--local allegiances aside. 

When I watch sports, I want my jaw dropped. I want to throw up my hands, shake my head and laugh out loud at the absurdity of the skill required to pull off what I just saw.

When I played youth sports, I wanted to drop jaws.

As a baseball playing tyke, I was very short, very thin, but pretty quick. For someone of my limited gifts, the only path to jaw-dropping baseball I saw was "infield glove wizard" in the mold of Ozzie Smith. 

I played wall ball for hours, honing my glove chops. I watched Johnny Bench's wierd baseball technique show for kids. I demanded my tee-ball coaching father play me at short, or MAYBE I'd deign to play second base. As soon as we were allowed to lead off and steal, I'd park my skinny white butt halfway between first and second and DARE pitchers to pick me off.  I decided to be a switch-hitter, because of course great utility infielders switch-hit, right?

Here's the thing: I was terrible.

I had no glove, and a horribly inconsistent  arm. I could throw to the first base region-ish, or I could throw ten feet short of the first baseman's waiting glove, and I was never sure which it was going to be. I had no instincts to where to go with the ball, turning every fielder's choice into Sophie's Choice.

My father, who typically coached the team, was remarkably patient with all this. I HAD talent, but I wasn't using it right. I had a good natural right-handed swing with relatively strong pop in the bat (though my small size usually meant I hit towering outs rather than towering home runs). 

One game, after several fruitless left-handed at-bats, I came up in the order with two runners on. Dad insisted I bat righty. On the first coach-pitched lob, I drilled it deep into the right-center gap--which, in fourth grade, might as well be the Atlantic Ocean.

I skipped around the bases, sticking a two-footed landing on home plate while my teammates cheered. Dad was waiting for me, and immediately grabbed me by the shoulders. He growled, "Look: Do you want to be DIFFERENT, or do you want to EXCEL?"

This is how I feel watching Matthew Stafford.

Watching this dude play football in my team's colors is a joy, a blessing and an honor. He has the talent to be as good as anyone is; to be his generation's John Elway. By the end of this season, he'll hold nearly every Lions passing record that matters; by the end of his current contract he'll hold all of them, period.

That's why it's so infuriating to watch him play.

As a grownup, as a father, as a bill-having taxpayer with a mortgage and insurance and all those stupid things, it drives me absolutely crazy to watch Stafford incompletely apply his incredible talent.

I've written, tweeted and spoken at lengths about his tendency to get cute with arm angles, get sloppy with his feet and miss critical passes. It was there in force on Sunday, as Stafford threw what seemed like 16 sidearm passes into the arms of the Bears defensive line. Game after game, week after week, we've seen Stafford miss wide-open receivers, tying one hand behind his back by going all Elway instead of just executing like he's clearly capable of doing.

We've also seen him win those games, coming back from the brink with one hand tied behind his back and a blindfold over his eyes, threading needles through double- and triple-coverage, making plays with his legs, and beating the Dallas Cowboys--his hometown team--with a jaw-dropping mix of natural quarterbacking talent and balls the size of his oversized brain.

When he and Calvin Johnson--together, the most talented QB/WR pair in the NFL--went to Solider Field and won for the first time in forever, it felt like the tipping point. It felt like the mountain had been climbed. It felt like Stafford and the Lions had finally realized the potential we've spent five years daydreaming about.

When Nick Fairley followed up a game-losing personal-foul penalty with a game-winning TFL, it hit me: these are the Lions.

Like Barry Sanders and negative yardage, like Dominik Hasek and the occasional four-goal brain fart, the Lions are always going to be a mix of pleasure and pain. They're going to beat themselves with sanity-testing mistakes and beat other teams with searing, unstoppable talent. They're going to turn blowouts into close shaves and close shaves into heart attacks.

You can't separate Stafford from sidearm, Johnson from bumps and bruises, Suh and Fairley from penalty flags or Schwartz from spending all week in the film room with a MacBook only to break it over his knee and throw the pieces at a ref on gameday.

As Jack Nicholson once shouted at a room full of mentally ill folks in the movie of the same name, "What if this is as good as it gets?"

There's snow on the ground in Michigan, and the Lions are effectively two games clear of the rest of the NFC North. They have one of the league's easiest schedules from here on out, and they fully control their path to their first division title since 1993, when my middle-school baseball coach told me I was a natural centerfielder and everything made sense.

There's no use denying it: I love this team, because of the rough edges as much of in spite of them. Nothing thrills me like seeing the impossible made possible; if the Lions have to do that every week just to overcome their own mistakes, so be it: my favorite team in sports is delivering heaping helpings of my favorite thing about sports, week after week.

What more could I ask for? What more could any of us ask for?

The other day, I walked into the living room to see my seven-year-old son playing Madden. "Dad," he excitedly said, "I built my Madden Ultimate Team!" Oh yeah, I asked, who's on it?

"Pretty much all the Lions, but with Aaron Rodgers," he said.

With this season just halfway over, I guess we can't hang a banner just yet. Stafford and the Lions haven't answered all the questions yet--and until they win a Super Bowl, they never will.

But right now, the Lions are different, AND they excel. Let's appreciate that.


AJP,  November 13, 2013 at 11:22 AM  

You nailed what it's like to be a fan of these Lions.Well done!

The Realist,  November 17, 2013 at 5:48 PM  

Dear Beautiful Dreamer, Did you just watch the latest circle jerk-off in Pittsburgh? The SOL are alive and well and will be until Ford is in the ground. What a pitiful excuse for a professional sports franchise-one of the worst ever! Please don't let the young waste their time with this nonsense.

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