The fans were screaming and the players were hugging and the scoreboard lights were changing for the third time in seven minutes, touchdown, Detroit, touchdown, Detroit, touchdown, Detroit, and, good Lord, this was unbelievable. Big Jerry Ball did a forward flip, all 320 pounds of him. Rodney Peete tried to slap every hand in the Silverdome. Barry Sanders, who had just squirted past one of the best defenders in football for that final score, was a grinning birthday cake now; all his teammates wanted a piece. Horns blared. The building shook with noise. If they never do another thing this year, the Lions will have this moment.

You know what?

It might be enough.

“I have seen a lot of football in my life,” gushed coach Wayne Fontes, after the best finish around here since, man, who knows when? — a thrilling 24-20 comeback victory to claim sole possession of first place in the NFC Central, “but I’ll tell you, I have never been associated with anything like that fourth quarter. When they ask me one day what do you remember about football, I’ll remember this.”

He’d have a hard time forgetting. Here was the moment when the Lions officially crawled out of the lime pit that had nearly fossilized them as losers, and became — not just in their minds but all those jaded minds in this weary city — winners. Trailing 20-3. Seven minutes left. Fans heading for the exits. Maybe San Francisco wins games like this. Maybe the Giants. The Lions?

They do now. It was as if a little voice had crawled inside their ears and said, “Do you really want to lose again? Do you really want to go back to being what you’ve been all these years?” They were 4-1 coming into this game, but few people believed they had turned the corner. “Easy opponents,” the critics said. “They’ll blow it against the Vikings, just watch.”

Now, down by 17 points, with three quarters behind them as flat as last week’s soda, Detroit was on the verge of proving the critics right.

And then, something happened. . . .

What’s that kissing game you play as a teenager? Seven minutes in heaven? Here, at the Silverdome, was the Detroit rendition. The firstkiss was a stunner, Peete found Robert Clark running a straight post route after the Vikings somehow went for a fake, a terrible play on their part. Clark sucked in the pass and dashed 68 yards untouched for the score. Vikings 20, Lions 10. Out in the parking lot, several departing fans mumbled, “What was that?”

“We’re going for the win!” Fontes yelled at his staff as the Lions prepared to kick. “Squib it!”

Squib it? This was the second kiss. The Vikings trotted out expecting a deep boot, and were stunned when the Lions ran to one side. Too late to change, Minnesota’s big blockers tried to handle the bouncing ball. Oops. Derek Tennell, the Detroit tight end who has caught only two passes all year, saw the pigskin free on the turf. “I fell on it and I said, ‘It’s mine, you can’t take it, I don’t care how many of you jump on me!’ ” he laughed afterward.

Peete was watching when Tennell came up waving that ball on the Lions’ 43, the crowd going nuts. Suddenly, the quarterback felt a shiver, something he hadn’t felt since college, when he was leading Southern Cal to the Rose Bowl, call it Popeye’s spinach, or Zorro’s sword. “It’s a feeling like you can’t do anything wrong,” Peete said, “like you’re supposed to win.”

Down the sideline, Sanders felt it, too. The two men trotted onto the field, and from that moment on, they were unstoppable, accounting for most of the magic in the last two kisses. The first was Peete’s beautiful 16-yard touchdown pass to the outstretched arms of Willie Green, which pulled the Lions within three points. And then — after an inspiring series by the defense, which stuffed the Vikings like a boneless chicken breast — the coup de grace, the end of the rainbow, Sanders’ brilliant run to win the game.

Goodness. Has there ever been a guy like this, who goes through defenses like a school kid racing through the forest, his shirttail flying, his legs churning, skirting tacklers as if they were heavy trees rooted to the earth? Sanders beat all five Vikings trying to stop him on that last draw play, going 15 yards of highlight film and ducking under the intimidating Joey Browner to cross the stripe and hang six on the scoreboard. All told, he collected 70 rushing yards in those final seven minutes, 15 more on receptions, six first downs and a score. Hey. That’s a day’s work for most backs. Everyone knew Sanders was a gleaming talent. They now learn something more important: He is a winner, too.

“Were you excited?” someone asked the normally unexpressive Sanders.

“Oh, yeah, I was very excited,” he said. “I, uh, may not have shown it like everyone else, but I was.”

“He was excited,” Peete confirmed. “I actually saw him smile in the huddle.” At long last, a real team

Smile? How could you help it? This was the day the Lions truly grew up, shed their old skin. On the NBC broadcast later in the day, Bill Parcells, who coached last year’s Super Bowl champion Giants, said a victory like this
“is good for five or six weeks, because the Lions will never believe they can lose a game now, after what they did.”

Exactly. The way the overtime loss to Washington torpedoed last season, so could Sunday’s victory galvanize this one. The Lions think like winners now. And if that isn’t the biggest difference in this franchise, then this newspaper is printed on goat skin. “It’s never ever been like this before,” said tackle Lomas Brown, who has endured plenty of dismal years. “In the past, losing in the fourth quarter, we would have folded — heck, we would have folded in the third quarter! This is the best moment I’ve ever had in pro football, better than the Pro Bowl, better than anything!”

Someone asked Ball: “Is this your best moment in the pros, too?”

“The pros? S—,” he snapped. “This is the best in the pros, college, high school, all 20 years I been playing football.”

That feeling coursed through the locker room like blood through a vein. Lost in the euphoria was the fact that Detroit has won five games in a row — only Buffalo and Washington can make that claim — and is solo atop the NFC Central, a game ahead of the Bears, three games up on the Vikings, four up on Green Bay and Tampa Bay. Then again, maybe it’s not lost. Maybe it’s put in perspective. You crawl before you walk. You walk before you run. Streaks are nice, and winning the division would be gravy, but the meat of this season was
— and is — to wash off the old dirt, lose that losing image.

Consider it done.

Seven minutes in heaven.

“You know,” said Peete, sitting alone by his locker after most of the room had cleared out, “this was one of those games that you think about when you’re driving at night, by yourself. You imagine your team is down by three touchdowns late in the fourth quarter, and they rally and come back to win. It’s a dream. The kind of game you always look forward to.”

“And now?” he was asked.

“And now,” he said, grinning, “I’ll be able to look back instead of forward.”

Hang onto your hats, folks.

We just got ourselves a football team.

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