If he plays, he plays. What’s the big deal? Personally, I can think of 100 more interesting debates than whether the Lions should unwrap Chuck Long this week or next month. Face it. The guy can throw touchdown passes from now until New Year’s. They’re still out of the playoffs.

But everywhere you turn, you hear it. “When’s Rogers going to bench Hipple?” “What’s he waiting for?” “Why doesn’t he start the kid?”

Everybody’s talking about Chuck Long.

And nobody’s talking to him.

So I talked to him. Actually, we had lunch. On Tuesday. It wasn’t hard. I said, “Chuck, you wanna have lunch?” And he said, “OK.”

The waiter came. We ordered. Chuck went with the chicken fingers. Our food arrived.

I let him start.

Somebody might as well let him start.

And then I said, “You know, Chuck, everywhere I go, it’s ‘When’s he gonna play?’ “

He nodded.

“Well, if you were Rogers, would you have put Chuck Long in by now?”

He swallowed first. And then he said, “No.”

No? Here’s what it will take “I think Darryl’s done the right thing,” Long said. “He has to decide if I’ve earned my starting role, he has to be fair to players who didn’t miss camp like I did.

“And, when you get right down to it, I didn’t know enough to be out there on the field.”

Now this is down-to-earth candor. But then, Long is a fairly down-to-earth guy. He hears the screams for him during games at the Silverdome. “It embarrasses me, because I’m sure Eric Hipple is tired of hearing it.” He is questioned wherever he goes. When? When? All he does is shrug. He might play Sunday against Philadelphia. Then again, he might not.

“What’s it gonna take?” I asked.

“I think for Darryl to put me in,” he said, “he’s got to say to himself,
‘Let’s go with the kid, and whether we win or lose, I don’t care.’ That’s what it will take. And that’s hard for a coach to do. Coaches want to win as many games as they can.”

“You mean because your rookie mistakes may lead to a loss?” I asked.

“Right,” he said.

I pointed out that the Lions had been doing a pretty fair job of losing without him. He shrugged.

“Maybe now’s a good time, then,” he said.

And maybe it is. Or maybe not, because Philly has a funny defense. Maybe next week. Or maybe not. It doesn’t matter. To be honest, this whole Long-for-Hipple controversy is only news because there’s nothing else to talk about with the Lions.

Their record is dismal. Their highlights films are . . . well, short. They have no superstars.

So it’s the Long road.

“Are you at all worried that when you finally do play, you’ll disappoint people?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “everybody wants to see the new guy. They have to realize I’m human. I’m not comfortable with every situation yet. I may not be the savior they’re looking for right off the bat.”

He leaned back. “There’ll be a point in my career here where they’ll be calling for the other guy, too. That’s just the way it is.” The boos remain bothersome He dipped the last of his chicken fingers into the sauce. He wants to play. That is clear. He also doesn’t care when. Not nearly as much as the fans, anyhow. Hipple has been kind to him, and the idea of replacing him, however inevitable, is not something that need be rushed.

“What can you do better than Hipple?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s, uh . . . that’s a question I really shouldn’t answer.”

“Well, you have to do something better, or there’d be no reason to play you.”

“Aahh,” he said, embarrassed, “maybe coach Rogers thinks I can score more points, I don’t know. You’d have to ask him.”

He will play. He will get his feet wet. He will wake up sore on Monday mornings, sooner or later. That’s not the hard part.

“The hardest thing for me to get used to is the booing,” he said. “I’ve never been somewhere where the home crowd boos.”

“Does that bother you?” I asked.

“Yeah, it bothers me some,” he said. “I think home fans should be loyal to home teams. I’ve never booed a team.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think I ever will.”

It was getting late. I picked up the check.

You don’t play, you don’t pay, I always say.

And as we walked out, the question arose: “If you had a microphone to the people when they started calling for you on Sunday afternoons, what would you say, right at that moment?”

“I’d just tell them to keep quiet,” he said, “because Eric’s trying to do his job out there and he’s probably getting aggravated.”

Got that?

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