MILWAUKEE — He kept yanking off the headphones to go hug a lineman, or to pat a tackle on the butt, and then he had to search for the headphones and quickly yank them back on. It was that kind of day. His heart kept cutting in on his work.
But Wayne Fontes was in heaven. He was a head coach, at last, at last, and his team was winning. It was not a pretty game. And the opponent was weak. And some of the offense looked absolutely awful. But so what? Victory is a cleansing wash, and when the gun sounded, the Lions had 19 points and the Green Bay Packers had nine, and the new coach was hugging everybody in sight as they led him across the field to talk to network television.
“This way, Wayne,” the man said.
Suddenly, Fontes pinched at his eyes. He’d had six days to prepare for this new career. He had asked his team for support, to rally behind him, and they had done it. Now he was standing on the cold, windy field and he looked down and sniffed. Someone put an earphone on him, and handed him a microphone. He wiped his eyes.
“Are you OK?” the network guy asked.
“Yeah, fine,” he whispered.
Was he crying? A head coach? Crying? Later he would say he just had something in his eye, but he would wink when he said it, and it’s quite possible he was that overcome with emotion. Wayne Fontes is the kind of guy who gets overwhelmed with emotion, the kind of guy who hugs players and assistant coaches, who wants them all to eat together, and ride the bus together, and who sits in coach class with them on the team plane and laughs and cuts up.
And now his men had won his first game.
“How do you feel?” the network guy asked.
“I’m overwhelmed . . .” he said into the mike and he stopped, he choked up.
One game. It was only one game. It improves the Lions record to 3-9. “Big deal,” you say. Wayne Fontes still may not be running this team when it returns next fall. He is, after all, the “interim” head coach. But for one blustery Sunday afternoon, it was nice to see a Lions team play with emotion, with purpose. It was nice to see them all up on the sidelines, watching every play, well into the game.
“We were like a person dying of a bad heart,” said defensive lineman Eric Williams in the locker room afterwards, “and somebody comes along and transplants a new one. We felt like we were 20 years old again.”
The bad heart, of course, was the Darryl Rogers regime, which officially ended one week ago, with very little complaint from the players. The new heart was ex-defensive co-ordinator Fontes — not just the man, but the system he installed. Everything. From more organized practices, to more constructive criticism, from a dress code, to a team meal that was held Saturday night
(instead of Rogers’ Saturday night tradition, which was to give the players money and let them eat out by themselves).
And, of course, the hugging.
“Hey, that’s just Wayne,” said safety Bennie Blades, who had his first NFL interception Sunday — which earned him several hugs. “Personally, I like it. I like being congratulated as well as criticized, which is definitely not the way it was around here before.”
Throughout the locker room, the attitude was the same. Nice change. Happy to have it. We’re sick of losing. Nobody was fooled. Nobody was talking Super Bowl. But players were slapping hands and someone would yell,
“We’re 1-0!” and the collective wish was if only this were the first Sunday of the season instead of the 12th, we might really have something here.
“Do you realize, the first thing Darryl would do after a game was come in and make himself a sandwich?” Williams said. “No matter what. Win or lose. He’d be first in the food line.”
He nodded toward the new coach. “Look at Wayne. The first thing he does is hug the players and thank them. It’s a little thing, but it matters.”
Indeed, not only did Fontes thank his troops, but he invited the media into the locker room to listen. He also gave the game ball to team owner William Clay Ford. (“He’s waited a long time, too.”) The cynical will say Fontes is staging a great PR campaign to keep the job for next year. But the cynical will say anything.
“It’s one game, I know that, just one game,” said Fontes, over and over, as he answered questions in the hallway of Milwaukee County Stadium.
“We have to keep this in perspective.”
He smiled and shook his head, his cheeky face a mix of relief and joy.
Never mind that Green Bay outdid Detroit in total yardage. Never mind that the game was soaked in penalties. Never mind that on three chances on first and goal from the 1, the Lions couldn’t score. They got the touchdown when they needed it, didn’t they? They got the defense when they needed it. And Fontes kept yanking off those headphones to congratulate somebody.
It was a win. He was smiling. The players filed out in their suits and ties. Finally, the head coach, his eyes dry now, lit up a cigar, and reached for his jacket. On his way out, someone offered him a statistical summary of the game. He shook his head.
“Statistics,” he said, “are for assistant coaches and losers.” And on this cold Sunday evening, he was neither one.
Mitch Albom will sign copies of his book, “The Live Albom,” at the Book Nook in Allen Park tonight from 6 to 7. CUTLINES
Lions head coach Wayne Fontes hugs cornerback Bruce Norton in the fourth quarter of Detroit’s 19-9 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in Milwaukee County Stadium.
Detroit head coach Wayne Fontes, right, claps as the Lions take the field Sunday at Milwaukee County Stadium to play the Green Bay Packers.