Wayne Fontes now listens to CD music when he drives home from work rather than listen to the radio. You can’t blame him. It’s hard to find a station that isn’t calling for his head. But things have gotten so bad that even his CD selection is affected.
“I used to like slow, pretty songs, you know?” he says, smiling, “but now I can’t listen to them. They’re too sad! I start getting depressed! Like Sinatra. I loved Sinatra. You know that song” — he starts singing — ‘there used to be a ballpark heeeere’? I hear that now and I start hearing, ‘There used to be a coach heeeere.’ And I’m like, whoa, get this off!”
And he cracks up.
This is Fontes’ extraordinary gift, a shell of humor that seems impervious to criticism. In seven years he has won one playoff game, has had three losing
seasons and three winning seasons, has fired and hired more coordinators than a picky bride before her wedding, and has been chewed on like licorice by the media — yet he survives, whole and intact.
Wayne Fontes is like “American Bandstand.” You keep expecting him to be canceled, but week after week, there he is.
How much more can he endure? Remember the coyote in the “Road Runner” cartoons? That’s how I see Fontes these days. After each new defeat, he comes into the press conference with his fur sticking up, his eyes spinning around, everything all smoky and black from the dynamite — and next time you see him, he’s back to normal.
Or so it would seem. A Silverdome lynch mob?
In truth, all is not so rosy in the heart of Wayne Fontes, who is actually one of the more sensitive men on the NFL sidelines. (How many coaches cry after their first victory, and hug their players like long-lost brothers?)
The fact is, Fontes hurts. It is not easy to be the target of so much anger
and scorn, to see your job taken away every day by somebody in print, TV and radio. Tonight, he takes his team onto a national stage to play the best machine in football, the San Francisco 49ers. Should the Lions win, it has the makings of a Houdini trick for Fontes — another great escape.
But should they lose, or even fall behind early, it could resemble a public flogging. Can you imagine 80,000 fans screaming “WAYNE MUST GO!” from the first quarter on?
There isn’t enough small talk in the world for Frank, Al and Dan to cover that.
“I’m human, I hurt like everyone else,” Fontes admits. “My kids watch the games on TV, they see me, and they ask my wife, ‘Is Dad OK? Look at his face .
. . ‘
“I have more gray hair, I have more lines on my face. I saw it happen here before me with Darryl Rogers. I saw it in Tampa Bay with John McKay. They wore him down, he couldn’t go anywhere without reading, ‘Throw McKay in the Bay.’ “
He pauses, bites his lip. Then, as if worried that he is sounding too vulnerable, he quickly smiles and adds, “For the record, I plan to be here for a long time. A very long time.”
Now, I know several hundred Lions fans just keeled over and fainted when they read that. But this is not about whether he deserves to stay — a subject we write about daily.
This is about the effects of being Sports Public Enemy No. 1.
“You know what I see when I see Wayne make statements like he did last week — about being hunted like the prize buck?” says Herman Moore. “I see a defense mechanism. I see a guy in pain.” A different persona?
Moore is more astute and thoughtful than most athletes. He has pondered whether the public outcry is correct about his coach. And he debates Fontes’ keep-’em-laughing responses. On the one hand, he says, players don’t want to see their coach cracking under the pressure, acting as if he is scared, so the joviality Fontes displays is good.
On the other hand, players don’t want to feel as if the coach doesn’t care.
“There’s a lot of misconceptions about Wayne’s personality,” Moore says.
“For example, people think he’s not tough enough with us, because whenever the TV cameras catch him, he’s always holding his chin and looking real sad.
“But what you don’t see is when he turns around and pulls off the headsets. He lets people have it right on the sideline.”
Like how, I ask? Moore does an impression:
“You bleeping son of a bleep! I told you all week that bleeping play won’t work and we try it anyhow.” . . . or “Get that bleeping guy out of there! I don’t want to see him the rest of the bleeping game!” . . . or “You guys are getting your bleeping asses kicked!”
See? He can sound like a coach!
Almost everyone expects that Fontes will not be back for another season with the Lions. Public sentiment has never been this high against him. But stranger things have happened. The Lions remain a talented roster, and with talent you never know.
In the meantime, Fontes goes on, dodging bullets, telling people he doesn’t listen or read the criticism (I don’t buy it) and searching for the right, soothing CDs in his car.
“I can’t even watch the movies I used to watch,” he says, smiling again.
“No sad movies. No serious movies. Just comedies now. And Westerns.”
But they shoot people in Westerns, I say.
“Yeah, but I just imagine they’re the media.”
And he laughs and walks away. What can you do? What can you say? He is the cartoon coyote, and the 49ers are the latest boulder dropping from the mountain, heading for his head.