by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

PHILADELPHIA — He was the rusty model, the spare part you keep in the garage, just in case. Joe Ferguson may not even be around the Lions next year, but on Sunday afternoon, just before game time, his coach came up and said the words he figured were forever behind him at age 36.

You’re starting.

“When did you find out?” someone asked Ferguson, after he played the entire game as Lions quarterback in their awkward 13-11 win over the Eagles Sunday.

“Warm-ups,” he said. “Late in the warm-ups.”

Late in the warm-ups, late in his career. And suddenly, Joe Ferguson was going out there again. Joe Ferguson? Yes. He hadn’t started a game all year. He had played in only one. But Eric Hipple, the regular, could not go because of a sore elbow. And Chuck Long — the rookie everyone was waiting for — was not ready for this step, at least not according to Rogers. “You’re starting,” the coach said. And Ferguson was old enough not to get nervous.

He got nervous anyhow.

“I’d forgotten how much intensity you need out there,” he said afterward, his hair still matted from the helmet. “I haven’t played in so long. It took me a while to get revved up.”

He spoke from the Lions’ locker room, with Hipple dressing on his right and Long dressing on his left. He was the man in the middle. As usual. Only this time the reporters were around him and he let an occasional smile crack his craggy face.

Why was he smiling, you ask? On paper he had been awful. Threw 33 passes and completed only 10. Was sacked three times for 30 yards. Got caught for a safety. And on a critical fourth- quarter drive, he threw an interception that could have sealed the Lions’ defeat.

He was sweaty. He was sore. He was tired.

That’s why he was smiling. Can’t fight age blitz Sometimes it’s the performance that matters and sometimes it’s just getting to the stage again. Joe Ferguson has not had an easy time as a Detroit Lion. He came in a trade from Buffalo, where he’d started for 12 years, and he seemed to be Darryl Rogers’ choice for No. 1 quarterback. But when the 1985 season began, Hipple had that distinction.

Then 1986 came around and, of course, the Lions drafted Chuck Long. And the old guy was reduced to teaching Long just enough to make himself obsolete.

Age is the real blitz in pro football, and you can scramble for only so long. Ferguson was going down, the forgotten quarterback between Hipple, 29, the Lions’ present, and Long, 23, the Lions’ future. “I have to be honest with you,” Ferguson said after Sunday’s win, “I didn’t know if I’d ever start a game again.”

He rubbed his shoulder. It was a sweetly familiar ache. Good? Nah, he knew he hadn’t been very good out there. Besides a long touchdown to Jeff Chadwick in the first quarter, he had thrown mostly incompletions or short, unimportant passes. And then, late in the game, with a chance to come back and win it, he had fired a pass — right into the arms of an Eagles defender.

Interception. The Philly crowd went wild. How old must he have felt then?

“He came off the field and he was down,” Hipple recalled. “I told him,
‘Hey, keep your head up. We’re gonna get it back.’ “

And miraculously, they did. Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham — another young turk, replacing an aging Ron Jaworski — scrambled for yardage when he should have been protecting the ball. A youthful mistake, you might call it. He was stripped, the Lions recovered, and Ferguson went back in like destiny.

He ran one more offensive series. And then, with time running out, Eddie Murray kicked a 41-yard field goal, the Lions won, they leapt into a victorious heap, and Joe Ferguson was right in the middle of it.

Score one for the old guy. Long wait will eventually end This morning we are back to reality. The Lions need a permanent quarterback and sooner or later — maybe this week — it will be Chuck Long. The blitz will bring Ferguson down, and the best he can hope is to take some numbers with him. On Sunday he passed Terry Bradshaw for 13th place on the NFL’s all-time passing yardage list. That was nice.

“Were you happy with your performance on such short notice?” he was asked.

“Oh, no,” he said, in his Louisiana drawl. “I made mistakes. I was rusty.”

He paused. “But, whatever the statistics, it’s gonna feel nice looking at them tomorrow and not seeing ‘Did Not Play’ next to my name.”

So there it is. The game was lousy. The win meaningless. No matter. Sometimes, as Ferguson said, “A man just needs to know he’s needed.”

On one side Eric Hipple was slipping on his coat. On the other side, Chuck Long was tying his shoe. The man in the middle was still in his underwear. He sat down and smiled. He looked young.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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