FUTURE BEGAN MONDAY NIGHT LONG’S START SIGNALS THE BEGINNING OF A NEW ERA FOR LIONS

There were long lines, and long cheers, and signs — “Chuck it Long!”
“Longing for a win!”

Long signs.

When the announcer came to the name he paused, a long pause, and the sellout crowd knew what was coming and they rose to their feet.

“At quarterback . . . “

He was coming.

“Number 16 . . . “

He had his helmet on.

“Chuck Long . . . “

He was starting.

“Whadya think?” came the question, as the scoreboard flashed his name.
“Can he do it? Is he ready? Is he the one?”

“Could be,” came the answer.

Could be. Who knew? He trotted through the marching band and shook his teammates’ hands and someone gave him a football. The place was buzzing.

He was starting.

“Whadya think?” came the question, as he tossed a few warm-up passes. “Will the Bears eat him up? Will they crush him like a rookie ant? Whadya think?”

“Could be,” came the answer.

Could be. Anything could be, right? That was the magic of this night, a night Detroit has not seen in, well, a long time.

There was an air of celebrity, of importance, a sense that the whole country was watching these Lions, for once. Monday Night Football. Frank and Al were in the booth. Those who couldn’t get tickets were slumped on their couches, watching on TV. Everyone was watching. And everyone was a quarterback.

“Whadya think?” came the question as Long ran out for his first set of downs. “Do you think they’ll let him throw? Will they play it safe?”

“Could be,” came the answer.

Could be. And then the first snap, Long faked the handoff, and yes — he was dropping back to pass! — the first offensive play of the night. And he uncorked it, 20, 30, 40 yards . . .

It was incomplete, broken up, but it didn’t matter. He was out there, Chuck Long, the No. 1 pick who’d been waiting all year — along with the fans of this consistently disappointing franchise — for a chance to start. He was out there. And he was throwing.

“Whadya think?” came the question as he hit a few passes. “He could be all right, huh?”

“Could be,” came the answer.

Could be. How about that? When Long threw 30 yards to Jimmie Giles in the first quarter the roar echoed off the roof. When Long dropped a beautiful timing pass to Carl Bland in the second quarter for 21 yards, there was a ripple of electricity.

The fans around the country would not understand this. For them, the game was merely a Super Bowl defender against a bunch of nobodies. “Who plays for the Lions?” they asked. “Billy Sims doesn’t play anymore, does he?”

It was that kind of affair to the New Yorks and Bostons and Los Angeleses. The Bears were 12-2 and going places. The Lions were 5-9 and packing their bags. And once Chicago’s Doug Flutie entered the game in the first quarter, Long was not even the game’s most interesting quarterback to most of the nation.

And that is why he was so important here.

Yes, this was the next to the last game of the season, almost the end. Yet, with Long starting, it was a beginning, too. He was a glimpse in a crystal ball. The long-awaited report card that tells if you passed to the next grade.

The Detroit Lions, who have had no winning seasons in their near past, were being told if they could expect any in their near future.

In front of the whole country.

He was starting.

And the question that burned through the Silverdome like a lit wick last night, flickers this morning, and for the months to come.

Whadya think?

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