FOR A CHANGE, LET’S LAUGH WITH THE LIONS

The locker room was noisy and they were slapping Wayne Fontes on the back and someone said to him: “Hey, Wayne. The governor’s on the phone.”

Fontes looked up. Really? The governor? He jogged to the office and someone handed him the receiver and whispered in his ear, “I think he’s gonna commute your sentence.”

Fontes smirked.

“Hello, governor! How are you!”

Something about congratulations.

“Thank you, sir . . . uh-huh . . . “

Something about the offense.

“Improving, governor . . . that’s right . . .”

How long has it been since a Lions win at the Silverdome? This long. Gov. James Blanchard was on the phone. And this long: Chris Spielman was actually smiling in the postgame press conference. And this long: Toby Caston, the backup linebacker, who was exulting the crowd all afternoon, waving fists, scooping imaginary noise, suddenly revealed the newest trend — falling backward, hands at his side, like a dead man, until his head hits the turf.

“I call it the Nestea Plunge,” Caston said, grinning, after the Lions beat Green Bay, 31-22, their first home win since last December. “You know, like that commercial? The ultimate relief?”

How long? This long.

The Nestea Plunge. A win is a win is a win And good. Maybe they should all try it. Then again, it might look funny in the injury list next week: “LB, T. Caston, questionable (plunge).” But hey. What a pleasant feeling. How nice to rise Monday morning and glance at the newspapers and not want to throw up. No, Sunday wasn’t the Super Bowl. And no, it doesn’t make the Lions a .500 club. It doesn’t even move them out of the Central Division cellar.

But it is a victory, at home, over a team with a winning record, and even though the Packers have accounted for three of the four wins since Fontes took over as head coach last year, well, as the exterminator says while squirting the termites, better them than us.

“Hey, it feels good to win, period,” said nose tackle Jerry Ball, part of an inspired defense that — for half the game, anyhow — actually pressured the quarterback. “Here, the road, wherever. If we win, I don’t care if we’re playing in Peking.”

Which is where they might be now had they blown this one. And that seemed possible in the second half. The first 30 minutes were as close to brilliant as you can get in silver and blue. The Lions’ offense was clicking, quarterback Rodney Peete was zipping the ball, twice for touchdowns. The defense was a breathing, ugly force, wrapping the quarterback and smelling the football. Cornerback Jerry Holmes, who had such a bad game against the Bears two months ago he threatened to retire, Sunday forced a fumble and took an interception 23 yards for a touchdown. The Lions led by 21 at halftime.

They were so good, they silenced half the crowd, which, unfortunately, came to root for the Packers.

And then came Act II. The Packers adjusted. They marched. They scored. They scored again. Peete grew younger before our eyes. He fumbled. He threw an interception. A 24-3 lead was suddenly 24-20. But instead of collapsing like a tent, the Lions fought back. They forced a fumble in the fourth quarter. And then Barry Sanders took over. Six straight plays — one an acrobatic, one-handed catch that suggested he was on loan from the Moscow circus — and, ta-da! Touchdown. Victory.

Clip this newspaper, folks.

The Lions may have just grown up.

“This is the best emotion since I’ve been around this team,” said an elated Mel Gray, who returned the opening kickoff 57 yards to set the winning mood. “We were happy on the sidelines.”

Happy? Imagine that. Reason to believe? Now, OK. If this were a fluke win, or just a really off-day by the opposition, there would be no reason to get excited. Certainly no reason to Nestea Plunge. But the fact is, for the first half, the Lions looked like — please Lord, forgive me for what I am about to say — a winning team. Things were clicking. Kick returners were breaking tackles. Receivers were catching passes. Defensive linemen were chewing on the kneecaps of the opposing quarterback. Goodness. You could get encouraged by what you saw those first 30 minutes. You could believe that, one day, a winning record might result.

And that really is something new. Under previous coach Darryl Rogers, even when the Lions won, they did not persuade. You never felt they’d get past
.500. There was little growth potential, and no stars. Now there are blips on the screen. Sanders. Peete. Spielman. Gray. Jim Arnold. They’re not yet ready for the 49ers. But hey. That’s why the governor was on the phone. Speaking of which . . .

“Thank you, governor. Uh-huh. Bye.”

“What did he say?” the other coaches asked.

Fontes grinned. “He wanted to know who the bleep was calling defensive plays in the second half.”

And then he cracked up. How long has it been? This long: Laughter in the Silverdome. One victory. No big deal. But maybe, just maybe — and I say this knowing they could lose by 50 points next week — maybe, it’s the start of something good.

Then again, they might win the next six games. In which case, I promise to do the Nestea Plunge in front of the entire Silverdome.

I call it fainting.

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