He did not look older. He did not look wiser. He looked tired. Which is what you’d expect.
“What do you think?” someone asked Chuck Long, just moments after the Lions dropped a heartbreaker, 16-13, to the Chicago Bears.
He shook his head. “Now I know what Eric Hipple’s been going through all these weeks,” he said.
Now he knew. First-hand experience. This was supposed to be Chuck Long’s night, his debut as starting quarterback. Monday Night Football, the nation watching. And for a few brief moments it was all he could have wanted.
The announcer had paused on his name, just long enough for the crowd to whip into a frenzy when he was introduced.
“At quarterback . . .” Here he came.
“Number 16 . . . “
His helmet was on.
“Chuck Long! . . . ” He was starting. Finally. The Silverdome crowd went berserk. And when he attempted his first pass on the first play of the game — a long pass, 20, 30, 40 yards in the air — the noise was unstoppable, even as the ball fell incomplete.
This was a night of promise, wasn’t it? A glimpse at the future. The long-awaited report card that tells you if you passed to the next grade.
Chuck Long was Mister Front-and-Center, and for a while there, he looked like a miracle.
And then, reality set in.
Did the Chicago defense fool you?” someone asked Long, who was standing against the wall, still in half of his uniform.
“They knew I was young and inexperienced,” he said. “They did a lot of shifting at the line. Hey. They knew who was playing. They threw everything at me.”
Much of it stuck. For every pinpoint pass he threw — and there were more than a few — he was decked by the Bears’ growling defense. For every good read he made on the alignments, he had a less-than-good play that resulted in an incompletion. He finished the night 12 for 24 for 167 yards.
He is young. The Bears knew it. And yet he played fairly well, better than many expected,and he helped keep the Lions in it, right to the fourth quarter.
“What was your best moment out there?” someone asked him.
“The touchdown pass,” he said, grinning. “Most definitely.”
Oh yes. The touchdown pass. It was the kind of moment you paste on the front of your brain for years to come. Here were the Lions within spitting distance of the Chicago goal line, and Long drops back and tosses one of those picture perfect lobs — the kind the TV announcers say “takes such precision timing” — and Leonard Thompson pulled it in and the Lions were up 13-3 over the Super Bowl champs.
“I thought we had a helluva chance right then,” Long said. So did everyone.
The Lions were jumping on the sidelines, waving towels, pointing fingers, dancing to the hand music they had so rarely heard this season. The crowd was in a most unfamiliar position.
They were on their feet.
A standing ovation.
“That,” said Long, “is the way a crowd is supposed to be.”
And perhaps he’s right. Enough with the disappointment. We’ve had plenty of that with the Lions. For that one brief moment, when a 5-9 team seemed sure it could beat the toughest team in football, there was magic.
It faded, of course. And the cold-fact pundits will write that Long performed merely adequately, making some good passes, making some foolish ones. “I’ll get better,” he said. “I have to learn that these defensive ends in the NFL are faster than the ones in college. I used to be able to outrun those guys.
“But I’ll learn.”
He looked over the crowd of reporters. The Long night had become a long night. The cheers at the start had fizzled into sighs of exasperation. The Lions had led, but the Lions had lost, and when that final field goal went through the uprights, all the enthusiasm that welcomed Chuck Long, their new quarterback, was buried in quiet.
“What about next week?” he was asked.
“To be honest,” he said, “this game really drained me. I really wanted to win this one, Monday night, first start, all that.”
He sighed. “But tomorrow’s another day. I’ll start thinking about next week tomorrow, and then after that next year.
“I mean, that’s what this is all about, right. The future?”
He did not look older. He did not look wiser.
He was both.